Handling Parents' Complaints


Linda Vining





We tend to think of parents who never complain as perfect customers; people who are easy to get along with. In fact these quiet customers can be a serious threat to your school.

'You all know me. I'm the nicest parent in the world. I'm the one who never complains, no matter what kind of service I get. I'll go into a restaurant and sit quietly while the waiters gossip and never interject to ask for a menu. I'll just wait. I'm as polite as can be. I don't believe rudeness achieves anything. And I wouldn't dream of making a scene as I see other people do. No, I'm the perfect customer. And I'll tell you who else I am... I'm the customer who never returns!'

Schools are full of parents like this so let us translate this customer profile into a true story.

A mother who was encouraged by the rhetoric of parent/teacher partnerships made an appointment to see the principal to discuss her anxiety over an incident in her daughter's class. The principal listened to only half her story before saying 'little girls of that age often lie to their parents'. He then gave the mother a school-centred lecture, dismissing her concerns, and the mother, maintaining her composure, said little more.

The principal considered the mother's visit a minor matter and forgot about it but the mother left the school feeling misunderstood and put down. She didn't return to the principal with any other concerns, but she certainly told other parents about them. At the end of the year, without a murmur of explanation, the family changed schools.

How customers handle dissatisfaction

People handle problems in different ways. Some take the passive approach like the parent in the example above. They don't want to make a fuss because they are afraid of rejection or recrimination or they may feel intimidated. Market research provides the alarming statistic that 96% of customers don't complain to the service provider, yet each unhappy customer tells at least six other people.

Others take an active approach. They express their dissatisfaction and want a resolution. They seek assurances, solutions and changes to accommodate their needs. These are valuable customers. Treat them well and they can become your best supporters. However, if their complaints are poorly handled, they may progress to the aggressive stage.

Some parents with a problem become emotional, provocative and threatening. This is the aggressive approach. It is a dangerous state for your customers to be in. They voice their concerns loudly and broadcast their dissatisfaction widely. Their negativism can be contagious. They may rally supporters and ignite others. They may take their grievance to a court of law or they may even attract the undesirable attention of the media. Unless they are skilfully handled, they can become school terrorists.

Do you appreciate the value of a complaint?

Look at the diagram and determine how you respond to a complaint? Do you encourage parents to bring their concerns to you, or are you missing out on opportunities to strengthen your relationship with your customers?

One dissatisfied parent observed that the principal of her son's school was so threatened by complaints that he wouldn't entertain even the smallest negative comment about any aspect of the school. 'We don't talk to him, we just talk amongst ourselves', she said.

In interviews with a wide cross-section of parents my market research reveals that the following barriers prevent parents from telling the school their concerns:

´ They believe nothing will come of it.

´ It takes too much time and effort.

´ The principal and staff get too defensive.

´ Parents fear the school will brand them a whinger.

´ They don't know how to register a complaint.

´ Memories of their own authoritarian school days inhibit them.

If you want to strengthen the loyalty of your parents you must first eradicate the real or the perceived 'stoppers' that inhibit parents from coming to you.

Methods for handling complaints

Handling complaints is a skilled management procedure. Often, if a complaint is well handled in the initial stages, usually in the principal's office, it will not escalate to dangerous proportions. Consider the following guidelines for complaint handling in terms of the mother who left the principal's office in a state of anxiety:


Listen fully to the complaint without interrupting. Customers may use a threatening voice, they may exaggerate or have only half of the story. Don't deny anything at this point, don't argue or blame or use defensive 'fight' words. Just listen. Write down the main points and use reflective language.

Express Empathy

Show understanding for the customer's position. Once customers realise that their problem is appreciated they will feel calmer and more willing to find a solution.

Find Out What They Want?

Ask the parents what they want done concerning their complaint. Complaints are a barometer that tell you that your customer needs reassurance. In some cases they may be satisfied with "just letting the school know". If the customer wants a specific action you may be able to accommodate it. Build customer confidence by discussing as fully as you can at this point when, where and how action will be taken. If you cannot take the action suggested, go to the next step.

Explain what you can and cannot do

There are many ways of saying 'no' without making the customer lose face.

Try finding alternatives. Avoid telling customers all the reasons why their proposal won't work and don't hide behind the rule book. It only makes you look powerless to help them. Instead, tell them what you can do for them. Gauge their response by asking, 'would this be a solution to the problem?'

Follow up

Make contact with the customers (personally, if you can) to make sure that the solution to the problem was satisfactory. Invite them to contact you again. Show them that you value their loyalty as a customer. Thank them for bringing the matter to your attention.

You may be afraid that if you are too willing to listen to complaints you will be swamped with hundreds of callers. Think of it this way. You don't have problems when your customers are talking to you in droves. You have major unreconcilable problems when your customers stay silent and talk to everybody else.

Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.


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