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HomemibusinessHandling Customer Complaints

Handling Customer Complaints

If customer complaints are an inevitable by-product of providing any service or product and the optometric industry is by no means immune. Refractive care frequently requires consumers to purchase expensive optical products and their quality of life is influenced by the eye care services provided.

The NSW Optometrist’s Registration Board has identified service dissatisfaction as the most common consumer complaint made against optometrists.1 This includes concerns about fees, excessive testing, perfunctory eye examinations, withholding contact lens prescriptions and the accuracy of optical appliance prescriptions.

Customer grievances may also relate to an optometrist’s professional conduct.1 While preventative measures should be implemented to reduce the number of complaints, it is imperative to recognise that their complete absence is unobtainable and – more importantly – undesirable. A successful optometric practice is not one in which there are no complaints as this suggests dissatisfied customers are being lost to competitors.2 Rather, it is a practice where both the customer and the optometrist benefit when a complaint is dealt with effectively.

Why Do Customers Complain?

Customers perceive optometrists to be leaders and experts in eye care.3 They expect optometrists to provide a superior service through their knowledge of the latest optical technology and sound medical advice. Complaints arise when your customers feel these expectations are not met. While an optometrist will assess service quality in terms of their clinical skills,4 customers base their judgment on things they can understand.4,5 This includes clarity of vision through their new prescription, whether their new optical correction arrives on time, the proficiency in explaining their condition or management plan, the quality of any referrals and how a practice deals with their complaints.4,5

Customers perceive optometrists to be leaders and experts in eye care.They expect optometrists to provide a superior service through their knowledge of the latest optical technology and sound medical advice.

Complaints Are Good

Service Recovery

The process of dealing with consumer complaints is frequently termed service recovery;6,7 the recovered business and services of existing customers.

Service recovery reduces a practice’s marketing expenses as attracting new customers is five times more expensive than retaining existing customers.8,9 Furthermore, long-term customers are willing to pay premium fees as they benefit from the sense of security and continuity of care obtained from an ongoing relationship with an optometrist who understands their ocular history and personal needs.10 It should be no surprise that long term customer relationships are the foundation of every successful serviceoriented business.8

Unfortunately, 70 per cent of dissatisfied customers will go to a competing practice rather than return and complain.5 However, statistically, 70 per cent of complainants will conduct future transactions with the same practice if they perceive their complaints are successfully resolved, and 95 per cent of these will become loyal customers.11 Therefore, it makes sense to welcome complaints!

Referral Generation

Market research shows that most referrals are generated by superior service rather than practice promotions and advertising.12 Most customers rely on the recommendations of their family and friends when choosing an optometric practice.8 Sadly, dissatisfied customers are more vocal than happy ones, relaying their experience to an average of 18 people while satisfied customers tell only 4.5 people.

Refined Services, Improved Products

Over the past three decades the number of optometrists has increased threefold, causing the patient quota per optometrist to more than halve,14 and corporate optometry has continued to grow and dominate.4 Increased competition has driven higher expectations amongst consumers6 and, as a result, makes it more difficult to satisfy their needs. However, complaints can lead to greater customer satisfaction – that’s because they highlight opportunities to improve your service which could also benefit the practice economically, reduce wastage, warranty and liability costs.

Complaint Resolution

Customers may not always be right, but their perception is, and their complaints will

only benefit your practice if they are dealt with effectively. Given that each customer’s complaint is unique, there is no simple formula to rectify all situations, however there are fundamental principles of complaint resolution that should always be employed (see Figure 1).

Always Apologise

As a rule a consumer accepts that problems or mistakes occur but can be particularly judgmental of how a practice responds to their grievance.6,7 Their perception of the quality and integrity of a practice is predominantly based on the first words uttered by the staff immediately following a complaint.15 Therefore, it is imperative that these words always contain a sincere apology.7,15

Be Proactive

Consumers should be rewarded when returning to a practice as research shows that if they lodge a complaint to the Consumer Affairs or the Health Care Complaints Commission, the outcome is likely to be in their favour.1,11,13 Complaint resolution is most effective when the consumer is asked how they would like their grievance to be resolved and when the optometrist offers the customer compensation such as a discount on future purchases.6

Display Empathy

No matter how insignificant a grievance may seem, customers must feel their complaint is being taken seriously and its resolution is the priority. Using empathetic statements such as “tell me more about it so I can help you to the best of my ability” are important.7 The optometrist should remain attentive and avoid asking unnecessary questions to demonstrate that they are listening to the customer’s concerns.7,11,15

Communication is Key

After the customer has voiced their complaint in its entirety without interruption it is important for the optometrist to show “complete understanding and agreement that the situation is intolerable and that a sincere “use reassuring phrases such as ‘I’ll get to the bottom of this’ rather than ‘Sorry, it’s our policy’…” effort will be made to correct the problem or at least learn from it”.15

Positive body language – such as eye contact, nodding and avoiding barriers such as counters and folded arms – is important, and will make an optometrist appear friendlier and approachable.7,17

Optometrists should confidently and positively verbalise that a complaint can be resolved and use reassuring phrases such as “I’ll get to the bottom of this” rather than “Sorry, it’s our policy”.17 Excuses will antagonise the customer as will delays if customers are not kept informed of the rectification process.

