WHEN PEOPLE COMPLAIN
Negotiation and Problem
Solving to Resolve
June 1991 IWR Report 91-R-4
REPORT DOCUMENTATION PAGE
IWR Report 91-R-4
NAME OF PERFORMING ORGANIZATION
US Army Corps of Engineers
Institute for Water Resources
ADDRESS :7701 Telegraph Road
Ft. Belvoir, VA 22060-5586
When People Complain Using Communication, Negotiation and Problem
Solving to Resolve Complaints
TYPE OF REPORT
Aggens, Lorenz W.
DATE OF REPORT
This handbook sets forth the principles that have been four arenas
of environmental conflict management, and customer service the end of
some chapters there are more detailed exercises or case study group use.
The basic premise of this text is that effective learning and teaching
possible, and opens the door to cooperative problem solving. If such
mutual learning and teaching does not remove or lessen the actual causes
of citizen annoyance, it can nevertheless lead to the enhancement of
USAREUR relationships with citizens and the enhancement of their
satisfaction with USAREUR procedures used in response to complaints.
NAME OF RESPONSIBLE INDIVIDUAL
Mark Dunning, Ph.D. Telephone (703) 355-3090
WHEN PEOPLE COMPLAIN
Using Communication, Negotiation and
Problem Solving to Resolve Complaints
Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Engineer
U.S. Army, Europe, and Seventh Army
IWR Report 91-R-4
This handbook is for use by U.S. Army personnel with
responsibility for handling environmental and noise complaints in
Germany. As used in this handbook, complaint management refers to
the application of strategies, complaint handling systems and
skills to increase the level of German citizen satisfaction with
the U.S. Army presence in their communities.
The development of such strategies, systems and skills to
effectively deal with complaints is the second of a two part
initiative by the U.S. Army - Europe (USAREUR) to deal with the
collision of U.S. military and German civilian interests. The
first USAREUR initiative provides for the assessment of military
noise sources and impacts, and an exploration of the measures that
can be undertaken to prevent or mitigate these impacts. Reports on
these studies can help the interested reader understand the means
of reducing sound levels at their source, or protecting people
from military sounds with structural or institutional actions.
This handbook sets forth the principles that have been found to be
effective in the arenas of environmental conflict management, and
customer service complaint management. At the end of some chapters
there are more detailed exercises or case studies for classroom or
study group use.
Citations for publications, studies, and ideas identified by a
superscript numeral--like this can be found in the References
section at the end of the text.
U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources
The creation of this handbook in Complaint Management and its
companion training program reflects the initiative, support, and
ideas of a number of the USAREUR staff who have firsthand
experience in this work.
Special thanks is due to Phil Huber, formerly of the Office of the
Deputy Chief of Staff for Engineering, HQUSAREUR, for his efforts
in applying the principles of conflict resolution and problem
solving to the management of environmental issues in USAREUR. The
success of these efforts led to the initiation of this project.
Lieselotte Kahn, Benton G. Moeller, and Chris Holshek of the
Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Host Nations Activities,
sponsored the further application of conflict resolution and
problem solving principles to the complaint management process.
The help of many USAREUR field personnel who contributed their
time and experience in the development of this Handbook is also
This handbook was written by Lorenz W. Aggens; INVOLVE: Lorenz
Aggens and Associates; Wilmene, Illinois, in consultation with Dr.
C. Mark Dunning; Institute for Water Resources; U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers; Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Table Of Contents .
Introduction .............................. ........ 1-1
II Complaint Management Program . . . . . . . . . . 2-1
III Understanding Complaint Behavior . . . . . . . . . 3-1
IV Complaint Management the Basic Principles . . . . .4-1
V Complaint Management Program Elements . . . . . . . . 5-1
Vl Communications ...................
VII Conflict Management .. .. .............. 7-1
VIII Problem Solving. .................... 8-1
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . - - REF-1
Appendix A: Model Standard Operating Procedures For . . .A-1
Appendix B: Complaint WorkSheet And Instructions ...... B-1
Appendix C: Complaint Handling Functions C-1
A. PURPOSE AND CONTEXT
The United States is one of several nations providing armed forces
to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Maintaining
readiness requires frequent and realistic training. Military noise
and other environmental problems were discounted by military
personnel, and tolerated by the German citizen, as unfortunate
by-products and necessary risks that went with the job. Germans
understood, or were told that it was not in their best interest to
complain, about these annoyances that were directly related to
their national security. Among those who did not feel a national
security risk, it was felt that there could be a personal,
economic risk if military noise and environmental complaints
resulted in a reduction in the military presence in their
In recent years, however, as the population of citizens who have
never experienced a national security threat has increased, the
level of acceptance of military noise and environmental degra-
dation has decreased. Recent studies suggest a growing intolerance
among German citizens and communities for pollution associated
with Army activities. Litigation, political pressure, citizen
opposition and controversy associated with this growing
intolerance are seen to pose threats for the Army's ability to
train and maintain readiness.
