Managing Complaints and Feedback

Improving the Way That You Do Things

Managing Complaints and Feedback - Using a Closed-Loop Feedback Process

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Go round the loop to get the most from complaints.

Do you view negative feedback and complaints as a learning opportunity? It's often hard to do so!

Most of us instinctively have negative reactions to complaints, whether they're internal (from co-workers, employees or managers) or external (from customers). And if the complaint is about something we did or created, or someone that we are responsible for, we can often become defensive, or view the complaint as unjustified or not our fault.

But, what exactly is a complaint? And should we view them as something negative?

In their classic customer service book, "A Complaint Is a Gift," Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller define a complaint as "a statement about expectations that have not been met." So feedback and complaints are actually really important. They're an opportunity for us to improve ourselves, our products, our services, and our processes – if we act on the feedback that we receive.

In this article, we'll explore managing complaints and feedback effectively. We'll look at different examples of complaints, and we'll identify how you can use the closed-loop feedback process to ensure that you learn from the feedback and complaints that you receive.

Types of Complaints

Many of us will receive complaints and feedback as part of our job.

For example, you might lead a customer service team whose main role is to handle customer complaints. You might work in human resources, processing internal feedback from employees and management. Or, perhaps you need to use your boss's feedback from your last performance review to improve how your team provides its monthly reports to the board.

Whatever your role, processing complaints and feedback effectively is essential for improving the way that you do things.

Benefits of Using a Feedback Process

There are several benefits of implementing a feedback process:

  • It gives your customers, service users and your team a way to resolve problems with your product, service or organization.
  • If set up correctly, it allows continuous feedback. Many organizations collect feedback from their teams or customers only once a year. But collecting feedback should be a constant process, not an occasional event.
  • An effective feedback process gives you the data that you need to create real, lasting improvement. Team morale, product quality and an organization's reputation may all improve as a result.
  • A good process helps organizations act on the feedback that they receive. This, in turn, can create a strong bond between the organization, and its employees and customers.

Closed-Loop Feedback Process

Many people spend time collecting feedback from people such as customers and employees. They may use a suggestion box or surveys, or even hire consultants to measure employee and customer satisfaction in a more scientific way.

The problem is that people often don't act on this useful feedback. Therefore, company or personal performance never improves. This is politely known as an open-loop feedback process. (Less politely, it's called a broken feedback process.)

A more effective solution to deal with feedback is a closed-loop feedback process (see figure 1). You can apply this process to any situation where you receive feedback or complaints.

Closed-Loop Feedback Process Diagram

As the diagram shows, there are four steps in the process:

  1. Collect data.
  2. Take action.
  3. Communicate feedback.
  4. Refine changes.

We'll look at how you can apply each step of the process in more detail, below:

Step 1: Collect Data

To implement a closed-loop process successfully, first define how you'll collect feedback. For instance, will one person be responsible for collecting feedback, or will team members add feedback that they receive to a central database, which you'll then review regularly? As well as collecting ad-hoc feedback and complaints, you could also send out satisfaction surveys, or ask people for their feedback during routine telephone calls.

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It also helps to identify the metrics that you need to measure. Are you measuring customer satisfaction with your company's latest products? Are you measuring how happy your employees are with the new benefits package? Identify key areas for focus.

Ask specific questions when you're gathering feedback or responding to complaints. Vague questions – such as "Are you happy with the service?" – rarely provide enough data to implement real change. More specific questions – such as "How responsive did you find the customer service team?" – give you much more usable information.

Step 2: Take Action

Once you have your data, use it to take action. This is the step that people skip most often. Remember, collecting feedback is of no value unless an action or change occurs.


Our problem solving and decision making sections can help you to identify problems, and explore solutions before you make any changes.

Step 3: Communicate the Feedback

When you take action following feedback, let everyone know! This will show people that you really listened, and it will ensure that people continue to offer feedback in the future. This is another important step in the feedback process that is often overlooked.

It can also be important to communicate when you don't take action. Explain the reasons why it didn't happen, or highlight other actions that you've taken instead.

Step 4: Refine the Changes

This step completes the feedback loop. Here, you use any additional feedback that you've received as part of the communication step to refine and improve what you do. Use the ideas behind kaizen – the art of continual improvement – to make sure that you're always looking to improve the ways that you do things.

Ensuring Satisfaction

An important part of managing complaints and feedback is making sure that people are satisfied with the outcome of their feedback.

This is where it can be worth following up with every person who takes the time to provide feedback. Even if that feedback is a complaint, thank them for communicating with you. People are rarely thanked for their feedback, so this will make an immediate impact.

Next, ask them directly if they're satisfied with how you handled their complaint or feedback. If not, ask them what resolution they'd like to see. If you haven't met their expectations, do what you can to resolve the issue. Any extra bits of information here can feed back into the feedback process.

A Different Mindset

Whether you work in HR, sales, or in a customer service department, chances are that you and your team might have some set ideas about complaints.

For instance, imagine a customer has written a letter complaining about the poor quality of service that he or she received through your organization. You show the letter to your team at your next meeting and ask for their views. More than half your team feels the customer's letter isn't legitimate. They believe that he's trying to get something for nothing, or complaining unnecessarily.

This is a common reaction to complaints. Many people whose role it is to manage and respond to complaints can view people who complain as whiney, rude or demanding.

But as authors Barlow and Moller highlight in "A Complaint Is a Gift," studies have shown that people only complain about issues that truly matter to them, or when they feel they can make a difference.

For true collaboration and resolution to take place, you and your team must take responsibility for the problem, and let the person know that you've heard his views. Training your team to connect with people on both a professional and personal level is vital for turning that person into a champion for your organization, or team.

More Tips for Managing Feedback Effectively

  • Make it easy – It should be easy for your customers or your team to give feedback. For example:
    • For internal feedback, encourage people to use suggestion boxes, and make sure everyone knows where the boxes are.
    • Set up a feedback hotline or specific email address that allows people to offer comments quickly.
    • Give your managers and team the power to do whatever it takes to resolve a problem.
    • Offer incentives for people to provide feedback.
  • Use careful language – Watch your wording when you speak with, or write to, a customer or employee. Certain phrases create partnerships and may ease tense situations. For example: "Let's do this together" or "Let's find a solution for this" or "Here's how we can proceed." Also, make sure that you're actively listening to what people say.
  • Empathize – Some people may be angry about a problem. Empathize with them with phrases like "I know you're angry. I would be too," and try to see the situation from their point of view. Our article Conflict Resolution may help.
  • Prepare for difficult situations – When you speak with an angry person, it's easy to panic and become uncomfortable. Many of us feel threatened in these situations, which triggers our "fight or flight" response and makes it difficult to think clearly. Our article Role Playing teaches you how to prepare for difficult conversations.

Key Points

Many of us have to manage complaints and feedback as part of our job, and we can use this feedback to improve the way in which we work.

Consider using a feedback process based on the closed-loop process, with an effective step for taking action on the feedback. Decide on what you want to measure, how you'll collect data, and how you'll use the data to take action.

Follow up with people once you've handled their complaints, and make sure they're satisfied with the resolution. If not, do what you can to make it right.