Handling unreasonable complaint conduct

Unreasonable conduct by complainants appears to be increasing, both in propensity and seriousness.

It’s not just being difficult, frustrated or upset or expressing views that are uncomfortable. Chronic complainants are people who feel passionately about their cause, are uncompromising, and cause undue disruption. At FairWay we have become attuned to handling unreasonable conduct over the years, particularly with the high volume of ACC claim reviews and care of children disputes in the Family Dispute Resolution service where the stakes and emotions are often high. Interestingly though, we find unreasonable behaviour from quite a number of complainants in the Telecommunications Dispute Resolution service, where issues tend to be of lower value and switching of providers is relatively easy. 

Why this increase?

There is no doubt there is an increase in consumer awareness about their right and ability to complain. This has been come about for a number of reasons. Firstly consumer law is predominantly principles based requiring judgement as to what is fair and reasonable conduct, unfair trading, oppressive policies, proper disclosure and fair promotion, etc. This judgment is increasingly given to dispute resolution schemes to decide if the parties have been unable to resolve issues themselves. Providers need to promote their complaints process and dispute resolution scheme in order to be compliant - for example, our “own” FSP Act. Secondly, industry codes are increasingly demanding standards of conduct and transparency of their members, and thirdly, organisations are now choosing to promote complaints processes as part of their value proposition - inviting feedback to better connect with their customers to improve advocacy and business process.

The societal changes around entitlement and individual rights, increased access to knowledge through the internet and options to change providers for little or no cost, an inability to manage conflict, financial stress, frustrations dealing with organisations’ own poorly resourced call centres, and of course the ease to complain or vent through social media without having to front, have all played a part in providers dealing with unreasonable behaviour of their customers.
They won’t go away. Organisations need to learn to deal with them.

Who are these people?

Many unreasonable complainants display narcissistic or histrionic personality traits. They don’t know they are being unreasonable, nor do they run on logic while experiencing emotion.

Narcissism is seen as reluctance to follow the directions and rules of process which results in large amounts of documentation, self-representation and a lack of empathy to others in the system. They have an inability to see or understand the impact their behaviour has on others, and will often present with hyper-vigilance or an ongoing concern that the system is conspiring against them. They are mostly male and reasonably intelligent, yet display volatile emotions and see themselves as victims, unable to take rejection on any decision not in accord with their own belief.

Communications are often complex, voluminous and vague, without objective cause and sometimes an obsession with minutiae. They will often continue to lodge complaints, frequently as a slight variation over a similar unsuccessful complaint and will try to “mess with your mind” claiming bias and procedural flaws, focus upon jurisdictional issues rather than substantive matters, refusing to take notice or conversely challenging every point.

The histrionic personality displays a pervasive pattern of excessive emotion and attention seeking and is often a persuasive victim. They are uncomfortable in situations where they are not the centre of attention; display rapidly shifting and shallow emotions, use their physical appearance to draw attention to themselves, or use an impressionistic style of speech which lacks in detail. Often dramatic, exaggerated histrionic personalities can be easily influenced and will often depend on supporters or advocates.

Both “types” are not happy people, often full of internal conflict that will choose targets to blame. Yet their behaviour is mainly about them — not you and the issue being discussed is simply an expression of their state of mind.

What are the implications?

There are several implications for organisations to consider. Firstly, health and safety — a need to keep employees protected from physical harm and psychological stress. Unpleasant encounters that are not managed well can sap time and energy, leading to a reduction in commitment to service, loss of self- esteem, absenteeism, burn out and staff turnover. These can manifest in negative word of mouth and impact on the reputation and ultimately profitability of an organisation. Then there is the disproportionate amount of time and other resources taken up, leading to less time available for more “worthy” complainants.

The complainant is also doing themselves a disservice. There is the possibility of reciprocal behaviour or avoidance from the employee which can escalate the issue, leading to non-resolution of any valid component. The complainant’s own physical and psychological health could deteriorate over time, and this can spill over to their friends and family.

How do we deal with unreasonable complainants?

Thankfully only a small percentage of complainants exhibit unreasonable behaviour. However organisations need to have protocols in place to deal with potentially harmful situations. Staff do need to know about them and that they will be supported. It requires a team approach and the protocols need to set boundaries that need to be enforced when breached. The protocols could include limiting contact, preferably written, to one or two persons and detailed record keeping is essential.

The physical environment needs to be a safe balance between safe and “we don’t trust you.”
At FairWay, we often have security guards nearby for some known troublesome claimants, meeting rooms equipped with alarms, monitors and crash doors and support people at hand. We never allow a practitioner to meet in a party’s home, and our practitioners, coordinators, case managers and phone operators have support people nearby, trained to debrief after difficult conversations.

On a personal level, know it is not your fault. The personal attacks are not about you as a person. You are not the first person to be attacked, so don’t defend yourself.

On the phone or in person, do a stocktake to see if you need protecting, emotionally, physically or legally and call on your protocols and supports if needed. You’re not alone.

Avoid blaming them. Use empathy, pay attention and give respect.

Respond quickly to any misinformation and set limits on misbehaviour. Let them vent and don’t interrupt their anger. You can be firm, but stay calm, don’t antagonise them; be brief, and informative. Gently confront them, restate or reframe to show understanding and see if you can find some agreement. You can say “NO” and discontinue the engagement if the conduct persists. Above all, SMILE.

Unfortunately it would seem unreasonable complainant conduct is here to stay; at least until we all learn to manage conflict well. Unreasonable conduct is not acceptable and should not be normalised. On the other hand, there will be differences (there is no progress without them) and poor service that needs addressing. Complainants must be given the opportunity to have their say which in most cases will lead to an improvement in customer advocacy and business processes and services. Understanding the environment and characteristics of the players and the impact on employees and organisations provides some insights on how to manage unreasonable conduct. 

FairWay Resolution provides training and coaching in Working with Complaints, Complainants and Difficult People.