Tackling Patient Complaints

By Miranda Pearce / 19 Nov 2021

Customer service professional Miranda Pearce outlines her nine-step complaints management formula on how to deal with patient dissatisfaction

As an owner of a medical aesthetic clinic for the last 13 years, and a former complaints manager at the predecessor to the Care Quality Commission (CQC), I know all too well the sinking feeling you get when a patient complains that they are not happy with the way they have been treated.

During this moment, many thoughts race through your mind. You worry that you are not good at your job, that the patient will leave bad reviews all over the internet, or worst-case scenario that you will be sued and lose your licence to practice. This gut-wrenching feeling is perfectly normal but thankfully there is a solution. In this article I’m going to share the nine steps in the complaints management formula I have developed over the last 13 years that, if followed correctly, will help you resolve patient complaints and will mean you will rarely need to involve your insurers, let alone any lawyers.

1. Accept the complaint

You might not want to hear this, but you will receive complaints when you enter into business in aesthetics. Common complaints can range from unmatched expectations about treatment efficacy and longevity, right through to the impact of unexpected side effects. If you come from an NHS background, your exposure to patient complaints has been shielded by the complaints department, but you are in private practice now and must be ready to accept that some people will complain about aspects of your service. This does not necessarily mean that you are lacking in good bedside manner, have poor customer service, or are flawed in your clinical skills, nor does it mean that patients are ‘out to get you’. It is simply inevitable that if you perform a significant number of aesthetic treatments per year, a fraction will result in a complaint. Once you learn to accept the inevitability of complaints you are less likely to take your ego into the situation.

2. Acknowledge your role

As a healthcare professional instead, the number one characteristic you are known for is your empathy.

Your relationship with your patients could be likened to that of a parent and child. You do everything in the best interests of your patient, as a parent would do for their child. But the tables can feel turned the moment you receive a complaint, and suddenly you feel like the child – vulnerable and exposed. However, the truth is that you are still the one with the power. The complainant is by far the more vulnerable party, and what do children do when they feel vulnerable? They act up and throw a tantrum. Your complainant is no different, so it is time to use your best skill – your empathy.

The more you take the time to step into their shoes, the more likely you are to make them feel heard. In my experience, people who feel listened to are far less litigious and dangerous to your business. If you approach the situation defensively then it will more readily escalate to involve legal proceedings.

3. The vent call

Do not be tempted to try and manage a complaint via text message or email, even if the complainant initiated the grievance on a messaging platform; you need to speak to them so you can empathise, let them vent, and listen to their side of the story. Reassure them that their complaint is important and arrange a good time to discuss it over the telephone, either with you or your practice manager for larger clinics.

When you speak to them – exchange pleasantries and acknowledge their need to complain – start the conversation with a statement that lets them verbalise their problem – “Tell me everything.” Your job now is to listen, do not interrupt, until you really understand their complaint. You can ask more open questions if you need more clarity, but above all, listen and take detailed notes for your records and to help jog your memory later.

Reflect upon each complaint, with your wider team, and what you can learn from it

4. Summarise the complaint

Your empathy is worthless unless the complainant hears that you have understood them. You do not need to agree with them, but once they have finished airing their complaint, it is paramount that you summarise it back to them; for example, “Thank you for sharing that with me. So, if I’m hearing you right, you felt that [Insert issue] and that affected you because you felt that [Insert effect it had on them]. Does that sound right?” Give them a moment to acknowledge if you have interpreted things correctly and be silent. If they respond in the affirmative, then you can move on to the next stage. Repeat the process if they start going over their complaint again.

5. Do not rush the complaint

The vent call is not the same as the solution call, so do not think you have to resolve everything in one conversation. Explain that now you understand their concerns, you need to take some time to review your consultation and treatment notes if applicable. You may also request their permission to discuss the complaint with others, such as a training mentor. Do not tell them that you are going to talk to your insurance company as this is a sure-fire way to escalate the complaint.

By following these steps, in 13 years we have only ever had to refer two complaints to our insurers. Conclude the call and inform them that you will ring them back – ideally within a 24-hour period – and stick to it.

6. Plan your solution call

It is vital to establish what the complainant truly wants from this process, because if you get that wrong and offer a voucher to someone who wanted the system changed, you could offend them. You will be clearer on their goals after the vent call, but they tend to fall into one of these categories:

  1. Fix me – most patients are seeking a means by which you can rectify the perceived shortcomings from their treatment.
  2. Hear me – in some cases it is simply about being heard and seeking reassurance that you understand how the events have impacted them.
  3. Refund me – they may seek a full or partial refund, or a gesture of goodwill such as a voucher or additional treatment session.
  4. Protect others – some may be seeking reassurance that other people will not suffer in the same way and want you to change operational aspects of your business.

You should also consider your goals so the solution you offer will not make you resentful later. Are you primarily focused on safeguarding or your reputation? Are you focused on avoiding financial loss, for example, by giving away freebies? You also need to consider contagion to ensure that any goodwill gesture does not lead to the complainant’s friends targeting you. If you are considering a refund, then you should consult your insurance provider.

7. The solution call

You are ready to call them back and offer a solution. Here is my proven framework to follow:

Step 1: Thank them – start the call by thanking them for sharing in the previous call.

Step 2: Tell them what you have done – it is essential that they feel valued and that you have taken their complaint seriously, so explain the efforts you have spent on your investigations.

Step 3: Hint at a solution – keep them engaged at this early stage by expressing that you have a way forward that you believe will work for them.

Step 4: State your side and acknowledge the complainant – clinically speaking, you may not have done anything wrong, so it is reasonable for you to diplomatically acknowledge this by referring to a side effect previously discussed during their consultation unfortunately being one of the possible outcomes of treatment, for example. If you have also learnt something from this complaint, such as your communication could have been better, acknowledge this too. Do not hide from your mistakes because it will only anger the complainant more. If you realise that you have fallen short clinically, seek guidance from your insurers before the call.

Step 5: Preface your proposed solution briefly by explaining the reasoning – if you have chosen to offer a gift, refer to it as a goodwill gesture, so they understand it is not an admission of liability. For example, ‘I value you as a patient, so I’d like to offer you….

Step 6: Offer the solution – explain the solution and the next steps to action it – for example booking a follow-up appointment, sending a voucher, or an explanation of how your procedures will be changing.

Step 7: Get their commitment – ask them if the solution works for them. If they do not respond in the affirmative, you can repeat steps four to seven until you reach an agreement.

8. Implement the solution

It may seem the obvious thing to do; however, it is very easy to procrastinate and fail to implement the solution that you have agreed upon. This could put you back to square one and break the hard-earned trust that you have just built up.

9. Reflect

As medical professionals, reflective learning is habitual in clinical practice, so ensure you use this skill in your business practice. Reflect upon each complaint, with your wider team, and what you can learn from it. It is important to have your complaint process written down and ensure it is followed in the same way each time by applicable team members. Learn to value the experience and use it to your advantage for next time, because let’s face it, there will be a next time.

You can now manage complaints like a pro!

Remember, you will get complaints now that you are in private aesthetic practice. Do not fear them, and instead own them. The more you can see the complainant as vulnerable instead of a threat to you, the better you will be able to empathise and make them feel heard, the more bespoke your solution will be to theirs and your needs, and the less likely the situation will be to escalate.

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