A complaint is a gift

complaintAs a church pastor, I can tell you there are few things more discouraging than complaints. We tend to feel under attack and immediately break into defence mode. “How dare they criticise my preaching!” “What would you know about the pressures of trying to organise and run a church?!” “They complain about us not being friendly, but they don’t make an effort!” “It’s not my fault!!!” Maybe we could do with a fresh perspective.

A complaint is a gift, written by Janelle Barlow and Claus Moller, is a helpful challenge to rethink complaints. I read the first edition of this book over a decade ago and found it liberating and empowering. Since this time the forum for complaints has gone ballistic. A tweet, facebook comment, or blog post can destroy a product or business. Word-of-mouth can go viral, quickly becoming ‘world-of-mouth’ in a matter of minutes – just witness the current Koni video. The second edition of this book (2007) takes account of these kind of changes, incorporates ‘complaints’ and feedback from the first edition, brings us up to date, and introduces suggestions about how to make complaints, how not take them personally, and how to use the internet constructively.

What is a complaint? Fundamentally, it is a statement about expectations that have not been met. But more importantly, it is an opportunity for the organisation, business, or church in our case, to make some helpful changes. This book calls upon us to redefine complaints as gifts. This will require us to separate the message from the medium. We must distance the content of the complaint from the emotion of being blamed. In other words, we shouldn’t take things so personally!

This will mean gaining empathy for the disappointed people and rethinking how complaints can help us to move forward as a church. The very fact that they made the effort to complain indicates some level of commitment to us. Many will only grumble to others or simply walk away. We’d do well to put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine that what they are complaining about had happened to you. How would you react? What would need to happen for you to be satisfied?

This book warns against a strategy of reducing the number of complaints. Complaints can be avoided by closing down lines of communication. But all this does is bury problems and maintain the poor state of affairs. Instead, we need to create opportunities for feedback. We can do surveys from time to time, but they will never adequately reflect the levels of dissatisfaction. Such people are unlikely to wait for the next survey to air their complaints. Maybe they’ve already walked away in frustration.

Churches, like businesses, depend heavily on word-of-mouth advertising. The way we handle complaints will work for or against us. People are much more likely to believe a friendly recommendation than formal advertising. If we handle complaints well it can be a powerful source of positive word-of-mouth. On the other hand, the more dissatisfied people become, the more likely they are to spread bad news. I couldn’t tell you many times we’ve had people turn up at our church, saying things like “I used to go to… but I left there because…” And I’m sure there are plenty who’ve left our church, headed elsewhere, and told a similar story. So much movement and pain could probably have been avoided if we’d done a better job of listening to complaints.

While written with the business sector in mind, this book has value to a much wider audience. The issues raised are relevant for personal relationships, resolving conflict, and improving communication. At a time when people are craving connection, pleading to be heard and understood, churches and their leaders would do well to take notice. While some will read the book and be motivated by the desire to increase profits, pastors should read it with a regard to people’s souls.

A complaint is a gift (2nd ed.) is divided into three parts.

The first part, Complaints: Lifeline to the customer, examines the strategy for developing a positive mindset toward those who complain. It helps us to understand what is going on when someone complains, and how they are likely to respond when they are not satisfied.

The second part, Putting the complaint as a gift strategy into practice, focuses on how to handle complaints well. It develops an 8 step gift formula for keeping our words and actions consistent with our beliefs that the complaint is a gift:

  1. Say “thankyou.”
  2. Explain why you appreciate the complaint.
  3. Apologise for the mistake.
  4. Promise to do something about the problem immediately.
  5. Ask for necessary information.
  6. Correct the mistake – promptly.
  7. Check customer satisfaction.
  8. Prevent future mistakes.

The final part, Dishing it out and taking it in: the personal side of complaints, is new to this edition. It is a helpful addition, broadening the scope and value of this way of thinking into other areas of life. There is good stuff here for strengthening marriages and other personal relationships.

This is probably not a book that many church leaders would think to add to their libraries. You probably wouldn’t buy it to help resolve conflict with your neighbour or a work colleague. I doubt you’d be impressed if I recommended it for strengthening your relationships with your spouse or children. However, this book offers practical help for all these scenarios.

Of course, there is another book that has contained this wisdom and more for centuries. It hasn’t been revised or improved, but then it doesn’t need to be. Check out these gems:

He who listens to a life giving rebuke will be at home among the wise. Proverbs 15:31

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1

A mocker resents correction; he will not consult the wise. Proverbs 15:12

Whoever gives heed to instruction prospers, and blessed is he who trust in the LORD. Proverbs 16:20

Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:24

However, it’s not just the head that needs to change, it’s our hearts. The temptation is often there to take things personally out of pride, or to get defensive because we want to look good before others, or to blame others because we don’t want to confront our own selfishness. What we really need is for God to renovate our hearts and minds, to transform us from the inside out. When you read the gospels about Jesus, you can see how he modelled and taught that genuine humility is the key to relationship with others. Christians have a special reason to listen and respond well to others. As it says in Philippians 2:

1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

2 thoughts on “A complaint is a gift”

  1. A very thought provoking review. I’d be interested to read it . I remember Your Grandad and Nanna often reminding us about “a soft answer turning away wrath.” And “don’t let the devil get a foothold”
    How easily we can try to justify ourselves rather than see legitimacy in others ‘criticisms’. I appreciate your blogs Love and blessings, Chris K- the aunt not the cousin1

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