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6.2 Listening, Responding, Improving - Guidance for Managers


Operational Team Managers (or their equivalent in Learning Disability or Mental Health Services) are the key individuals with responsibility for handling and responding to complaints. General Managers (or their equivalent) are responsible for the quality assurance of those responses on behalf of the Executive Director of Adult Services and must agree the content before they are sent out.


Complaints Procedure

Listening, Responding, Improving - Guidance for Frontline Staff Procedure


Principles of Good Complaint Handling, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, 2009

Listening, Responding, Improving, A Guide to Better Customer Care, Department of Health, 2009


This chapter was updated in April 2017.


  1. Introduction
  2. Defining the Complaint
  3. Managing the Investigation
  4. Formulating a Complaint Response
  5. Implementing Learning and Improving
  6. Handling Unreasonable Complainants

1. Introduction

Information relating to the complaints process and the various actions that need to be taken during the process are detailed within Adult Social Care Complaints Procedure.

Section 3 ‘Listening’ of Adult Social Care Complaints Procedure, covers the process to be followed by managers upon receipt of a complaint, and includes; defining the complaint issues and desired outcome with the complainant, exploring capacity to consent to the complaint if it is being raised on behalf of the person, approaches to resolution, clarifying who is best placed to lead the complaint, timeframes for responses and assessing the seriousness of the complaint.

This chapter aims to provide specific practical guidance to investigating managers about defining the complaint through listening, how the process of investigation should be managed, how complaints should be responded to and how learning and improving can be achieved.

Guidance relating to what frontline staff should do upon receipt of a complaint, can be found under Listening, Responding, Improving - Guidance for Frontline Staff Procedure.

2. Defining the Complaint

It is important to ensure that responses are proportionate to the seriousness of the complaint. It is helpful to outline a complaint response plan along with written acknowledgement of receipt of the complaint, usually in the form of a letter. This should reach the complainant within 3 working days of the receipt of the complaint. It is usual for the Customer Feedback Manager or Officer to undertake this task. There may be occasions however when the investigating manager will write this letter, which must include the following:

On other occasions, a member of staff may have received the complaint, and it will be important to ascertain whether sufficient information has been provided and recorded. If this has not been completed, you may need to contact the complainant yourself to do this, unless the complaint involves you directly, in which case you need to inform your General Manager as soon as possible so they can make alternative arrangements.

2.1 Listening

When listening to and communicating with the complainant, whether by E-mail, telephone or in person, the following principles should be adhered to;

  • Listening is the first step to reaching resolution;
  • Take time to really listen to the complainant. This might involve giving yourself space to call the person back;
  • Feedback to the complainant to show that you have understood, using their words;
  • Ask specific questions so as to ascertain a clear picture;
  • Acknowledge their feelings – sometimes acknowledging and tapping into feelings goes a long way to resolving the complaint;
  • Empathise – helps people to feel that you have understood their perspective. Remember empathise not sympathise;
  • Uncovering the issue – sometimes people skirt around the issue because they feel their concern is unimportant or they are concerned about putting their trust in you;
  • Ask for their resolution or their desired outcome– sometimes people are clear, others are yet to think about it so need this question to be asked;
  • Confirming in writing – if the complaint is made verbally make sure you confirm your understanding of the complaint;
  • Make this as clear as possible - under headings, list each complaint issue. This will also help when you come to compose your response;
  • Honesty and integrity – if you’re right, say so, but be transparent if there is fault;
  • An apology is not necessarily an admission of fault or liability.

