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Handling Parent Complaints: Say What You Do, Then Do What You Say
The recent growth in ACA’s public awareness about the benefits of a camp experience has resulted in increased camp enrollments. It has also resulted in an increase in the number and nature of complaints camps and the American Camping Association receive.
Directors are encouraged to resolve complaints as quickly as possible. In the long run, repairing a camp’s image can be far more costly than the few dollars associated with a partial refund, particularly if the family decides to share their experience with others. On the other hand, a fair and quick response by the director can mean a better referral by that family when their friends ask about how they liked the camp.
This past summer, a number of complaints the American Camping Association received were related to camper health and safety issues. The media has been quite active with reports of camp accidents and attention being paid by legislators to increase regulatory measures. Given the incidents in the nation’s schools in recent years, parents need a greater degree of reassurance that the physical and emotional health of their children is of prime concern.
Directors are wise to communicate any and all camper health issues with parents immediately. Partnering with parents early can prevent unwanted complaints when partial or misinformation is related via campers or counselors on visiting day or summer’s end.
We live in a communication age where parents expect instant information about the health and wellness of their children. Camps with open phone privileges for campers have stated that many parents call with issues all summer long after speaking with their campers. They also remark on the benefits of being able to solve most problems immediately, resulting in a better experience for the children, a better rapport with parents, and few unresolved complaints.
Following are a few suggestions that camp directors can use to help resolve complaints before they find their way to ACA’s ethics process.
Assign an administrative staff member skilled at conflict resolution to handle complaint calls and letters.
Ensure early involvement by the director or resolution expert on staff. Make every effort to resolve the complaint in the early stages on the conflict. Do not attempt to sweep it under the rug or hope that it will disappear with time. Each director should have training or experience in conflict resolution or have a trained staff member available to handle this.
Maintain open lines of communication. Take a proactive approach to dealing with potential problems by contacting parents first, especially with issues related to health and behavior. Parents will be far less likely to take a complaint further than camp if the camp brings the problem to their attention and works with them to resolve the problem.
Remain objective, flexible, and willing to resolve the complaint. Parents want to know they are being listened to. Most complaints come to ACA when the director stops listening to the parent or fails to accept suggestions to improve a situation. If you are having a difficult time with a parent, consider having another administrator take the lead on the complaint.
Involve other staff members in the decision-making process. Very often we take a team approach to planning the camp programs. When a complaint looms, use the same team approach to get as many views and suggestions as possible as to how you can resolve the complaint. Again, if as a director you have not had any training in conflict resolution, ensure that one of your administrative staff has.
Don’t make hasty decisions or get dragged into confrontations. Many conflicts that make it into the ACA process have someplace in their history a very heated conversation that resulted in a communication breakdown. If you can’t deal with an irate parent, use another staff member who has an established rapport with that parent. Make sure you have all the facts before coming to a decision. Buy time by saying, "I will need to discuss this with the other directors," and avoid taking any hasty action or saying something that you might regret.
If you make a mistake, admit it early and move on. We all make mistakes and in our litigious society contact our lawyers first. It is certainly wise to consult your attorney, but if you have made a mistake, don’t add fuel to the fire by trying to cover it up or make the parent feel as though they are to blame. Rather than becoming defensive, consider empowering your client by listening carefully and working with them toward a reasonable solution and perhaps a change in your current procedures.
Work closely with your section complaint resolution committee. If a complaint comes to the section, consider this a new beginning to resolve the issue. Go back to the parent with a new approach and try to reach a compromise. This is best for all involved and can certainly head off a more serious confrontation, either in court or at a National Ethics Committee review panel hearing.
Document all communications and maintain written records. A strong paper trail is useful in keeping all events straight. Should a complaint be filed, your records are extremely helpful to the section complaint resolution committee and/or National Ethics Committee as they determine what action to take. Try to use written correspondence as a follow up to phone calls that you think could result in a formal complaint.
For every complaint you receive, think that three other parents experienced the same situation. While this may not be the case, there will be parents who would rather walk than risk confrontation with a complaint. If you take this approach, you may be more likely to look at the problem from the parents’ point of view and come to a resolution quicker. Ask for the parents’ suggestions as to how to resolve the complaint, and if you can’t do just what they want, try to meet them half way and at the very least keep talking.
As camp professionals, we field complaints each summer and may deal with irate parents. Often the reason many complaints go beyond the camp and are filed with ACA has more to do with the way the director handled the initial discussion with the parent than the severity of the situation that precipitated the complaint. In other cases, a parent simply won’t be pleased unless they can bring someone down. This creates a slippery slope that can require expert advice. Don’t lose your footing!
David Peterson is resident camp director of Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts. He is a member of the ACA National Ethics Committee.
Originally published in the 2001 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.