It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s always an eyeopener and usually quite unsettling.
When done well, and handled well, it can turn out to be therapeutic, and has the potential for great opportunity.
I’m talking about moaning, groaning, complaining and yes – b*tching. Whether it’s a client complaining about an advocate, or the other way around, sometimes it’s fair and understandable, sometimes not. Sometimes it can escalate. Other times it can be diffused.
In all cases we can learn from complaints. So let’s take a look.
Sometimes Clients Complain about Advocates
In the past 10 years, I’ve received a small handful of complaints from clients about advocates they hired, and they are always very disturbing to me. Advocacy is supposed to be about trust and reliance, about smoothing one’s path through the healthcare system. If I see a complaint, I know that hasn’t happened.
Last week I heard from a complainer (I’ll call him Tony) who was loaded for bear, but very short on details. He asked how to lodge a formal complaint against one of our AdvoConnection advocates, stating,
My family hired a healthcare advocate who is listed as a member of your site and organization. We enlisted in a very intensive program with the advocate; and as things progressed it became clear that she was not only not effective but was actually doing things to damage the healthcare that our family member was receiving. Her performance and her way of working was damaging enough that I am concerned there is risk to other patients that hire her.
Whoa! That’s quite an accusation! Then he asked how our “industry” handles complaints. Of course, APHA is not an entire industry, but I sent him a link to our complaint form which explains how we handle this sort of feedback.
(You may be interested in our feedback process. It was developed by a task force of advocates a few years ago, with the major goal of making sure any complaints become learning opportunities. It was not set up to punish. It was set up to improve service. It has only been used one time so far, and it worked exactly as it was designed.*)
But filling out the feedback/complaint form wasn’t good enough for Tony. No, he wanted a promise that this advocate would be kicked to the curb. I’ll remind you that I had no details – I have no idea who the advocate is, or what the advocate’s transgression was. Even if I knew, no such promise would ever be made until I saw a pattern from that same advocate.(Yes, we’ve been here before.**)
After a few more exchanges, I have heard no more from Tony. On one hand, that’s a relief. On the other hand, I still don’t know what the problem was, who the advocate was, nor what he plans to do next.
Is there a lesson here? Yes – there is – although not much of one in this case. We have learned only that someone is unhappy, and while he is only one person, he may represent others. I know from past experience that if I receive one complaint about an advocate, I will probably receive more. I’m just hoping his advocate reads this post, and realizes she needs to improve her service.
But the other thing to realize is that not every patient is honest – and who knows? Could that also be true for Tony?
Because, sadly yes, clients lie. In fact we have a whole discussion taking place right now in the APHA Discussion Forum about this point. I’ve written about clients and their lies before.
So that raises the flip side of the complaint coin. What about advocates complaining about clients? Does it happen? (Yes, of course.) How can we turn it from simple b*tching and moaning into something useful?
When Advocates Complain about Clients
Complaining about an agita-inducing client can be very cathartic, very therapeutic. I honestly don’t think we see enough complaining about clients in the APHA Discussion Forum which, because it is totally private and inaccessible to clients, is a great place to do it. I do receive emails from members on occasion with complaints, asking me if I have advice for how to handle problems.
I believe that dealing with complaints about clients can be highly instructional! We can all learn from them! It’s not about the blame game or simply an opportunity to whine. No – more importantly it’s about examining the problem and figuring out how to prevent it from happening in the future. We can learn more about how to manage expectations, how to find different resources, and what expectations we need to have for ourselves when it comes to dealing with problem clients.
In fact, I suspect that whomever Tony was complaining about would have a totally different take on whatever didn’t go well in that relationship and all of us could learn from it.
Those of us who have been married, or have lived with a partner, or have parents, or children, or have enjoyed longstanding friendships, know that no relationship worth having is ever without disagreements. It follows then, that no good relationship will ever be without complaints. We might as well embrace them and learn from them.
So, I say to advocates… complain away, as appropriate! Do it! Just be sure to turn each complaint into a learning opportunity, a chance to improve our advocacy service, and client outcomes.
*The complaint feedback form has only ever been submitted once. The information was shared with the advocate in question who promptly disputed the complaints. The client complained that his advocate had not done the work she was hired for which was about reviewing hospital bills. The advocate replied that the client had signed her contract, and had been told on numerous occasions that she would not begin the work until he paid his deposit – but he had never paid her. Concurrently I heard from a new advocate the same client had hired who shared with her his complaints about the first advocate. Eventually it turned out that not only did he shaft the first advocate, but he never paid the second advocate’s final bill either.
**A pattern from one advocate. Prior to development of the complaint form, there was one advocate about whom we received one, then a second, and finally a third complaint. In all cases the complaint was the same – promises had been made by the advocate, payment had been made by the client, but no work had been done and no results were forthcoming. In each case, the reply from the advocate was the same – she said she had done the work she was hired to do. But no evidence of work was ever provided or found. Her membership was up for renewal just a few days after the third complaint and we did not offer her the opportunity to renew.