“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view …until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Many of us have been consumers and carers. Whether it’s shopping, queuing for an event, visiting a GP, picking kids up after school, or supporting an ageing parent. How easy it is, to see how services could be better, more accessible, more efficient and more affordable.
Some of us have worked as service providers. We have experienced the pressures and time demands consumers do not see. How easy it is, to forget what it was like to be a consumer and understand how they experience the services we provide.
Some of us have worked in senior executive positions, or on boards, where information comes from all directions; yet we need to make key decisions and we are accountable for business performance and viability. But how hard it is, to get real information on how consumers experience your service.
In today’s consumer-centric and competitive environment, it is more important than ever to listen to consumers. We need to understand how they experience services so that we can continue to do good better.
To do good better, we must first do no harm.
Feedback from consumers and carers is often the first signs that we may be doing harm. A concern that something is not quite right, is not fair or a complaint, may indicate more widespread problems. Listening to consumers is a key mechanism in mitigating the risk of abuse and system failure.
Consumer-centric choice and control has become a central principle to the provision of human services. We place consumers at the centre of service maps; we talk about patient journeys, partnerships and recovery models of care.
Organisations have mechanisms to hear consumers – complaints and feedback processes, consumer experience surveys, mobile devices in waiting areas or online surveys. But how many organisations actually listen to the feedback that they receive?
Even Telcos will send you a link to an online feedback survey after you have waited 40 minutes to get through to someone, been transferred multiple times, cut-off, and not had your problem solved.
In fact, we are almost being over-surveyed.
The myriad of snapshot surveys resulting in low evidence of improvement, may make many consumers cynical of consumer experience surveys – even asking: ’what is the point of complaining? Is it worth the effort? What difference does it make? Organisations need to be proactive in engaging consumers and show how the feedback they provide is used to improve service delivery.
It can be hard for services to hear the voice of consumers:
- Consumers may be reluctant to provide feedback, they may be concerned about the impact on the services they receive or about getting staff into trouble. They may find it difficult to articulate their concern. They may not know how to provide feedback.
- When frontline staff receive a complaint, they may placate the consumer, or fix it and forget. If they receive a compliment, they say “thank you”. Learnings from complaints and compliments may not be passed up within the organisation, or shared. Knowingly or unknowingly, the information provided to management is filtered.
- Through progressive layers of management, issues are addressed, resolved and information trimmed. Valuable learnings may not be identified and shared. Issues and complaints may be seen as ‘one off’ and therefore, systemic problems not recognised.
- Between the Board/CEO and consumer it is not unusual for there to be five or more layers of reporting and filtering. It is hard for decision-makers to really know what is happening on the frontline.
As board members and executives, we can become too focussed on the internals of our organisations. We can forget that our frontline staff are the gateway to our organisations. Together with consumers, they are our greatest brand ambassadors. To be a provider of choice, we need to maintain close and effective dialogue with both our consumers and frontline staff.
The following checklist will assist you in assessing whether your organisation has effective and best practice frameworks for consumer feedback:
- Do you have an accessible and ‘plain English’ policy for consumer feedback?
- Is there a clear implementation strategy, with defined processes and accountabilities?
- Are consumers and staff aware of this policy?
- Are there mechanisms to monitor implementation and collect outcome data?
- Do you monitor and benchmark outcomes that are being achieved?
- Do you ensure that outcomes are being reported to decision-makers?
- Do you collect evidence of change, resulting from the information received?
- Do you monitor, collect and report on the impact of these changes?
- Do you have a clear strategy and timeframe for review and update of existing policy?
Working with consumers, we know they want to be listened to more than anything. They want the information they provide to be taken notice of and acted upon. Most often this is because they want to see services improve, not just for themselves, but for other people.
We know that some people find it difficult to articulate their concerns in a way that provides a base for meaningful action – they just know it’s not right. Whereas we need to know what happened.
There is effort in providing feedback, particularly completing surveys and written complaints. A narrative approach[^5], where consumers can tell their story, to a real person who wants to listen, will capture much more detail than survey tools – it allows for a conversation.
Consumers generally value and are appreciative of the work of service workers. They want to acknowledge jobs well done and concerns are often preceded by “I do not want to get them into trouble, but…” Others may be concerned about the potential impact of making a complaint, will have on their access to services, or working relationship with the organisation.
An independent process removes many of the barriers to listening. Conversations proceed in a spirit of inquiry. Consumer hesitations about upsetting their allocated carer are dissipated, there is no defensiveness in response to their story, just a focus on understanding. Concerns about potential impact on access to services is reduced. Information is collected, analysed and reported objectively, patterns and trends identified. The executive and board hear what consumers think.
Board and CEOs need to listen. They need to get into the skin of consumers. They need to experience first-hand what it feels like to be seen, but not heard. It is only then that the sounds of silence will become a resounding echo!
This article was originally published in the Better Boards Magazine 2017