Improving Government By Solving Complaints Is Good, Solving The ‘Silent’ Complaints Is Better

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Recently, I read an article on the BBC site about how UK Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin wants to transform a large amount of the UK’s public services, particularly the National Health Service (NHS), by studying how complaints are handled.

The article goes on to say that the Rt Hon Mr. Letwin believes that:

“instead of viewing them as a “danger,” complaints should be seen as a vital “mine” of information”.

When I read this it was like music to my ears! There is so much to learn from when things go wrong or don’t go as well as can be expected.

As a result, I applaud the fact that the Rt Hon Mr. Letwin has picked up on this initiative, particularly when no one else on the public administration committee seemed interested.

I believe it is of paramount importance to deliver great service to customers, whether in the public or private sector. But, there is another reason why governments, in particular, need to find, manage, resolve and eliminate complaints as much as possible. That reason is that complaints cost money and take time and resources to resolve. Money, time and resources that could be better spent on other initiatives. That’s particularly relevant in these times of government austerity and budget restraint.

Now, whilst I believe that there are lessons for businesses too here, I would also suggest that the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin needs to go further in his complaints quest. I think he needs to also look for, learn from and deal with the ‘silent’ complaints that exist as well as the ones that have been formally lodged.

Have you heard of ‘silent’ complaints? I came across the idea of ‘silent’ complaints via some research that was conducted by the US firm TARP back in 1999 (I’ve written about this before and in greater detail here if you’d like to check it out).

TARP found, through their research, that for every 26 unhappy customers, only one will make the effort to make a formal complaint. That leaves 25 people that will either not do anything, remain unhappy or will leave to use another business or service. TARP’s research also showed that:

“Customers very rarely complain to the service/ product provider. Instead they will tell their friends, who will in turn tell their friends, creating a pyramid of dissatisfaction.”

But, their findings didn’t stop there. And, this is where the issue of ‘silent’ complaints starts to get serious. They also found that every unhappy customer, including those that have not complained directly, will, on average, tell 10 people and they will, in turn, tell another 5 people each. That means for every every complaint received there is a possibility that an average of 1,300 more people will hear about at least one of those unhappy customers’ experiences. [Note: This research comes from a time before the widespread adoption of social media. Imagine what the numbers could be now?]

This is commonly known as the Customer Complaint Iceberg and, like naturally occurring icebergs, it implies that what is actually seen is only a small part of the overall story.

That is why I believe the Rt Hon Oliver Letwin needs to go further in his complaints quest.

This post originally appeared on my Forbes column here.


In the aftermath of publishing this post on Forbes, I did some research and found an email for the Rt Hon Mr. Letwin and sent this to him.

Four days later, I received an email from his office thanking me for my email and post. The email went onto agree that ‘silent’ complaints are critical and will be tackling this issue, in earnest, towards the end of 2013. They also said that, when that happens, they may be in touch again. Watch this space!


Thanks to Steven Depolo for the image.

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