2.2 Devising a Complaint Plan

It is important to ensure that responses are proportionate to the seriousness of the complaint. It is helpful to outline a complaint response plan along with written acknowledgement of receipt of the complaint, usually in the form of a letter. This should reach the complainant within 3 working days of the receipt of the complaint. It is usual for the Customer Feedback Manager or Officer to undertake this task. There may be occasions however when the investigating manager will write this letter, which must include the following:

  • What you intend to do to investigate and/or resolve the complaint;
  • What timescales you think will be needed to do this (up to 10 working days  or up to 25 working days depending on complexity. In exceptional cases where complaints are complex and multiple service and organisation, this will increase to 45 working days);
  • What will happen if any of the above has to change and how this will be communicated to the complainant;
  • Contact details for yourself and the Customer Feedback Team if they are unhappy with the details of the plan suggested.

3. Managing the Investigation

3.1 Gathering evidence

Once you have understood the core of the complaint and what the complainant wants to achieve, the next step is to gather evidence and information which relate to the complainants concerns.

Think the 4 P’s:

  • People – who do you need to talk to?
  • Place – do you need to view the environment or any objects?
  • Paperwork – do you need to refer to records or assessments?
  • Procedures – do you need to look at policies and procedures, either statutory or non-statutory guidance, as well as policies devised within the service setting? Have they been followed appropriately?

3.2 Working with staff whilst managing the complaints process

Whilst conducting the investigation, it is imperative to bear in mind the following when working with staff:

  • Staff need to feel safe. The complaints procedure is not concerned with investigating disciplinary matters and staff need reassurance about this. Obviously where serious matters are concerned however, this may indicate a need for a disciplinary investigation;
  • Things go wrong – keep things in perspective. Mistakes are integral to developing practice so you must feel comfortable with them, within parameters. This doesn’t mean that deliberate acts or repetition of problems are acceptable;
  • Make sure that staff know what the complaint is – they have a right to know and this information should be presented sensitively and discreetly;
  • Allow staff to tell their story – be clear on what areas you need to cover and be focussed on the specific points. Allow the conversation to flow and let them ask clarifying questions;
  • Pre conceived views of staff – you might trust some staff more than others but put your initial feelings to one side and be balanced in your approach;
  • Be clear about what support is – be explicit about what you can and can’t do. Support has to be underpinned by honesty and clarity;
  • Be objective – you can’t always support a member of staff and consider the complaint at the same time. You might need to identify another person to undertake these separate roles;
  • Be thorough – ensure that you have considered the evidence and complaint in detail. Have you tried to achieve a win/win situation for everyone?
  • Reputational damage – consider how your response to this complaint might impact upon the department and the organisation;
  • Closure – you need to have closure with your complainants and staff, so provide explanations as to why you came to your conclusions. If staff actions are justified, tell them and praise them. If a mistake was made, discuss how this can be addressed;
  • Closure with the team – it is important that you share key learning points with the team.

Guidance for frontline staff about management responsibilities when their staff are complained about, can be found under Listening, Responding, Improving - Guidance for Frontline Staff Procedure.

3.3 Once the evidence has been gathered

  • Weigh up the information objectively - to what extent does the information tell a consistent story? Do the different sources of information support each other or are there conflicting views? Try constructing a timeline of events. Does this help to make sense of things?
  • Remember, you are looking for a resolution to a problem situation that everybody concerned can live with, not a definitive statement of who is "to blame"

4. Formulating a Complaint Response

A written response is provided following the manager’s investigations. How you put this together will have a major influence on whether the complainant will accept the outcome or not. The Customer Feedback Team is able to help by viewing drafts and providing suggestions where appropriate. A template response letter is available but this will need to be tailored to the particular needs of the complainant.

The draft response must be approved by your General Manager (or equivalent in your service) before being sent.

There might be occasions when a telephone conversation or face to face meeting are more appropriate to the complainant in the first instance or after the response has been received.

Where the complaint involves multiples services or organisations, the Customer Feedback Manager will co-ordinate the various responses and help to formulate the over-arching letter.

