Say what you mean, mean what you say: New research highlights challenges in the language used by ombuds

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A new report has been published on research on language used in complaints handling. The Language of Complaints, produced by IFF Research, was commissioned by the Legal Ombudsman to help understand how language affects consumers’ behaviour and choices and identify better practice in the use of language. The report highlights the use of jargon in complaints responses – including ‘remedy’, ‘premature’ and ‘out of time’ – which can cause confusion or appear meaningless and add to ‘the accumulation of technical language that the customer will have encountered in their complaint “journey”.’

The researchers explored the impact of language used in both written and oral communication by legal services providers and the Legal Ombudsman. They consulted with staff at the Legal Ombudsman and also carried out 15 face-to-face interviews and four focus groups with members of the public, both those whose complaint to the Ombudsman had concluded and those who had used a legal services provider but not complained.

Responses suggested that, generally, communications were clear and straightforward and that the Legal Ombudsman’s language is an improvement on that used by legal services providers. There were a number of areas, however, in both written and oral communications where improvements could be made.

Interpretations of commonly used phrases

Although it is clear that people interpret language in a variety of ways, it is useful to understand better how common phrases used by redress mechanisms can convey the opposite of what is intended. For example:

‘The phrase “we will look at the facts in each case” was felt to convey the Ombudsman’s impartial approach particularly well, while the idea of the Ombudsman “weighing up the comments” from the customer and the service provider meant that several non-customers interpreted the Ombudsman’s role as being like a pair of scales.’

Other comments include that the term ‘impartiality’ implies ‘sitting on the fence’ and being toothless to enforce recommendations, and that ‘premature’ (used in relation to a complaint that has not yet gone through the internal complaints procedure of the provider) is associated ‘with small babies or with a sexual context’.

Lack of clarity on ‘informal’ resolution

It is interesting to note that among the problematic language identified is ‘informal resolution’: the research identified that the steps involved in taking a complaint to an ombud are not as clear as they could be, and that for some interviewees:

‘…the word “informal” is jarring: taking their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman feels like a formal process to them, so implying that their complaint is informal feels to some as thought their complaint is being downplayed and that its importance is devalued by the term.’

The report explains the process of ‘informal resolution’ as follows:

‘Once a complaint has been accepted, it will be passed to an investigator who will listen to both sides, look at the facts, weigh up the evidence and take a view. If a case is resolved at this stage, it is resolved ‘informally’. The Legal Ombudsman aims to resolve complaints this way; currently, approximately 30% of cases are resolved like this.’

More insights on the language used around informal resolution suggest the need for more clarity about the process used in this informal stage, something we highlighted in our report on informal resolution approaches used by ombuds. 

‘…several of the calls were felt to be overwhelming and hard to understand. This was due, in large part, to their lack of structure which felt baffling to the customer: for example, the informal resolution with remedy call started with the staff delivering a decision, when later it became apparent that this was actually a first offer (“It began as a decision, then it became a bartering thing.”)’.

‘…there was a lack of clarity among participants about the different stages of the process, and, in particular, what the difference between a “preliminary” and “provisional” decision means in practise. Few customers were certain whether they had received one or both (with one or two believing that the preliminary decision was when the Legal Ombudsman assesses your case and decides to take it on, and one or two others believing that the preliminary decision they had received from an investigator on their case was in fact a ‘final decision’).’

The researchers quote a complainant whose complaint was not upheld, describing the informal process as ‘quick and dirty’:

‘A first round, they would have looked at a quick and dirty response that says, “Sorry, here’s £200, go away”.’

Remedy terms and job titles

In terms of redress, ombuds often use the term ‘remedy’, but this was seen by some interviewees as ‘medicinal’, as if a dose of remedy would fix the problem. These interviewees argued that, where a financial remedy is being recommended, ‘compensation’, ‘cash settlement’ or simply ‘settlement’ would be more appropriate.

