Handling customer complaints
Customer complaints are inevitable and water utilities have a duty to respond to them quickly and efficiently. Water utility offices have a specific department responsible for handling customer complaints. In Study Session 6 this was called the Commercial and Customer Care Department but it may have other names such as the Public Complaints Resolution Department or similar. Complaints such as misreading of a water meter, breakage of a supply pipe, shortage of water, long waiting times for a pipe connection and poor-quality water are common and can be brought to this department by customers in person, through a telephone call or in written form. Many departments use free phone numbers so problems can be reported more easily.
When a complaint is received, the department dispatches a group of technicians to investigate the problem at the site. These technicians are expected to resolve the problem quickly, on the spot if possible. There are targets for repair. For instance, if the issue is a breakage in the customer’s section of pipe (the pipework between the water meter and the house) the pipe has to be repaired within an hour. If the breakage is in the main water line, it should be repaired within three hours.
For people working in the public sector providing a public service such as supplying water to people, no matter how great their services are, the old adage will eventually be proven true: you cannot please all of the people all of the time. Whatever the type of complaint customers have, it is important to remember the following rules when resolving customer service issues.
- Listen to the complaint.The first thing to do is to listen to the complaint (Figure 9.4). Then the root cause of the problem must be ascertained. It could be that it is something to do with the way the water utility operates. Conversely, it could be due to factors outside its control.
- Understand the issue. Next, given the situation, the complaint must be seen from the complainant’s point of view.
The question must be: 'Why did they come here? Is their complaint justified?' A complete picture of their complaint cannot be obtained until it is viewed from their perspective.
It is important to listen, understand and then discuss possible solutions with them in a calm and friendly manner. This comes down to tones and respect. Policies of personnel can be calmly defended but the conversation should not become an argument, as this will not resolve the issue but lead to anger and agression.
- Resolve the complaint. After the complaint has been heard and understood, a solution has to be suggested. If it is a major complaint, it has to be taken to a higher level, as appropriate. Sometimes this move alone is sufficient to resolve the customer’s concerns as it conveys a sense of importance – their complaint is significant enough to be passed to someone higher up in the chain of command. When referring the matter on, the person to whom the complaint has been sent has to be fully informed of the relevant facts before he or she speaks with the customer.
- Document the complaint and how it was resolved. After the customer’s complaint has been resolved, the case has to be documented in writing. This allows staff to refer back to it should a similar complaint arise in the future. Importantly, any recommendations for the water utility to adopt should be noted, to prevent future complaints.
- Learn from the complaint and rectify any problems.Customer complaints should be used as a means to learn about potential flaws in any of the water utility’s systems, and then the flaws should be rectified so that no more complaints arise.
In most situations, by following these five steps, the issue will be resolved to the customer’s satisfaction. There are, however, some issues that simply cannot be resolved. It could be that the customers’ requests are outside the stated policies on such matters, or that they are simply unreasonable. There will not always be an easy solution to this sort of problem but if all internal procedures have been exhausted, customers may have go to an independent party for resolution such as the Town Water Board or Woreda WASH Steering Committee.