Forbes: Why NHS organisations should welcome complaints.

Wed 30th October 2013

This week's hard-hitting report on how Britain's National Health Service handles complaints is likely to lead to great deal of concern within an organisation already struggling with funding, structuring and other issues. But one expert in customer service believes a tougher regime could be just what it needs. 

Paul Clark, chief executive of Charter UK, part of Invigia, a technology group focused on helping enterprises manage their reputations, says that the banking sector is an example of a business that has been transformed by criticisms and penalties from its regulator. As a result, customer service is much more central to the individual banks' activities. And he singles out Lloyds Bank as a great example of customer service.

The report by MP Ann Clwyd, who was highly critical of the treatment her late husband received while in hospital, and Professor Tricia Hart, a former nurse who now heads a group of hospitals in the north of England, calls for a comprehensive cultural shift in the NHS. Its most eye-catching recommendation was for every patient to be issued pen and paper so that they could write down any concerns. But it goes much further, urging the NHS to become more open and transparent so that anybody can feel able to voice concerns.

Such thinking fits with the approach of Clark, whose business has begun to work with parts of the NHS. He believes that too many organisations erect barriers to customer service and, in an echo of the old management adage that how a business recovers from a mistake is more important than making it in the first place, he says that organisations need to learn how to "create advocacy from missed expectations". Indeed, he and his colleagues go so far as to see complaints as "unsolicited feedback". He adds: "It's a mistake to regard unsolicited feedback as a negative."

So how do organisations go about turning complaints into a positive experience? Clark says "the three Ps – Processes, Platforms and People – are key. Charter UK's expertise is in providing the technology to deal with the first two – for example, analysing complaints and offering insights into their causes and how to respond to them. But the third is just as important. Clark says that the biggest issue organisations have to address is ensuring that senior executives understand the problem. "It's got to be driven from the top," he adds. This much is acknowledged by the NHS report, where there is a call for chief executives of different units within the organisation to be personally responsible for signing off on all complaints.

The NHS received more than 162,000 complaints about care in the year 2012-13 and the latest report is just one in a series that have been highly critical of an aspect – care – that one might think was central to a health organisation. So it would be tempting to assume that it is going to take a momentous effort to change things.

But Clark claims it can be done. An important factor is encouraging executives to see their organisations from the point of view of their customers. Any business that does this will have a "vastly improved knowledge" of their customers – and will therefore have insights into not just what upsets them but also what delights them and will therefore make them more likely to return.

Of course, NHS patients do not have the same degree of choice as customers of other organisations. But if the changes being urged by Clwyd and Hart come to fruition it could be that the public will become more positive about one of the central pillars of UK life.