The DNA of effective complaint resolution

Professional adviser to the Optical Consumer Complaints Service, Richard Edwards, discusses the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of handling complaints from patients


Managing disappointed or plain angry customers is an inevitable part of an industry that delivers over 22 million eye examinations and dispenses over 15 million pairs of spectacles each year.

It would be overly simplistic to state that there is no formula for effectively managing unhappy customers, or to think that we can either do it or we can’t. But every practice team needs to have simple and effective ways to improve consistency at resolving complaints.

Social media and an apparent recalibration of societal norms in challenging authority will continue to drive up expectations upon all members of the practice team to manage all kinds of complaints from the very simple to the more complex. It is also likely that the people who have to deal with these complaints are front-of-house staff in the full glare of other clients – not an easy task.

Even those who are blessed with a natural ability to handle tricky customers may have interactions that go better than others. So, how can we become consistently great at resolving these situations when they do arise?

The simple question to ask is: ‘How would you like me to resolve this for you?’ This can be hugely powerful as it exudes empathy, demonstrates clear accountability, and provides a huge clue about how to proceed


The 'how'

How we deal with an unhappy customer has to be something that is developed individually – we must be authentic in our interactions and identify an approach that works. Planning the interaction is key – even when reacting to an unexpected intervention, make sure you create the narrative in your mind to get a plan to establish what has happened, and what does the customer want? Give consideration as to where to hold the conversation – the privacy of a consulting room will probably be better than the reception area to avoid having an audience.

Some complainants are very clear about what they want as a resolution, with varying degrees of reasonableness, which may have to be managed. Some won’t tell you; others may not know.

The simple question to ask is: ‘How would you like me to resolve this for you?’ This can be hugely powerful as it exudes empathy, demonstrates clear accountability, and provides a huge clue about how to proceed. Meeting someone face-to-face also gives a much higher chance of success. The ability to build rapport and engage is much higher in person than in writing or speaking over the phone.

Ensure an active listening approach. We have two ears and one mouth and should aim to use them in those proportions. Listen carefully as there will be clues in how the customer describes their concerns.

The 'what'

Some may be familiar with the mnemonic, AERO: Apologise, Explain, Reassure, Over-deliver.

While not a panacea or a scientifically validated process, the concept has evolved within the Optical Consumer Complaints Service (OCCS) team when reviewing those practices who manage complaints brilliantly.

AERO is a description of the four common components of an effectively managed complaint and can be a great way in moments of stress to create a mental tick list of what needs to be covered.

Understanding AERO

A = Apologise

An authentic apology is an important first step in rebuilding trust as a foundation stone upon which to develop a resolution. Create a range of potential responses to use, such as: ‘I am sorry you had to call in today’ or ‘I am sorry that you are disappointed.’ Neither of these statements is an admission of liability or wrongdoing but without this initial step it can be difficult to secure positive engagement.

E = Explain

Many complaints are motivated by an altruistic motivation – ‘I don’t what this to happen to someone else.’ Whatever the origin of the complaint, there will always be an element of explaining what happened that led to this situation we find ourselves in. Be honest and candid and if appropriate outline the steps you have taken to prevent recurrence.

R = Reassure

The customer doesn’t know what we know. A fear of unknown consequences can often be the emotional trigger for a complaint, and frequently there is a need for reassurance. Whether that is about the steps taken to prevent recurrence or that the situation will bring no lasting harm or damage, this must be done in a caring, empathetic, and importantly, jargon-free manner.

O = Over-deliver

What would it take to really turn the situation round? What would need to happen to delight this customer? Ending the interaction on a positive note, and going the extra mile. Practice teams who do this are the ones who turn their complainers into evangelists.