Now, as fences and walls between East and West are breached, even
greater changes in attitudes about national security and military
readiness can be expected. In the new political environment,
effective complaint management is a matter of critical importance
to mission maintenance. Complaints, if ignored or mismanaged, can
contribute to the sorts of pressures that pose serious threats to
the USAREUR’S ability to continue to train and operate as its
As a result of the increased necessity for effective complaint
management, USAREUR has taken the following actions:
Studies have been conducted to develop a better understanding
of the ways in which military noise can be reduced. The
findings and recommendations of these studies are reported in
other resource documents.
A strategy and supporting policy is being developed so that
USAREUR staff can present a consistent approach to the handling
of noise complaints.
Resource materials and training have been created to help staff
increase their skills in handling complaints and managing
controversy, effectively. Chapters III through VIII of this
handbook are aimed at that goal.
B. OVERVIEW OF THIS HANDBOOK
This handbook, and its companion course in noise and environmental
complaint management, identifies strategies, systems, and skills
to increase the level of German citizen satisfaction with the U.S.
Army presence in their communities. Chapter II presents the
reasons for having a Complaint Management Program, and how such
programs are used in private industry and in other government
agencies. Chapter III explores the question of why people complain
in order to develop a better understanding of how complaints can
be more effectively addressed. Chapters IV and V present the basic
elements of a complaint management program.
Three chapters of this handbook are devoted to the principles and
thought processes upon which staff skills in effective complaint
handling can be developed. These chapters cover COMMUNICATION
(Chapter Vl), CONFLICT MANAGEMENT (Chapter VII), and PROBLEM
SOLVING (Chapter Vlll). These, and other chapters, include
exercises that can be used in the training program ; by a
complaint management pursuing its own study and skill development
program; or by individuals who are using this text for independent
The basic premise of this text is that effective communication
makes learning and teaching possible, and opens the door to
cooperative problem solving. If such mutual learning and teaching
does not remove or lessen the actual causes of citizen annoyance,
it can nevertheless lead to the enhancement of USAREUR
relationships with citizens, and the enhancement of their satis-
faction with USAREUR procedures used in response to complaints.
II - COMPLAINT MANAGEMENT PROGRAM
A. WHAT IS A COMPLAINT MANAGEMENT PROGRAM- WHY
IS IT NEEDED?
The term " Complaint Management Program" refers to the policies,
procedures, and techniques that will be applied within USAREUR
when citizen complaints about military activities are received.
The objective of these policies, procedures, and techniques is to
ensure that the following actions take place:
· Information on the citizen complaint will be documented and
analyzed to identify the causes of citizen annoyance.
· This information will be communicated to appropriate staff to
determine if some mission-consistent action can be taken to
reduce or eliminate the cause of the complaint.
· Where remedies cannot be found, staff will interact with annoyed
citizens in ways that demonstrate that citizen complaints have
been taken seriously, and that efforts have been made to respect
their values and interests.
· Records of the causes of citizen annoyance, reflected by their
complaints, and the actions taken to respond to these
complaints, will be maintained and reviewed with all incoming
staff with responsibility for conducting military activities so
that actions taken to resolve or manage noise and environmental
problems will be continued.
It must certainly occur to many who have been handling complaints
about U.S. Army activities in Germany that complaints have been
effectively managed for many years without such a program. This is
true. In fact, the complaint management actions established by
this program probably will not differ significantly from the ef-
fective complaint management activities already being taken in
several USAREUR units.
It is also likely that an effective complaint management program
will increase the number of complaints received. What then, are
the pay-offs of the implementation of such a program?
In fact, there are two pay-offs for effective complaint
1. By making it easy for people to complain, and by (documenting
and analyzing those complaints, USAREUR can learn a lot about its
relations with its host communities and citizens. Working with
this information, and with the people whose satisfaction is at
risk, USAREUR may find ways to increase its acceptance and service
in a time in which historical values about military security are
likely to diminish.
2. By building effective complaint handling procedures and
developing relationship building communications, USAREUR can
create more positive feelings about the U.S. military presence in
Germany. Goodwill may not solve the problems that trigger the
complaint, but it will decrease the need to escalate a localized
dissatisfaction to conflict that is argued in larger institutional
and political arenas.
These pay-offs may be clarified by citing some of the actions that
are being taken by private sector organizations to effectively
manage complaints about their products and services. It may not be
stretching imagination beyond the realities of present day
European politics to ask you to picture German citizens as the
customers for U.S. military services.
B. COMPLAINT MANAGEMENT PROGRAMS IN BUSINESS
In the past ten years, and especially in the last two or three
years, there has been an explosion of interest in complaint
management by private sector companies. Government agencies are
now following these examples. Many research studies have been
conducted on complaint behavior and institutional responses to
complaints. Some of the findings of these studies are summarized
· Dissatisfied complainants tell twice as many people about their
bad experience, compared to the word-of-mouth communications by
complainants who are satisfied or who have had a positive
interaction with a complaint manager.
· Where dollar values can be calculated for customer satisfaction
and repeat business, complaint handling departments often show
that they are significant profit centers--returning more money
to the company than it costs to handle complaints.
· More than half of businesses surveyed report that the telephone
is the way that the majority of their complaints are received.
