Dealing with complaints can be stressful and unpleasant, but handling them promptly and thoroughly - with the aid of a clear complaints procedure - can make the process much more straightforward. Creating a procedure that's right for your group doesn't have to be difficult or time-consuming, and could save you a great deal of time and effort in the long run. With the right approach, a complaint can provide important feedback... and even strengthen your voluntary arts group.
This briefing has been provided by Voluntary Arts. Find out more or access more briefings and guidance from the Voluntary Arts website.
- Why is it important to have a complaints procedure?
- Creating a complaints procedure
- Publicising your procedure
- Handling a complaint
- Resolving a complaint
- Further resources
Many voluntary arts groups may feel that because of their size or voluntary nature, a complaints procedure is unnecessary and that any complaints that arise can be resolved informally and amicably. Indeed, ensuring volunteers or participants feel comfortable enough to talk about their concerns or issues is important, and many complaints can be addressed very simply in this way.
However, complaints can sometimes be more serious or unexpected, and require a lot of time and effort to rectify. A good procedure will help to:
- minimise the stress involved in handling the complaint
- avoid making the initial complaint worse
- reduce any negative feelings that may arise from the complaint
- ensure all parties are satisfied with the outcome of the complaint
- turn complaints into helpful tools to improve and strengthen your voluntary arts group
Handled effectively, complaints can actually have a very positive effect on your voluntary arts group - learning from the complaint is a powerful way of improving your overall activities.
There are many benefits to having a complaints procedure in place: A good complaints procedure can help to improve the reputation of your group by encouraging volunteers, members and participants to speak to you, and each other, thereby creating an atmosphere of trust and openness.
- Having a complaints procedure in place shows that your group is focused on the needs of its community, both internal and external
- A clear complaints procedure takes very little time and money to implement, and could help to save time and money in the future
- Complaints can stimulate ideas for developments and additions in other areas, which can bring extra benefits to your group
- Complaints can provide an early warning of failures in particular areas, which can be addressed before further problems develop
- Records of complaints and their outcomes can serve as evidence of your group's desire to improve
What types of complaints might you receive?
It's helpful to consider why you might receive a complaint. Are group members likely to have a disagreement? Are health and safety issues a potential cause for concern? This exercise will help you shape your complaints procedure and identify areas that could be improved and strengthened before any complaints arise.
Potential complaints could vary widely in nature. For example, a participant or member of the public may:
- be unhappy with the behaviour of members or volunteers within the group
- have a complaint regarding the venue or location of your events or meetings
- be unhappy with the way a specific incident was handled during an event or meeting
- wish to make a complaint following an accident or injury
- wish to make a complaint regarding an issue that has previously been discussed and no action has been taken
- be unhappy with proposed changes to the group
Solving problems informally
Ideally, complaints should be resolved before they are made formally. Not only does this create an atmosphere of openness, trust and respect, but can save the time and effort - and potential ill-feeling - involved in a formal, lodged complaint.
If a group member or volunteer raises a concern in an informal context - even if it's just a quiet word during a tea break - it is important to take steps to resolve the matter, and to reassure that person that you've understood them. However, while dealing with matters informally, do highlight the existence of your complaints procedure should they wish to take the matter further.
This helps to further reassure them that you're taking the issue seriously.
A good procedure does not have to be very complicated or lengthy - it simply needs to outline the process for making a complaint and indicate what action the complainant can expect within a certain timeframe. Many complaints procedures are broken down into stages, and might look something like this (see Further Resources for more examples):
- Stage one - indicates who complaints should be addressed to, and an address and/or email address where they should be sent. This stage should also give an indication of what will happen next - for example, 'There will be a response to the complaint within 14 days. If the matter is not resolved within a mutually agreed time, it will be referred to stage two.'
- Stage two - then outlines the next step in the process. You may choose to conduct a meeting with the complainant to discuss their concerns and try to reach an agreement over the matter. Again, you should stipulate any timeframes involved - for example, 'There will be a meeting between the complainant and a representative from [your voluntary arts group] within 14 days of referral to stage two.' In many cases a face-to-face discussion is enough to resolve complaints, but if the complainant is still unhappy you may need to progress to a third stage.
