The Optical Consumer Complaints Service (OCCS) is an independent and free mediation service for consumers of optical care and professionals. OT talks with OCCS resolution manager, Dawn Slocombe (pictured), about common complaints and the importance of good communication.
What kind of calls does OCCS take?
As well as calls from optical consumers, the OCCS receives a rising number of enquiries from practitioners, which shows the growing awareness of our service within the industry. We have had optometrists call us more than once for advice, which we were very happy to provide.
Most often, queries relate to customer handling, especially patient complaints and how to deal with them. Practitioners will explain what they have done and ask if we think that was correct or if we have other suggestions. Sometimes practitioners and consumers have reached an impasse. A practice may have tried its best but been unable to reach a resolution. This is often the point when they call and ask us for advice.
We receive a wide range of enquiries. Some are within our remit and some are not. Most relate to communication, varifocals, or situations where a patient has had a prescription issued at one practice and dispensed somewhere else.
Communication is key. For many complaints, the optician has tried to explain a situation, but the consumer does not accept this explanation. Sometimes, all the consumer ultimately wants is for a practice to simply say, ‘I’m really sorry that you have had this journey with our practice.’ An apology goes a long way.
Now and again, we also get calls from people who mistake us for an advice line. We’ve even had someone ask us about antique binoculars. We also had a gentleman whose case involved complaints about a series of opticians spanning around 20 years. That one was a bit of a challenge, but we did find a resolution for him.
Can you tell me about your own optical background?
My career in optics began when I left school. I started as a receptionist before becoming a practice manager and a regional manager’s assistant. In this role I was called on to help resolve complaints in difference practices, which I found I really enjoyed.
At the time I didn’t know about the OCCS as it was relatively new. Once I became aware of the service it offered, I wanted to be part of it.
I think that having optical experience has helped me enormously in my role. I have been in optics for more than 30 years now. When a practitioner calls and says ‘This has happened in our store,’ it has probably happened to me or someone I know. I also think it’s important to have a knowledge of optics when discussing a way forward with a practice.
What are the challenges of the role?
We try to offer realistic expectations and a full explanation of how the service works and what can be achieved during a mediation. I think some consumers think we are an ombudsman, which we are not. We are totally neutral. We don’t make any judgements or offer any opinions.
The role can be most challenging when we have a consumer who is very angry and wants action to be taken against a practice. We have people who say they want a practice shut down. We then have to explain what mediation is and what we can do. We have to make sure people have realistic expectations, and we’re very proud of how we help these consumers reach satisfactory resolutions. We are successful in 98% of our mediations.
Listening is very important. Once someone has discussed a matter and said what they want to say, we can begin to move forward. The first step is to give the practice an opportunity to respond in the hope that they can find a resolution in-house. However, if they have come to an impasse, we can then enter into a mediation.
What is rewarding about your work?
I think the highlights are finding resolutions that please both consumers and practices. This can be really satisfying. It’s very rewarding when we get a thank you from either a practice or a consumer – especially after a challenging case. There can be times in mediations when you can’t see how it is going to move forward but through continued communication we find a solution that both sides are happy with.
I have worked in practices for many years and understand the frustration on both sides: from the practice receiving a complaint and the person making one. As a resolution manager, you must have the ability to communicate effectively with consumers and practices alike. Practices may speak in optical terms and consumers can struggle to understand what is being said to them. This is why, in my work, having the communication skills to be able to explain things from a neutral position is essential.