The Big Red Book

Whilst working in Portugal the other week, our team was presented with what is possibly the most broadly used service refinement tool I’ve ever come across.

The complaints book is required in all Portuguese businesses which deal directly with the public, from banks to cafes, shops to train stations. It is required by the Portuguese government, who also stipulate that all complaints are replied to within 5-8 days and that completed books be returned to the relevant government department. Suddenly I could see it everywhere; at cash desks, in shop windows and information points.

I am yet to understand further the provider’s inevitable loopholes, the government’s powers to remedy bad practice and the complainant’s experience and ideally, results. However, given that the UK service sector contributes more to the its GDP (73%) than most countries, that we don’t have an independent or state run system like this is lamentable. ‘Watchdog’, a 30-minute BBC TV show which publicises poor practice and campaigns for resolution just doesn’t cut it.

Benefits of a unified, independent body to oversee complaints and responses are obvious, although the methods are complex; they maintain a baseline of performance and should ideally accompany the power to fine or shut down repeat offenders. Services that don’t deliver are essentially cons. The baseline could work to guarantee a minimum standard of service, as the kitemark is the official UK mark for safety in products.

A rhetorical poster: Performance on the provider’s terms

Standing in London Bridge Rail Station on my way home from portugal, I don’t know where to begin. I look around for a generic complaints form. Something proactive in seeking my feedback or providing me with a channel. Nothing. This highlights two key cultural problems.

The first problem is the domain of the service provider. Some forward-thinking organisations use complaints forms (often spun as ‘your suggestions’) as the opportunity to gain free customer feedback, troubleshooting and the figures to justify an improvement. These organisations are less likely to have regular entries to a red book. Many others put up barriers to discourage complaints, skew figures and in some cases, ignore them. A favourite example is retailers Next, who dealt with a 3 month backlog of complaints swiftly and efficiently by deleting all complaints on the computer system (source: a fantastic article by Anna Tims).

The second problem is ours, as citizens and customers. A look at the surreal and shocking behaviour of organisations in Timms’ article linked above will show how easy it is for customers to be worn down, to see complaining as futile and to not bother. Indeed, it’s not beyond reason to suggest that some of the larger, sector dominating organisations prefer to silently encourage this culture. If we were to introduce such a system, have we become too cynical to embrace it?

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