Responding to a complaint - summary

Why do people complain?

Complaints and the reasons for them vary. Often people complain because:

  • they want an acknowledgement that something went wrong and an explanation of why
  • they want an apology for the distress they experienced
  • they do not want to see other people facing a similar problem
  • they want to improve the service for themselves or others in the future
  • they want someone to be blamed, punished or held accountable for what happened
  • they want compensation.

Tips for responding to a complaint

When responding to a complaint there are some basic steps to follow:

  • acknowledge the complaint
  • try to resolve the complaint directly with the complainant
  • be aware of differing views of what happened and what was said
  • reassure the complainant
  • have a complaint handling mechanism already in place.

General principles


Respond to complaints as soon as possible, even if it is just to explain the process. Give a commitment to a certain timeframe and stick to it. Keep the complainant informed and, if there is a delay, explain the reasons for this.

Address all aspects

Provide a full response that addresses the important issues and shows the complainant that the complaint has been taken seriously.

Acknowledge areas of disagreement or varying accounts without dismissing what the complainant has said.

Try not to be defensive

Acknowledge the distress of the complainant.

Acknowledge any errors that did occur and apologise, if appropriate. In any event, be sympathetic.

Try to understand the situation from the complainant’s perspective. Find out what would resolve the matter for them, for example a written response, a phone discussion, changes in policy or procedure, a meeting.

Avoid official or technical language, jargon and clichés.

Consider the cultural background and the possible use of interpreters.

Lessons learned

Outline what happened, how it happened, what is being done to stop it happening again, and that you are sorry that it happened.