More than 40% of these businesses publish toll free numbers to
encourage customer complaints or comments.
· Nearly 90% of businesses maintain records of consumer
complaints, more than three-quarters of these businesses use
statistical analyses of complaints in policy decisions about
their products and services.
· Seventy percent of the surveyed businesses give communication
skill training to the staff who handle complaints.
Among the policy implications of the report to the Office of
Consumer Affairs, two strategies stand out:
1. Complaints should be proactively solicited from
2. Complaint handling practices that maximize customer
satisfaction should be adopted.
It can also be inferred from the report that effective complaint
management requires a third strategy.
3. Complaint data should be recorded, analyzed, and used in
decisions the organization makes about its business policies
The literature of customer service and complaint management has
many examples of commitment and innovation by private sector and
government organizations the amount of resources, effort, and
emphasis that some well-known corporations place on developing
customer satisfaction through effective complaint handling is
impressive and even astonishing.
General Electric aggressively advertises its toll free, 24 hour
a day, seven days a week, customer contact unit, the "GE Answer
Center". In 1985, the Center received approximately 2.6 million
calls. Only 5% of the calls were complaints; the remainder were
requests for service or help with problems. The customer
contact agents receive five weeks of training for their work.
GE brings 90% of all calls to closure on the first call.
Polaroid operates a toll free telephone contact service--the
Customer Resource Center--that handles as many as 1,500 calls a
day. Ten percent of these calls are complaints. The Center and
five field offices are staffed by 40 to 50 people. The 800
number is embossed on all Polaroid cameras and printed in bold
type on its other products. Senior corporate management
receives a frequent analysis of complaint data to use in
correcting and preventing future problems.
General Motors has toll free telephone numbers that can be used
to reach its automotive Divisions. In 1985, the Buick Division
logged more than 250,000 calls--most of them were requests for
information. Telephone complaint handlers are trained in how to
talk with angry people. Among other things, they try to keep
the complainant on the line to give them time to "ventilate"
their anger as well as to give information about their
complaint. Computer links to dealers near the complainer
forward complaint data even while the dissatisfied person is on
Many agencies of the Federal government have major complaint
management responsibilities. Most of these units function as
pass-through handlers of complaints, or receive complaints in the
course of performing regulatory functions. Examples are the
Environmental Protection Agency's action on complaints about toxic
and hazardous waste handling by local industries or waste haulers;
and the Department of Labor's documentation and follow up on
unfair labor practices or discrimination.
The Department of Transportation's Highway Traffic Safety
Administration offers an Auto Safety Hotline that collects
information on automobile safety problems. The Auto Safety Hotline
has a staff of 13 people who handle an average of 20,000
complaints each month.
The Department of Defense has a complaint handling unit
that receives approximately 180 complaints each month about
dissatisfaction with the service or products of the Army and Air
Force Exchange Service. This Customer Relations Office has the
equivalent of 4.5 full time staff to deal with letters and calls
about its more than 200 Exchanges, worldwide. Seventy percent of
the complaints are received by telephone call. Congressional
inquiries are handled within 48 hours; all others are responded to
within seven working days.
The most common complaint management actions taken by government
agencies may be those of commercial airports. Many airports were
opened before travel by air became the norm, rather than the
exception. The advent of the commercial jet, added to air traffic
never anticipated by airport and community planners, brought
aircraft noise and high levels of annoyance into the lives of
millions of people. Most major airports now have staff whose
responsibility is to receive, document, and respond to aircraft
noise complaints. At O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, for
example, more than 12,000 complaints are received annually. These
complaints are computer analyzed to give operations managers
information about noise annoyance by any combination of these
variables: time of day, day of week, month of year, community of
complaint origin, type of aircraft involved, type of disturbance,
type of operation, activity disrupted, and the number of times the
same person has complained.
C. IMPLICATIONS FOR USAREUR
Studies of complaint behavior and private sector trends in
complaint management lead to these conclusions about a USAREUR
Complaint Management Program:
USAREUR hears from only a small percent of people who are
dissatisfied with the effects of the U.S. military presence in
their communities. The people that are heard from are those who
feel the negative effects on their lives have been large, and
they are often very angry. To improve its understanding of the
problems Germans have with U.S. Forces, USAREUR should adopt a
proactive program to increase its complaint-related
communications with German citizens and public officials.
USAREUR should give serious consideration to the complaint data
it collects, using this information to continuously assess the
effect of its mission requirements on local quality of life,
and to eliminate or reduce the sources of annoyance and
dissatisfaction when those mission requirements permit.
USAREUR should provide guidance and training to staff with
complaint management responsibility so that they can increase
citizen satisfaction with the procedures used, and the
relationships experienced in interaction with U.S. Forces.
HAVE YOU EVER MADE A FORMAL COMPLAINT ABOUT SOMETHING--HAVE
YOU WRITTEN A LETTER, CALLED, OR PERSONALLY CONFRONTED AN
ORGANIZATION ABOUT A PRODUCT OR SERVICE?
> If you have NOT made such a complaint, but
can think of something that really annoyed or
dissatisfied you, why did you NOT complain?