Our Thoughts

Black Box Thinking and Complaints

26th February 2018

It's a cliché that we should think of complaints as a gift. They're an opportunity to fix a customer's problem, and potentially even wow them with our response. Why, then, are so few companies genuinely good at receiving, letting alone responding to, complaints?

"I think the actions of almost all marketers say, 'we'd rather you were happy, but if you can't be happy, please go away.'" - Seth Godin

There are lots of things which make complaint handling hard, but a reluctance to listen in the first place is an important challenge for most businesses. Why? When Matthew Syed spoke at our conference in 2015, he outlined some ideas from his then forthcoming book "Black Box Thinking".


In a nutshell, Syed argues that successful businesses and people have a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. One of the characteristics of this is embracing failure as an opportunity to learn. In particular it requires systematic and obsessive recording and analysis of all errors in order to learn from them.

The Black Box comes, of course, from safety in the aviation industry, an area in which failures have particularly catastrophic consequences. To do Black Box thinking well you need to avoid blame, and encourage total honesty. You're looking for systemic ways to avoid similar problems in the future, not for an explanation. If the pilot made a mistake, we need to think about how to redesign our systems so that it's much harder to make the same mistake again.

That perspective is exactly what organisations need when it comes to complaints. Encourage staff throughout the business to log as many problems, errors, and complaints as possible. Analyse them carefully for root causes, not to explain what went wrong, but in order to design ways to make the problem less likely in the future.

That shift in mindset is vital to get away from a blame culture into one that is deliberately using complaints to design better experiences for customers.

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