Managing Complaints

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

William Arthur Ward

Every so often, it will fall to an organisation to deal with an external complaint. And there’s a high chance that this will cause little more than a minor flutter which is quickly resolved. Argyll and Bute’s Third Sector organisations are busy and resources are tight – everyone is keen to stay focussed on the objectives that motivate as opposed to stalling or wallowing in problems.

However, much as it’s important to adjust the sails and stay on course, complaints cannot be ignored. So, let’s look at how to deal with them as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

Prepare: manage the risks

Creating an in-house risk management framework bolsters operational strength as well as providing a ‘toolkit’ ready to respond if a risk becomes a reality – and/or a complaint is made. Proactively managing risk is a positive approach – and while it is impossible to predict every potential complaint; risk prevention both reduces the possibility of hitting snags – and gives transferable approaches to dealing with issues that do arise.

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) describes 5 main areas of risk in the Third Sector: Governance, Financial, Operational, External and Compliance.

Read into these areas of risk, consider how they each apply to your organisation and create suitable processes to mitigate them. SCVO provides a Risk Policy Template for use or reference.

“The purpose of risk management is to improve the future, not to explain the past.”

Andrew Jaquith

In Argyll and Bute, external risks often relate to highly affecting impacts on daily life both personal and professional.

For example, challenging weather conditions pose potential infrastructure damage and major travel disruption implications.

The Third Sector is in itself a major part of the response when such difficulties arise. It is therefore important that organisations apply the same level of forethought and planning to their own internal risk procedures, that they so diligently offer the communities they serve when crisis strikes.

Complaints Procedure

So, the proactive, mitigative planning is in place. And still a complaint arises.

In the first instance, it is important that the complainant knows they have been heard. A prompt, ready response acknowledging receipt and explaining the Complaints Procedure will allow for the organisation to look into the issue further and prepare a more comprehensive response / plan of action. Demonstrating an eagerness to respond is also a first step towards maintaining a good reputation.

Types of complaints

While an overall procedure for complaint management is helpful, different types of complaint may call for different styles of response. For example, dealing with an immediate/reactive in-person complaint at a live event differs greatly to receiving a detailed written letter. The former may need space and time for initial defusal (and potentially appropriate training to resolve the matter safely) whereas the latter offers the opportunity to compose a more considered response, albeit within a reasonable timeframe.

In both instances, the ultimate objective is about finding a reasonable solution that is acceptable to all parties and allows them to move on. If this is not possible, the Complaints Procedure should instruct on how to escalate the matter further, for example to Board or Regulatory Authority level.

While it is important to adhere to your own organisation’s ethics and have confidence in its approach; it may well be that an error has been made. On a positive note, however, this may be an opportunity to improve and evolve.


If an apology is necessary; give it. Even acknowledging that the complainant has been upset by the actions of the organisation (and apologising for that upset in itself) might be enough to help heal a wound, even if the organisation feels that their same action is unlikely to alter in future. Their opinion having been heard, the power to engage (or not) with the organisation moving forward is in the hands of the complainant.

However, remember, depending on the nature of the complaint, the Board and external regulators may need to be made aware – and if similar complaints are made on a regular basis from separate parties, it might be worth reconsidering the organisation’s stance on the matter causing contention.

Regardless, the key to a positive outcome is open communication, accurate recording – and a procedure that is fair and transparent.

Top Tips on receiving a complaint:

  • note everything down from the start keeping records factual and formal – while paying appropriate and sensitive heed to any emotional toll involved.
  • if complaint is being made in person, invite them to pause until an additional representative can be present
  • encourage the complainant themselves to write down the initial problem (or record in a manner most accessible to them). This process in itself can be a useful diffuser – making matters seem more manageable / allowing for a clearer perspective
  • in line with the organisation’s Complaints Procedure, follow a systematic approach that keeps all parties updated as to the progress of the response in order to provide a perceptively forward-moving journey towards solution.

SCVO provide a Complaints Policy Template for the use of third sector organisations.