- Stage three - may then see an independent individual involved to help resolve the matter. Depending on the size of your arts group or affiliation with other organisations, there may be an objective individual you can ask to mediate the dispute. If the matter is financial or involves a breach of people's rights, it may be necessary to involve an ombudsman (see Further Resources for more details).
Unfortunately, some people enjoy complaining and will keep on doing so even though you've taken every step to resolve their complaint! With a complaints procedure in place you can demonstrate that you've taken all reasonable measures to put things right, and hopefully draw a line under the matter.
It's important that thorough records are kept of all correspondence and meetings involved with a complaint, and that copies are made available to the complainant.
A complaints procedure is not set in stone forever. It is important to review your procedure regularly to see how well it's working. Ask for feedback from previous complainants and make changes where necessary to improve the process - you don't want to aggrieve your complainant further by making them jump through hoops to have their voice heard!
You might be worried that advertising your complaints procedure will actually create complaints, by bringing it into the public consciousness - but this is not the case. Firstly, by advertising your complaints procedure you're actually creating an atmosphere of trust and openness. Secondly, if advertising your procedure does bring up underlying concerns, it's better to be aware of them and deal with them early on.
Some people are wary of the word 'complaints', as they believe the term has negative connotations. In this case, you could use the term 'feedback procedure' or call the procedure 'comments, complaints or compliments?' The important thing is that everyone in your group is aware of the procedure, and that it's presented in a way that is accessible to everybody.
- Where? Think about where your volunteers, participants and/or audience members would look for a complaints procedure. For example, you could advertise it on notice boards, in newsletters, on your group website or during meetings. Make sure it can be easily found by anyone who might need it.
- How? Allow people to make complaints in different ways. Traditionally, complaints were made in writing and posted to a specified address. Nowadays people conduct a lot of correspondence online, so consider other channels such as email, via a feedback form on your website, fax or telephone, for example.
- Who? Your complaints procedure needs to be accessible by everyone involved in your group, so consider who might read it. Will you need it translated into different languages? What about large-print or Braille versions? If you are in a position to offer these, they should be advertised as prominently as the original.
There's more to dealing with a complaint than simply following a tick-box procedure. The way a complaint should be handled, and the outcomes sought, will depend on many factors such as the size of your voluntary arts group or the nature of the complaint - there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach.
- Complainants want to feel that their complaint is valid and has been taken seriously. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant their grievance is, treat the matter promptly and with respect. Complaint handling should always focus on a positive outcome for the complainant, and any other individuals involved.
- It is important to define whether the complaint actually is a complaint early on in the process. This may sound strange, but often individuals don't want to lodge a formal complaint and would rather simply offer feedback, criticism or voice their concerns. Providing a safe and relaxed environment for participants, volunteers, audience members etc. to raise their views can prevent complaints being lodged in an 'official' capacity.
- Similarly, those who do wish to make a complaint may be afraid to do so because of its negative connotations, and instead refer to their concerns as a 'problem' or 'worry'. They may not expressly use the term 'complaint', but nonetheless the issue must be taken as seriously as if they had.
- It's a good idea to thank people for bringing an issue to your attention, and this can often instantly take the heat out of a complaint. It's also good to say sorry - not in a way that admits blame - but in a way that acknowledges you are sorry that they have had an unpleasant experience.
- Complaints must always be handled confidentially and involve only key individuals. If the complainant feels that their grievance has been made public without their consent they may feel embarrassed or angry, and may pursue the complaint further. Failure to treat complaints confidentially may also make others reluctant to make a complaint in the future, which could have negative consequences.
- While complaints must be confidential, it is better if they are not anonymous. If an individual wishes to make a complaint they should be encouraged to identify themselves as the complainant to ensure there is an atmosphere of openness and trust surrounding the resolution procedure.