Job titles within ombud organisations were also potentially challenging in that, although they appeared to confer a welcome right to escalate a complaint (from, for example, investigator to senior investigator to Ombudsman), it also felt to some like scaling a great height, and in doing so it implied that the investigator’s opinion is less valuable.

 

The findings give valuable insights into the perspectives of users of redress mechanisms, including but not limited to ombuds. They also give pause for thought for anyone involved in the design of grievance and complaint procedures.

 


Informal resolution of complaints by Armed Services personnel

Nicola Williams discusses how her scheme assesses the suitability of informal resolution for complaints made by those serving in the UK Armed Forces. This was one of the themes in our mapping study of how ombuds use informal resolution: do they have criteria for assessing the suitability of informal resolution, rather than investigation, of complaints? This post was originally published on 11 April 2016 on the website of the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces and is republished here with permission.

Nicola Williams

By Nicola Williams

Service personnel who are considering making a complaint often contact my office for information on the process.  At times what they want to know is whether making a Service complaint to their Commanding Officer (CO) locks them into the formal complaints process, or whether they can still have their complaint resolved informally.  The simple answer is that it doesn’t lock them into the formal process.  In most cases it is for the individual making the complaint to decide whether they would like to follow a formal or informal process, but not all complaints can be resolved informally.

Complaints are made about many different issues.  Some of those issues only affect one person and others have the potential to affect many.  While all complaints are serious to the person raising them, some complaints involve very serious allegations that require thorough investigation whereas others can be resolved quite quickly without any investigation. In many instances Service personnel will wish to pursue informal resolution as they perceive that the process is faster. However, formal complaints should be handled without unnecessary delay and therefore speed is just one factor.

When deciding whether informal resolution is appropriate, the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Is this an issue that can be resolved quite quickly without investigation?
  • Will informal resolution provide a way to resolve the situation before a bigger problem develops?
  • Is the outcome I want to achieve by making a complaint possible if the complaint is handled informally?

When raising a complaint, any Service person who wishes to consider informal resolution should discuss these factors with their CO to help them decide whether informal resolution is appropriate for their complaint.

A good example of where informal resolution may be appropriate is in cases where complaints concern performance appraisals.  If a Service person made a complaint that they were unhappy with something that had been written in their report, the CO might agree that it is appropriate for a particular word or phrase to be removed or rewritten. If the individual was happy that this addressed their complaint no investigation would be required and the change could happen quite quickly.  However, had the individual made a complaint that they were given a bad report due to bias or discrimination that would require an investigation as they are very serious allegations that need to be proved in order to reach an outcome.

Another example of where informal resolution may be appropriate is where there is workplace conflict that has the potential to be resolved through mediation. Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution where a third party brings two people together to discuss the issues affecting their working relationship.  The purpose of the discussion is to have both sides understand how the other person feels about the situation and to try and find an appropriate and positive way to move forward.  This can be a very effective way of resolving conflict when it is used at an early point. Mediation may not be appropriate where the conflict has escalated and certainly cannot be used if either party is unwilling as it is a voluntary process.

In the past individuals have raised concerns with my office that they felt pressure to engage in informal resolution, or that they withdrew their formal complaint believing it would be resolved informally, but no action was ultimately taken to resolve their complaint. Whether Service personnel choose to pursue their complaint formally or informally, they should feel confident that it will be handled properly and without undue delay. As the Ombudsman I have the power to investigate alleged undue delay in the handling of informal complaints. I hope that this will provide Service personnel with the assurance that they can choose to pursue informal resolution and come to my office if they believe there is unwarranted delay in the process.

I encourage individuals who have raised a complaint to consider alternative options that could lead to an early and satisfactory resolution where it is appropriate to do so. If informal resolution is pursued initially but is not successful, it is still open to the individual to make a formal complaint if they wish. Ultimately it is for the individual to decide which process they want to follow – no one should feel that they are being forced to accept an informal process when they want to pursue a formal complaint.

 

About the author:

Nicola Williams is the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the UK Armed Forces.