How to effectively handle a complaint

Oct 02 2006 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

As a manager or leader, your job description includes handling complaints. It might not be written down anywhere, but the task comes with the territory.

In my last piece I talked about how to be an effective complainer. I said it was perfectly reasonable to have a complaint; but how one presents that complaint determines which kind of person one is going to be; Either a workplace professional, or a professional complainer.

Here in part two of this series, I thought it only fair that we examine how complaints (and complainers) can be addressed. There's no way to cover the whole topic, but a few highlights are in order.

The fact is that managers will be asked to fix many problems that either they did not cause or they cannot possibly fix. These dilemmas can wreak havoc with one's sense of control, so let's start first with setting boundaries.

One good place to set boundaries is with time. When gripes and grievances start consuming an entire day, it's not long before the manager's work is not being done.

Here's a wonderful technique I learned from Gary Smalley, one of the country's best known authors and speakers on effective relationships. What to do? Have your employees learn and memorize the following phrase: "I have something important to talk with you about. It's going to require four or five minutes of your undivided attention. Is now a good time?"

If someone presents you with that question you have two great choices: First, you can pause and devote yourself to the issue at hand with undivided attention. Or you can say "no, now is not a good time." If you say no the employee has a right to ask, "When is a good time?" You then would have a responsibility to provide one—and hold to it.

This method respects your schedule, the needs of the employee, and it provides you a clearly defined timeframe in which you're going to address the concern—you're allotting five minutes.

Other boundaries to be aware of are those of privacy and confidentiality. My friend James Bono, Associate Dean at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois, has a quick response for people who try to cross the lines of confidentiality. He says, "I'm sorry, that's a human resource issue, and we don't discuss those."

After establishing healthy boundaries I believe it's most important to ensure someone with a complaint is heard. Notice I did not say we had to agree. We just need to understand.

I'm a firm believer that people need to be heard. Again, let me emphasize: We don't have to agree with them, but we do need to understand them.

The problem is we've all grown a bit immune to phrases such as active listening and Stephen Covey's seek first to understand, then be understood. Nowadays these expressions are just rote gobbledygook, evidenced by the fact we rarely see actions that match the words.

People act as if they're listening but they're not. And only on the rarest of occasions do I see someone truly seeking first to understand.

For this reason I'd like to encourage the use of a bolder phrase: Aggressive Understanding. The words carry meanings of strong action, and it's just the type of "listening" that managers need when they're trying to handle a complaint.

Dennis, a middle manager in one of my training classes, put this concept to work when a disgruntled employee entered his office all psyched up for a verbal sparring match. As Dennis tells it, the employee was on the offensive, but Dennis chose to dig deep for understanding. He paraphrased. He clarified. He dug deep. And he let the employee spout off until their interaction became conversational.

Then Dennis asked the following question: "So what would you like from me?" The employee told him and Dennis got on the phone to take care of the issue. Apparently this approach made a huge impression. Three weeks later the employee was still raving about the great way Dennis had handled the complaint.

The idea is to listen fully to a complaint before acting on it. Even better: If the complaint involves two opposing viewpoints, withhold all action until you understand both sides of the story. It would seem like common sense to get a balanced perspective, but unfortunately, common sense is not common practice.

Bottom line, handling complaints starts with establishing good boundaries, but it's immediately followed by aggressively understanding the nature of the complaint.

Next week we'll continue our look at the nature of complaints—and how to resolve them.

more articles

About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence