Tips for Successful Complaint Handling from Peter Boos

I have found that when dealing with complainants, there appears to be heightened sensitivities regarding the perception of fair and respectful treatment.

Posted by Joe Gerard in on September 14th, 2011

Today’s blog post is an article by Peter Boos,  a Director on CIM’s Toronto Executive Board. He also works at the General Insurance OmbudService (GIO) as a Senior Consumer Service Officer. This article was originally published in the Summer 2011 edition of the Toronto Manager Magazine for the Canadian Institute of Management (CIM).

As a Senior Consumer Service Officer (SCSO) with the General Insurance OmbudService (GIO), I handle complainants who have issues with their own insurers regarding automobile, property and business insurance in Canada. I have been approached by many people to provide tips aimed at resolving complaints. At GIO, I have had the opportunity to handle thousands of complaints. I will present some of my realizations with the hope that some of my insights will help others increase their effectiveness in dealing with complainants. The degree of one’s effectiveness can be gauged by the degree to which the complainant is receptive to one’s suggestions while simultaneously attaining some level of closure.


One very obvious realization is that nothing happens in a vacuum. Complainants are people who come in all shapes and sizes. People have emotional baggage, assumptions, biases, contradictions, sensitivities, different knowledge levels, different cultural backgrounds, different expectations, different emotional states, and the list goes on. I have realized that there is no one formula (magic pill or solution) that fits all when considering the dynamics involved in dealing with people.

Dynamics refer to the culture, personality and complexity of people and their situations. One may find it extremely effective to recognize the uniqueness of each complainant and explore with every complainant their perception of the situation while honoring their emotional state. This may very well show as being respectful.


Another important realization deals with control. One cannot control anyone but one’s self. It is vital that as a SCSO I keep in check my own perceptions and sensitivities so as not to prejudge the complainant or act in a manner that is counter productive. One needs to control one’s own responses. One should not allow another person to control one’s behaviour. As such, it is important to be responsive instead of being reactionary.


Yet another realization is that temperament plays a large role in determining success. By temperament, I am referring to one’s own emotional state. I have learned the importance of being positive, enthusiastic and caring. I strongly believe that there should be a complete eagerness and willingness to utilize one’s skills and resources to help complainants. There must be a sincere and genuine desire to help. One should treat people in a manner that makes them feel comfortable. Above all, practice restraint if the complainant’s words or actions cause any “discomfort”. The comfort level of any interaction should be enhanced by maintaining one’s professionalism, employing tact and diplomacy, being friendly and acting hopeful.

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More options may be realized if one keeps an open mind and allows for some flexibility in thinking and action. By controlling one’s temperament, it is easier to maintain one’s composure and not react in a manner which could exacerbate the situation. People may not remember what was said but they will often remember how they were treated. This type of the behavior underpins a strong customer focus. Customer service is not just an action. Customer service is an attitude.

Listening = Attention

One other realization concerns the importance of honoring others by listening. Careful listening makes one “other focused”. I have often joked that my intelligence is best displayed when I am silent. It is important to concentrate and focus on the complainant. It is necessary to “be in the moment”. It is necessary to limit or remove all distractions – both physical (i.e. outside noises) and emotional (i.e. judgments on complainant’s behaviour, thoughts about your day).

Attentiveness is also demonstrated by providing periodic acknowledgements of what is being said by the complainant and asking timely questions to gain further clarification. Appropriate questioning can confirm that an individual has been listening. Many complainants have responded to this writer that they could see that I was listening from the questions being asked of them. Complainants have often expressed thanks for actually taking the time to actively listen to them. I have found that when one has listened and been respectful in one’s mannerisms, complainants normally reciprocate in like behaviour.

One’s attentiveness to the other person’s words and non-verbal gestures (i.e. sighs, frowns, tone, posture) should provide clues to the individual’s frame of mind. In other words, the attention paid to complainants will also aid in developing a true “understanding” of their perceptions and situations. One could interpret such attention-giving as a form of validation to the complainant.

Relationship Building

There is an important realization about being aware of the nuances and subtleties in developing, maintaining and strengthening relationships. It takes time and a concentrated effort to build trust and credibility. Such trust and credibility can be diminished or lost in mere moments. I have found that when dealing with complainants, there appears to be heightened sensitivities regarding the perception of fair and respectful treatment. The complainant will carefully scrutinize one’s words and non-verbal gestures. A simple yawn or raised voice or interruption of the complainant when talking can cause mistrust or may be perceived as being disrespectful.