Verbal communication is even more important if the complaint is made by phone. After politely listening and documenting all the necessary information, it would be helpful for the optometrist to reassure the complainant by saying “We will get to the bottom of this and call you (within a specified time frame)”.

Customers should never have to wait long for a return call or be put on hold for extended periods. Furthermore, any instructions given should be specific and a time frame only promised if the optometrist is certain that resolution is obtainable.

Effective communication is also necessary to resolve complaints caused by other parties, including other practices or suppliers. This way, all parties benefit as the customer’s complaint is resolved, the prescribing optometrist or supplier is given the opportunity to correct their error and the dispensing practice retains the sale.11

A Systematic Approach

A systematic approach, to consumer complaints, beginning with consideration of the cause, is essential. This improves the optometrist’s chance of resolving the issue and shows the consumer that their complaint is addressed immediately.7

When the underlying cause of the complaint is found, the optometrist should still systematically re-check other aspects of the spectacles to rule out the possibility that the complainant’s dissatisfaction has arisen from multiple causes.7

Remain in Control

If the customer is emotional about their complaint it is important to be calm and remain in control. Try and prevent the situation from blowing out of control as escalated situations are more difficult to resolve.15 It is important to recognise that the complainant may just be venting, and their anger may not be purposefully directed towards the practitioner.11

Remaining calm and speaking rationally may help the customer regain their composure.15 When placating the customer, the grievance should never be trivialised 7 and phrases such as “it’s just a scratch” or “the frame is only a little bent” should be avoided.

On the rare occasion when a customer becomes irrational during complaint resolution, the optometrist should seek the advice of the Optometrists Association of Australia because although they are obliged to provide a reasonable standard of care to the customer, they also have a duty of care to themselves.11

Customer Follow-Up

Customers should be contacted one to two weeks following complaint resolution to ensure the solution still satisfies their needs. Customers should always be made to feel welcome to return if they are not completely satisfied. This technique portrays the optometrist as caring and the consumer is assured of their importance to the practice.7

Preventing Complaints

Documenting consumer complaints enables a practice to continually monitor the quality of its products and services 8 and implement strategies to prevent recurrence. Regular staff meetings should be held to share experiences or role-play a complaint situation and brainstorm plausible resolutions. In addition, appropriate customer education to ensure realistic expectations, pre-emptively reduces the number of complaints6. Concl usion All complaints should be seen as valuable assets. Ultimately, effectively resolved customer complaints lead to refined practice service, improved products and strengthened customer-practice relationships from which both parties can benefit.


1. Craigie C, Davis J. NSW Optometrists Registrations Board Annual Report for the Year Ended 30 June 2009, submitted 16 October 2009.

2. Werner DL, Press LJ. Clinical Pearls in Refractive Care. Boston: Butterworth- Heinemann, 2002.

3. Gleave H, Saunders J. Professional Optometry Lecture 12 August 2010: Leadership for Today and Tomorrow.

4. The Optical Distributors and Manufacturers Association of Australia Ltd. An Analysis of the Australian Eyewear Industry. Melbourne: F. R. Perry and Associates Pty Ltd, 2007.

5. Hanks AJ. The Optometry Team: Development Manual for Support Staff in Optometry Practices. 3rd ed. Port Macquarie: AV Graphics, 2004.

6. Gailmard NB. Management Review: A Wrong Can Make a Right. Review of Optometry November 2000.

7. Gailmard NB. Effective Service Recovery Strategies. mivision: Australian and New Zealand Edition 2009; 37: 62-63.

8. Moss GL, Shaw-McMinn PG. Eyecare Business: Marketing and Strategy. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2001.

9. Sonnenberg FK. Service Quality: Forethought, Not Afterthought. Journal of Business Strategy Sept-Oct 1989; 54-57.

10. Gailmard NB et al. What Eye Care Patients Expect. Optometric Management March 2006.

11. Jackson L, McKinnon A. Professional Optometry Lecture 19 August 2010: Dealing with Difficult Patients Out in the Real World.

12. Tscholhl J. How to succeed in business by really trying. Canadian Manager 1997; 22(1): 22-23.

13. Judge slams Merringtons optical group. Melbourne Observer 30th January 2008, 8.

14. Horton P et al. The Australian Optometric Workforce 2005. Clinical and Experimental Optometry 2006; 89(4): 229-240.

15. Gailmard NB. Management Tip of the Week #340: Service Recovery. Optometric Management August 2008.

16. Committee OB-009 Complaints Handling. Customer Satisfaction – Guidelines for Complaints Handling in Organizations (AS ISO 10002 – 2006). Standards Australia 2006.

17. Gleave H, Saunders J. Professional Optometry Lecture 5 August 2010: Communication Skills.