Clear the air

As a rule of thumb, the more formal the system for lodging complaints, the less accessible it is As a rule of thumb, the more formal the system for lodging complaints, the less accessible it is
Industry Database

Better to be receptive to complaints than to sweep them under the negotiating table, finds Stevie Knight

Ports and operators that say they don’t really get any complaints, only ‘requests’ destined for the negotiating table might just be missing a trick.

It’s true that some port operations are fairly low key, even perhaps lower key than they would really like to be, given the West’s economic problems. So it is tempting to think that if there is lots of room and there isn’t so much in the way of ship waiting times, that everybody will just get on with what is in hand.

No need for formal procedures then, and complaints aren’t something that you should actively go out to solicit… or should you? It seems a number of studies suggest that even in these days of balance sheets and bottoms lines, customers that have actually had a complaint resolved are less likely to leave you than those that haven’t had any complaints at all.

Further, if a complaint does comes up and there is no system to catch it, there are often two, understandable and immediate reactions: one is to play it down, while another is that an individual or a department tries to get on and attempt to fix the issue before anyone else notices. Given people’s wariness of complaints in general, many might think they are better off without a complaints handling system that by its nature means you have to start involving other people.

Dr Kernaghan Webb, associate professor at Ryerson University's Department of Law and Business, explains that this all-too-human reaction means that certain things just don’t happen, like finding other departments that have been caught by the same issue or even opening it up to areas that might have an interest, like HR or accounts.

And then there is the bottleneck issue, when one person takes on the case themselves and says ‘I’ll deal with it’. “Although clients may well have a sense of connection with a familiar face, if it’s down to a single individual and they are not on the case 24/7, you have a problem.”


Setting standards

Dr Webb’s point is that a complaints handling standard like ISO10002 - which he helped develop - makes sense, particularly for port operations which have a number of stakeholders because it opens things up. He explains: “If you run into a problem, and you have a good complaints system not only will you get a resolution to this immediate issue, but the information will ripple back through the organisation.” It’s a learning procedure, he says. “Consider complaints as a form of intelligence-gathering concerning how your organisation can potentially improve.”

There is another side to this: ports have lines as clients, sometimes organisations bigger than they are. So it could be tempting to keep points raised for those important one-to-one sessions. But that ignores the other parties that may be involved.

Semih Akçamli of Marport, Turkey points out that it is not just ‘the lines’ that matter and that there is a lot more going on in the bigger picture: “We assume that as well as the shipping lines, forwarders, Customs brokers and import-export companies are all our customers.”

However, it is fairly obvious that if you are going to respond to individual needs, you have to make it consistent because those individuals have their place inside a very much larger and often complicated workforce, with both overlapping and divergent ideas.

Marport has recently adopted the ISO complaints standard and rather than ‘another procedure’ that sits at the back getting dusty, it seems to be having an impact. Mr Akçamli points to one recent problem that was raised: a lack of comfortable facilities for Customs brokers at the port. This duly got passed through the reporting system and soon a snack food, beverages and copy centre was established.

Further, some issues make for ‘easy wins’: for example shipping lines were not finding it particularly straightforward to read about container moves on the port’s website. So, the team concerned evaluated the request that came through to change the format and completed it pretty much immediately. Life got easier for the lines and the port got more brownie points.


Keep it simple

What is really important, Mr Akçamli says, is making this kind of contact simple: Marport made the procedure as open as possible, so you can sign on to it from a website, kiosk or even a smart phone.

Dr Webb agrees with the sentiment. It is unfortunately all too common for procedures to grow in complexity, especially if no one is keeping an eye on them. “As a rule of thumb, the easier the procedure is for lodging complaints the better,” he says.

So, what about state-run ports? Well, these days of free-flowing communication have had an impact and now for many government agencies and organisations, responsive complaints handling is seen as part of the minimum service standards.

However, not everyone thinks that ISO standards are necessarily appropriate to their own operation. Steve Fisher
 of the
 American Great Lakes Ports Association points out that inside the Great Lakes ports, the different locations actually need different processes. And this is partly, he says, because the members are indeed local public agencies, “so, many are required to behave in a particular way, because of the local state law” and this, he says, wouldn’t necessarily sit well with the imposition of another standard.

More typically, he says, complaints are worked out through relationships and around the negotiating table. He adds, the fact that there’s “a general realisation we don’t live a perfect world” does help.

Dr Webb on the other hand doesn’t see that putting a standard in place like the ISO would get in the way of the negotiating table or anything else. “It doesn’t mean conforming to an unreasonable diktat. All a standard like this says is ‘do it appropriately, do it promptly, do it consistently, make sure people have the training’. An appropriate response might simply mean that the negotiating table is one of your resources.”


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