One should act in a manner which causes the complainant to view your behaviour and actions as beneficial. Eye contact is normally good (if possible). However, one should take into account personal and cultural preferences. One should know the power of a smile or heartfelt praise or even humor. One should never underestimate the power and impact of one’s own words and behaviour on other people. If one pays attention to one’s own behaviour and words this may help to ensure that one’s conduct does not become a barrier or interference. The complainant should view one’s behaviour as being helpful. The complainant’s perception of one’s behaviour is as important as the actual behaviour. Remember the old saying, “perception is reality”.

Part of relationship building also has to do with proper treatment. Proper treatment entails the use of language that is not inflammatory or confrontational in nature. One should thus avoid the “labeling” of behaviour (i.e. calling the complainant arrogant, rude or stupid). Such negative judgments often result in limiting one’s desire to help complainants. The complainant should still be honored while the complainant’s behaviour may be addressed. Other indicators of proper treatment include: responding to the complainant in a timely manner; truthfulness; honoring agreements; providing explanations; simplifying complex material; patience; co-operation; thoughtfulness, thoroughness of action; and willingness to make time for the complainant.


There is a realization that complainants want others to understand what they are going through. As such, it is important to empathize. One should try to see and feel the situation from the complainant’s point of view. It is comforting to complainants when someone can understand their emotional distress and frustrations. I believe that this type of responsiveness will be perceived as a genuine desire to provide assistance. It is important that empathy should not be confused with sympathy. Complainants may not desire any sorrow for their plight. The ability to empathize helps one relate to complainants. This ability to relate will normally create an environment conducive to sharing and honest dialogue.

Knowledge Base

There is the realization regarding the importance of keeping one’s knowledge current. Since complainants are unique and diverse, it is also important to find the relevant information and present it in a manner which facilitates understanding and promotes resolution to the particular situation at hand. One also has to diagnose the problem and uncover any underlying issues. It is akin to finding the right medicine and dosage to remedy a particular ailment. In continuing the analogy, one also has to be aware of any allergies or side effects. Intellectual preparedness allows one to know and communicate the relevant body of knowledge or take the steps to find the necessary information.

Often, one must be creative in translating that body of knowledge in a manner which encourages comprehension by complainants. I believe that complainants feel empowered when their level of understanding have been enhanced. Knowledge can also bring transparency to a situation as the complainant can be informed of the applicable processes, protocols, procedures, rules, legislation and timelines. Byproducts of being knowledgeable are confidence and competence. One can lose a great deal of credibility if misinformation is relayed. It can also be quite detrimental if the complainant believes that one does not have enough information to properly grasp their situation.

It is best to obtain the information if one does not possess the particular information being sought. If possible, advance research should be done or during the handling of the complainant one should become versed in the particular subject matter.

It should be noted that it may be helpful to maintain a certain level of humility as one could get too confident if there is a belief that one has all the answers. Such over confidence could result in one’s alienation from the complainant. Knowledge in of itself may not be the answer. The ability to sell one’s knowledge is as valuable as the knowledge itself. In other words, if one does not get “buy in”, all the knowledge in the world may not get the desired results.


I have provided some of my realizations in dealing with complainants. A simple way to remember the core of my realizations can be found in the following acronym – LEAP:

L = listens attentively with a strong focus on the other person

E = empathizes to recognize the other person’s emotional state

A= ask questions to probe in order to gain more clarity and confirm or increase understanding

P = politeness which is reflected in an earnest desire to treat other person with respect and dignity

This writer encourages everyone to take the LEAP. It can be said that the usefulness of LEAP goes beyond conflict resolution. One can also think of LEAP as preemptive measures to avoid conflict and foster positive relationships. LEAP may also generate good will.

The notion of LEAP involves motion and moving forward. It is important to keep learning and making constant evaluations and revisions as dictated by the situation. If something is not working, one should have the insight, conviction and courage to review one’s actions. LEAP is an integrative approach and as such should be utilized in a complementary fashion (i.e. measures should be interwoven and deployed strategically in order to achieve maximum effectiveness). This writer is passionate about reflective behaviour that is framed by tenacity, resilience and integrity.


Joe Gerard
Joe Gerard

CEO, i-Sight

Spend my days showing off the i-Sight investigative case management software and finding ways to help clients improve their investigations. Usually working with corporate security, HR & employee relations, compliance and legal teams.

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