Points to consider when writing the response

  • Clarify the nature of the complaint, using the complainant’s words where possible;
  • Describe how you went about your investigations - the information you considered including the 4 P’s;
  • State your findings with a clear account of events. Provide a clear explanation – what happened and what should have happened?
  • Apologise where appropriate;
  • Consider your tone – have you shown that you have taken the matter seriously and are showing openness or are you being defensive?
  • State with reasons, whether you find the complaint issue/s to be upheld, partially upheld or not upheld using language appropriate to the complainant. In some cases you might need to state this very clearly, in others, the outcome may need to be delivered very sensitively;
  • Consider how to put things right to remedy the situation – redress is putting someone back in a position they would have been in if things had not gone wrong, or compensation if they can’t be put back in that position;
  • What you will do to put things right or change things. State any actions or learning that you have identified as a result of the complaint and include a timescale for completion. This may also apply in cases where the complaint is not upheld;
  • Think SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time specific;
  • Return to the complainants desired outcomes – are they appropriate and proportionate to the issue? Have you been able to meet them? If not, provide an explanation;
  • Include your own contact details should the complainant have any further comments or questions;
  • The complainant has the right to approach the Local Government Ombudsman should they remain dissatisfied with the response, so it is essential to include their contact details so that the complainant knows who to refer to. It is crucial to ensure that everything has been tried to resolve the complaint before this happens.

5. Implementing Learning and Improving

Complaints are important sources of information about how our services are experienced and, sometimes just as important, perceived by the people who use them, and their family, friends or carers. Investigations often highlight areas of difficulty or unclear procedures and we need to demonstrate how we have learned from the experiences and perceptions of our service users. Ultimately you want to improve the quality of service and people’s experiences.

5.1 Learning lessons

  • Encourage reflection and dialogue – should be done both on an individual team basis and organisational basis with managers and colleagues. Consider how it happened, what lessons can be learnt and what actions can be implemented to avoid a similar occurrence;
  • What direct lessons can we draw from this complaint? This question is particularly relevant when you have upheld or partially upheld a complaint;
  • What indirect lessons can we draw from this complaint? This refers to what you may have learned from the process of investigation, which may not have been a direct concern of the complainant;
  • How can we ensure that these lessons are incorporated into service delivery? You may want to consider developing a system and an action plan. You may also wish to undertake discussions in team meetings or with individual staff in supervision;
  • The Customer Feedback Team should be notified when action and learning points are implemented, at which point they will close the complaint record;
  • The Customer Feedback Team records all formal complaints and reports on action and learning points to senior managers on a quarterly basis.

6. Handling Unreasonable Complainants

On rare occasions, despite your best efforts to resolve a complaint, the person making it may become persistent, aggressive or unreasonable. There are various ways to handle these complaints;

  • Make sure contact is overseen by a manager at an appropriate level;
  • A communication strategy might need to be devised, but it is important to note that the complaint response letter might be crucial to supporting this strategy, in terms of referring the person back to the outcome and next steps;
  • Provide a single point of contact with one member of staff. Make it clear to the complainant that other staff members will be unable to help;
  • Agree a method of communication;
  • Place a time limit on communication;
  • Restrict the number of calls or meetings e.g. suggest that you will respond to E-mails on the same day every week;
  • Ensure that a witness is present at any meeting;
  • Refuse to register repeated complaints about the same issues;
  • If the person has already been responded to and referred to the LGO if they remain dissatisfied, you can reiterate this course of action;
  • Only acknowledge correspondence you receive about a matter that has already been closed;
  • Explain that you do not respond to abusive correspondence;
  • Make contact through a 3rd person such as an advocate;
  • Ask the complainant to agree how they will behave when dealing with your service in future;
  • Return any irrelevant documentation and remind them that it will not be returned again;
  • When taking any of these approaches it is important to explain what you are doing and why you are doing it, and to keep a detailed record.

The Adult Social Care Customer Feedback Manager and Officer will help and support with any part of the complaints process. They can be contacted at the Customer Feedback Team,, marking ASC complaint in the E-mail subject line. Or on 01273 291229.