- Keep all parties involved updated with the progress of the complaint, and provide timeframes for each stage of the matter. This helps to manage expectations and reassures complainants that their complaint is being dealt with.
- While there is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach, handle all complaints consistently. This means following the procedure in the same way for each separate complaint, and adopting the same attitude of respect and consideration for each individual involved every time. Groups may wish to nominate an individual to deal with complaints, so that the response is consistent and uniform. It is important that this person feels able to ask for help and support should the need arise, though.
- Make it clear to the complainant when you have provided your final response to a complaint. If the complainant is still dissatisfied then you should direct them towards other means of taking their complaint forward (see Further Resources).
Any redress offered should always be proportionate to the complaint - in many cases, a sincere apology is usually acceptable. Depending on the nature of the complaint, however, the complainant may also seek the following amends:
- assurances that the issue in question will not happen again in the future, to them or anyone else
- evidence of the efforts taken to prevent the issue from happening again
- evidence of steps taken to correct the issue in the here and now
It is helpful to ask the complainant what they would like the outcome of their complaint to be. If you feel they have an unreasonable request, or it is impossible for you to meet, you should say so and offer an outcome that you feel is proportionate to their complaint. This helps to manage the complainant's expectations, and demonstrates that you are listening and taking their concerns seriously.
A resolution of a complaint is not necessarily simply giving the complainant what they want - it's working together to find a positive and mutually-agreeable outcome for all parties involved.
Supporting those involved
Both making a complaint and being the subject of a complaint can be stressful, embarrassing and tiring. Therefore it's important that support is available to all parties during the process, particularly to vulnerable people.
If you decide not to nominate a specific complaints handler, it is worth incorporating complaints management into the job descriptions of volunteers and/or paid members of staff so they are aware of the possibility of undertaking the task. Support should be available to those dealing with complaints management, as it can be a challenging job.
Giving support to others can be as simple as:
• offering a listening ear;
• reassuring volunteers and/or paid members of staff that they're doing a good job;
• reassuring complainants that their issues are valid and their views are important.
Getting authorities involved
If a complaint is handled well it is unlikely that the issue will require intervention from external authorities. However, if the complaint involves criminal matters such as theft, assault or children's welfare, then the police must be notified immediately, even if the claims are only alleged.
Similarly, if the complainant makes threats of violence or acts in a discriminatory way, it is sensible to involve the authorities straight away to prevent the situation from escalating.
Following a complaints procedure will demonstrate that you've taken all reasonable steps to resolve a matter, which can draw a line underneath the issue for a persistent complainant. However, the complainant may pursue the issue further still and seek to take legal action. If this is the case you may need the intervention of a mediation service, or to seek legal advice yourself. While there are some free legal aid services available to voluntary groups (see Further Resources), legal cases can prove costly, time-consuming and stressful. Adopting a good complaints procedure and handling complaints effectively can help to prevent matters reaching this stage.
…adopting a complaints procedure can prove extremely beneficial even if you never receive a complaint! Demonstrating to people inside and outside of your group that you're focusing on their needs and are keen to build up an atmosphere of trust and honesty will raise your profile, boost your reputation and create positive opportunities for growth and development.
Legal aid and mediation services
- DirectGov - a guide to legal aid - http://bit.ly/AdVFnI
- LawWorks - legal aid for community groups in England and Wales - http://bit.ly/ORpKaO
- VolResource - legal services for voluntary groups directory - http://bit.ly/MjfeeS
- Nominet - mediation and dispute resolution - http://bit.ly/QL8skK
- Principles of good complaint handling, Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman Service - http://bit.ly/RAkDjL
- Cause for complaint?, Charity Commission for England and Wales - http://bit.ly/eFlj1l
- Dealing with problems, complaints and disputes, Volunteering England - http://bit.ly/Nj5yyz
- Groups should embrace complaints, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations - http://bit.ly/OZfD5B
- Complaints management, The Law Society - http://bit.ly/SYripC
We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.