Matthew Vickers, chief executive and chief ombudsman designate, The Energy Ombudsman Company strategy, Customers, Energy retail, Policy & regulation, Regulation, Strategy & management, Opinion, Ombudsman Services, complaints, customer complaints

"One of the key lessons is that businesses looking to improve their complaints process should go back to basics"

Ofgem’s recent announcement that it was taking compliance action over several suppliers’ complaints performance seemed to overshadow the research that prompted it in the first place.

That’s a shame, because the report – which is based on consumer feedback and is produced for the regulator every two years – contains some valuable insights for the energy industry.

Having trawled through the research (all 63 pages of it), here are eight steps that emerge as key ingredients of a successful complaints-handling process.

1) Make complaining easy

The research makes clear that the actual act of lodging a complaint can set the tone for the rest of the journey.

Here, simplicity is key. The good news is that most consumers don’t demand the earth.

Being able to easily find the right contact details – and being greeted by polite and professional staff who told them what steps would be taken – set the right tone for the rest of the process for most complainants.

As the report states:“It is the smoothness of the early interactions that helped uplift overall satisfaction with how the complaint has been handled.”

Making complaining easier contributes to higher overall satisfaction with complaint handling.

2) Set expectations at the start

Being clear with consumers from the outset gives clarity on what to expect in terms of timescales and likely outcomes.

The key extract from the report is as follows: “Absence of this information leaves complainants to set their own expectation for what the process will look like and how long it will take, which doesn’t always match the reality, and can lead to significant disappointment among complainants when those expectations aren’t met.”

The research makes clear that a problem still exists in some parts of the industry when it comes to providing consumers with a clear view of how long the complaints process will take. A lack of knowledge, it is claimed, can “cause anxiety and leads complainants to start setting their own expectations.”

3) Get the basics right

Simple things like formally acknowledging receipt of the complaint and contacting the consumer in the way they’d like (eg phone, email, text message) make a big difference.

This is probably because, to quote the report, such steps “demonstrate appreciation of the individual and willingness to make their experience more agreeable.”

Put another way, showing that you are happy to put in some effort to resolve the complaint goes a long way.

4) Keep the consumer informed

It’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation that ongoing communication is of paramount importance to the complaints process.

Despite this, only a quarter of domestic customers said their energy supplier kept them updated on the progress of their case without being prompted to do so – the same proportion as in 2016.

This should be a relatively quick fix and a worthwhile one, given that failure to keep the consumer “in the loop” regarding the progress of their complaint is identified as one of the key themes contributing to high levels of dissatisfaction.

One recommendation laid out by the report is for a more structured approach to keeping complainants updated.

Proactive, scheduled communication would, it is claimed, “ease frustration with the process” by reducing the number of times complainants have to chase for information – thus decreasing suppliers’ handling costs per complaint.

Food for thought at a time when margins are being squeezed and the price cap is coming down the line.

5) Offer a named contact

The research found that, for consumers who were unhappy with how their complaint was handled, the sense of not being kept in the loop could be “exacerbated” by not having a named contact they can refer to when they have a question about the progress of their complaint: “The effort of having to speak to someone new every time makes the process more onerous. This is felt more strongly when there is a perception that some staff are not taking the complaint seriously enough and are therefore not helpful in getting it resolved.”

Anyone who, as a consumer, has been passed from pillar to post by a call centre can vouch for how frustrating that can be.

In contrast, ensuring the consumer has a named individual with whom they can liaise throughout their complaint journey adds the all-important personal touch.

6) Remember that it isn’t all about the money

Most complainants (94 per cent of domestic customers) expect to receive ‘something’ from their supplier following resolution of their complaint.

Consumers are increasingly looking to have their issue rectified, but they also expect suppliers to engage with them further. There is a growing desire for confirmation that the complaint has been resolved and, more importantly, an explanation of what went wrong.

Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, most consumers don’t see financial compensation as essential. In fact, as the report states: “(Compensation) made little difference to satisfaction with what was received upon resolution, at the end of the complaints process. What did make a difference was an explanation of the problem.”

7) Provide closure

The research highlights the need for suppliers to formally agree with the consumer that their complaint has been resolved to their satisfaction.

This should be accompanied by an explanation of the resolution, as well as an apology for the issue happening in the first place.

Both, the research states, “help to reassure the complainant that the issue has been dealt with and is unlikely to happen again.”

On the flip side, lack of an explanation upon resolution could leave the consumer feeling worried that the problem could re-emerge: “While seemingly simple, formally agreeing with the complainant that the complaint has been resolved serves as a form of closure and an acknowledgement that the issue existed and that it has been fixed to the complainants’ satisfaction. Without that, both (of these points) can be questioned by the complainant.”

The report recommends that suppliers formalise their process by logging the complaint as closed only if the complainant gives their explicit permission. This could help reduce what the research calls the “resolution gap”, whereby complaints are considered closed by businesses but not by consumers.

8) Be clear on escalation

Having members of staff who are willing to escalate complaints to more senior colleagues shows the consumer that their complaint is being taken seriously. Part of this escalation process should be making the consumer aware of their right to come to us as the ombudsman if their complaint can’t be resolved.

Failure to do this can add to the consumer’s stress: “Feeling like there is no other way to move the process along could cause stress, so sharing information about alternative resolution routes (or where to find it) with complainants is important to reducing levels of stress associated with the complaints process.”

Despite this, few complainants receive information about alternative resolution routes. We think this needs to change, because all consumers have a right to know that they can bring their complaint to us if their supplier can’t resolve it.

In summary…

The good news about the Ofgem research is that it shows complaints handling isn’t rocket science.

One of the key lessons is that businesses looking to improve their complaints process should go back to basics. Simple steps like making it easy for consumers to complain and keeping them updated throughout the process make a huge difference.

Most consumers simply want to know their complaint has been taken seriously. At the end of the process, they want to feel that they have been treated fairly and that their issue has been fixed.

This goes to show that, in a world of AI, big data and automation, it’s vital that businesses don’t lose sight of the human side of things.

Complaining is an emotional business. Remembering this is the key to handling complaints effectively and ultimately retaining more customers.