Posted By Chris O'Byrne on 22nd October, 2018

How complaints data can become an asset (and even save lives)

Author: William Archer


No one likes getting complaints. That is why, for many organisations, a complaint is often mistaken for a liability. The reality is very different. Approached in the correct way, a complaint has the potential to be an asset – an untapped resource for your business. Without having someone there to reveal the problems, making improvements can feel a lot like groping in the dark.


Dr Alex Gillespie and Dr Tom Reader are professors from the London School of Economics’ Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science and they have been looking at ways in which complaint data can shed light on hidden issues and be leveraged to gain deeper insights. Nowhere is this potential illustrated better than in the health sector, where knowing your customers’ complaints is not only a matter of good practice, it’s a matter of life and death.


Speaking at Resolver’s September Resolution Forum, Dr Gillespie and Dr Reader shared the results of a multi-year study into NHS complaints and how they can be used to predict hospital-level mortality. One thing that they revealed was how much data is collected but not fully exploited to address systemic issues. To put the size of the problem into context: NHS Litigation Authority revealed in its 2017/18 report that the health service had received 10,673 new clinical negligence claims, while making payments of £2.2 billion. One step towards tackling this is in understanding complaints.


“Complaints have valid data,” explained Dr Gillespie. “It’s not just someone moaning, it’s not just something to be dismissed or got rid of, there is actually real intelligence there that can guide and improve organisations.”


But while the value of complaints is unmistakeable, unlocking that potential is a challenge for most organisations.  Dr Reader explained that each written complaint functions like an incident report: “They are heterogeneous, unique, written from different perspectives and have mixed motives.” To address this issue, the professors developed the Healthcare Complaints Analysis Tool (HCAT) as a method to better analyse patient complaint letters.


By aggregating and analysing this data through one method, the LSE professors were able to map the so-called hot spots, the stages of care at which most harm occurs. They could also examine the blind spots, or the added value that can be brought out of existing complaint data.


In the case of the hot spots, they found that an unusually high number of catastrophic incidents occurred on the ward. More crucially, the data could shed light on institutional blind spots – problems that can only be seen using complaints data analysis. For example, a high level of complaints related to entry or exit problems, i.e. issues that arose before or after hospital admission. It also found that a high proportion of complaints (54%) involved multiple problems and these systemic complaints on average resulted in more harm. Another big cause of complaints was omissions (35%), cases where something simply wasn’t done – as opposed to being done incorrectly.


“We are really interested in the value of the information in the complaint and what they can tell us about organisations, organisation failure and communication problems, and they are totally underused in both academia and business,” Dr Gillespie said. “[Complaints data] is messy but increasingly we can analyse them with advances in methods of analysis.”


He went on to make comparisons to the aviation industry, where similar advances in a data analysis have led to improvements. “We think that close monitoring of complaints is almost like a black box – revealing the story of what went wrong when the crash happened.”


This is the kind of data analysis that drives what we do at Resolver. It is not just about having a convenient way to process complaints. It is about harnessing the power and insights that data gives us to drive improvements, reducing harm to customers and clients and decreasing the costs to the organisation.


A recent example of this in our own data comes via the telecommunications industry. We looked at the complaints ratio for a specific problem – billing issues – across four companies within this sector. What we found was that Company A (see chart below) experienced a peak in complaints in June 2016, a whole five months before the issue was highlighted in the media.

This insight is a key example of how deeper analysis can help an organisation identify problems early, giving it a chance to rectify issues before they evolve into something much worse –  in this case, a PR disaster.


This is just another example of how complaints data can help our clients actively turn failure into an opportunity for betterment and success.


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Read more about Dr Alex Gillespie and Dr Tom Reader's study here