Pointers For Dealing With Complaints

As we observe what is happening in camps (and other youth programs) around the country, we see that parents or guardians seem far more ready to register complaints both with the camp and with ACA. Expectations are higher than ever before.

Camps should establish specific procedures to deal with complaints. Otherwise, they will seem to come at the most inconvenient times and will be delegated to persons who may be the least able or inclined to handle them effectively.

Some staff have the capacity to work effectively with people who have complaints or concerns. Other staff do not. Just because you are the director does not mean you are automatically skilled in dealing with conflict.

To establish a proactive procedure, consider the following tips.

1. Answer all complaints promptly and with sensitivity.

2. Once you are aware that a complaint is coming to you by phone, try to control the timing of the contacts of conversation so that you can be free of other distractions and can give full attention to the complainant. Try to be prepared to discuss the content as you understand it.

3. If you are being contacted by an attorney, it may be prudent to talk to your attorney before the next conversation.

4. Recognize in advance that the conversation may be highly charged with emotions such as anger, anxiety, disappointment, or even guilt. Respond in an understanding and empathic manner. Use a tone of voice and words that will not inflame the situation.

5. Designate and train a few of your staff in complaint or conflict resolution. Give those staff the responsibility to work with parents in such situations. You will be dealing with hundreds of families this summer. It is likely that there will be a few who have questions or concerns. Your first contact with them will affect the outcome of this relationship. Invest time in training staff to whom you will direct these complaints. These staff should be able to turn this concern of parents into a positive growth relationship. Some community colleges or adult evening schools offer programs in conflict resolution to provide training to your staff. 

6. If the parent asks for permission to tape the call, do not refuse. Take good notes, or even tape it yourself.

7. Don’t guess about answers. If you don’t know about the situation or don’t have the answer right then, confer with the people involved and get back to the caller. Be fair and objective about the facts. Recognize that during the summer with hundreds or thousands of campers and hundreds of staff, some mistakes occur.  Some situations will arise where the option chosen by the staff member may not have been the best option in hindsight.

8. When you indicate you will get back with the caller, be sure to honor that commitment. You may need to call and indicate that you don’t have all the information yet. Show them respect by honoring your word to call them, even if it is to make a different appointment.

9. Work with them to identify options. Often, the parent can only think of one option - getting money back. They may be satisfied with a sincere “I’m sorry your child had this experience. I want to use this example, without names attached, in my training program next year. Would you give me your permission to do that?”

In risk management, we talk about tangible losses such as people, money, buildings and equipment and intangible losses such as reputation. Consider both types of losses when seeking a resolution to differences. Sometimes situations reach highly charged and angry levels because the first contact between the parties didn’t do anything to diffuse the situation or assure the complainant that you would work to find a resolution. Have a happy summer!

Adapted from materials by Charles R. Gregg, Attorney at Law, Houston, Texas.


Originally published in the 2000 Spring issue of The CampLine.