First fix the client, then the complaint
Someone who is frustrated about a difficult letter, a client who is upset because a payment took longer than expected, someone who is angry and wondering why they have to submit documents for the umpteenth time. Each one of these is “an expression of discontent accompanied by emotion”, the definition of a complaint used by ABN AMRO.
It is up to the bank’s employees to ensure that these clients with a complaint also feel satisfied about the contact, resulting in a positive Net Promoter Score (NPS). During an intensive training program, client contact staff learn how to do just this.
Jeannette Gerritsen is a Senior Business Consultant Learning & Development at ABN AMRO and responsible for this program.
ABN AMRO's clear objective is a positive NPS for complaint handling. “That is, of course, a very ambitious goal,” admits Jeannette Gerritsen, Senior Business Consultant Learning & Development at ABN AMRO. “However, it does reflect the urgency we feel to improve the NPS for complaint handling. We want to be the first bank to have a positive NPS on complaint handling.” The bank has done a lot of research into how it can improve the handling of complaints. Jeannette explains, “Part of the solution is in the process, but an important part naturally resides with the employees who speak to the clients. You cannot help a dissatisfied client properly if you do not recognize and acknowledge the complaint.”
“You're really not going to straighten it out on the back end with a process.”
Paper is patient
The definition of a complaint as an expression of dissatisfaction accompanied by emotion was therefore clearly established at ABN AMRO. “However, paper is patient,” says Jeannette. “You can focus on the hard stuff such as adjusting the process, setting up specialized complaint teams, you name it. But if the front line — the employee who first speaks to the client — does not pick up on the signals of a complaint and the emotions, then a process is really not going to correct it at on the back-end.”
Something therefore had to be done, and employee training was an important pillar of this. Jeanette explains, “Training all client contact employees is a big challenge. How do you tackle something like this on this scale? As a Learning & Development Consultant, this naturally offered me a valuable role. We therefore firstly had many conversations. These were conducted with staff from professional practice and on a more strategic level: what do we want to achieve, what is the gap we need to bridge, and what is needed to bring about a change?”
As in many other large organizations, the NPS at ABN AMRO is a key indicator of customer satisfaction with the entire organization or sub-processes. The Net Promoter Score reflects the answer to one question: how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague? Respondents answer the question with a mark between 0 and 10. The scores are divided into three groups:
- Promoters: respondents who gave a score of 9 or 10.
- Neutrals: respondents who scored 7 or 8.
- Critics: respondents who have given a score 0 to 6.
To identify latent complaints and open them to discussion, four competences have been drawn up that the participants develop. The first is recognizing signals. Jeannette clarifies, “If a client is angry and says, ‘I have a complaint,’ then it is clear cut. However, you may encounter someone who is very introverted, but is almost at breaking point. It is about revealing the signals that are under the surface, so that you at least have a chance to do something about it rather than let it escalate. Maybe you can even mitigate the complaint then and there so that it's not really a complaint anymore.
The next competence is de-escalating emotions. “That might be the client’s emotions, but your own emotions may also become a factor, of course,” says Jeannette. In the training program, participants practice what they can say to a client who is angry or frustrated — for example by giving an emotional reflection. In it, you describe the emotion you perceive and check whether it is correct.
Keeping control over the conversation appeared to be the competence the participants had the most difficulty with. Jeannette clarifies, “That is about preventing the direction of the conversation being taken from you and that you can still steer the conversation to some extent, so that you can de-escalate and handle the complaint properly.” In one of the example role play scenarios, employees enter into a conversation with a client who has received a letter from the bank. The client gets sidetracked and starts talking about a letter from the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration that she did not like. It is up to the participant to get the conversation back on track. “Some people find this more difficult than others. All sorts of topics are brought up, making the scope of the conversation huge and, as an employee, you find yourself facing an insurmountable obstacle and don't know where to start. Employees then often find it very difficult to return to the essence of the complaint, which may not as vast in scope comparatively.”
“Even if the complaint cannot be solved, you have influence.”
Lastly, employees practice following up on the complaint, even if they cannot immediately resolve it themselves. Jeannette clarifies, “It is very simple, the client sees you as the problem owner. However, this might not apply to you at all. We also previously heard from clients that they felt their complaint had not been resolved at all. If the process has been handled well administratively, but the emotion has not gone away, then you have clearly missed something. It is important to walk the client through the process, despite the hard process on paper. ‘No’ is also an answer, but it is about how you word this ‘no’ to the client. Sometimes there are certain policy matters that are beyond the employee's control, but even if the complaint cannot be fully resolved, you have influence.”
Jeannette knew immediately that she wanted to create a blended training program. “Everyone has their own preferred way of learning. With a combination of approaches, you reach everyone faster than if you were to do everything in class or everything online, for example. With online learning, you work individually on your own goals. Of course, groups always include differences in level between individuals and this way means you can discover them in your own way. Then, during the in-person meetings, participants can learn from each other in a group dynamic. This then informs you that you're not the only one who runs into certain issues.”
The program is followed by employees within the bank in different private client groups: daily banking, housing, and advice. The program is followed by some 3,000 employees with direct client contact. To ensure that these people are not removed from work too much and to be able to make a big impact, we opted for part of the training to be online. It takes four months to go through the entire program. “While that seems long, it takes a total of two days. We have chosen to spread it out over a longer period of time in order to really take the time in between to let it sink in and practice,” says Jeannette.
TrainTool is the software of Faculty of Skills. In TrainTool, participants take part in video role plays. They watch a video of a conversation situation and then record their own reaction on video. This response is viewed and provided with feedback by a (smart) coach. The tool also offers space for extra instructional videos, short tests and tips. More than 180,000 employees of organizations and students in the Netherlands and abroad already participate in the online programs. TrainTool is available for use in both a web browser, and in an app for smartphone or tablet.
Faculty of Skills developed the online training program to practice the skills, EarlyBridge organized the live meetings. “I think co-creation is very important because you keep each other focused,” states Jeannette. “In this way, I was sure that I would have the best parties with the most expertise in the different components on board, in order to really achieve behavioral change in the end.” Sustainable behavioral change was an important goal: “You want employees to move from being unconsciously incompetent to being consciously competent. That is not addressed with a single training session or intervention.”
Jeannette sees the program as an investment in ABN AMRO's human capital. “Naturally, people are very important. They are the ones who can turn things around in case of a complaint. A computer or a process cannot recognize whether the client has a complaint, only humans can do that. If you provide people with knowledge and skills, you make positive use of your human capital. You do not want to read in the employee satisfaction survey that the employee feels they are not being invested in, even though they are dealing with aggressive and emotional clients. The employee must be given the tools to be able to work in a way they are comfortable with. After all, if your employees walk out the door, you no longer have a business and you can throw the processes in the bin as well.”
Evaluation according to Kirkpatrick
Informative and fun
Participants of the program give it an average score of 7.5. The feedback from coaches is experienced as very valuable: participants give their coach an average score of 8.6.
review: 8“The test was a realistic situation. A reasonable practical story.”
review: 10“It was nice to be able to do the online scan on my own, so not in a class or with fellow course participants. This gives a better picture.”
review: 8“A great alternative way of training through the digital channel”
Want to know more?
“One of the success factors of this program is the individual customization that we can offer participants. The participants start with a scan and then go through the program for their own client group. The personal coaching has also certainly contributed to the success.”