Customer Service Manual - Section 5 : Complaints : When things go wrong, dealing with and preventing complaints

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In this section

Complaints - When things go wrong, dealing with and preventing complaints

Introduction

Approaching Complainants in a positive way

Attitude to a complaint

Dealing with Complaints – Principles and Procedures

Foreword

Recognising a complaint

How to handle a situation where something has gone wrong

Communication with the customer

Admission of errors, particularly on matters of valuation judgement

The question of financial redress (compensation)

Action if an error affects customers other than the complainant

Complaints made verbally

Complaint handling at Group / Unit level

Foreword

Procedures

Receipt and Registration

Acknowledging Complaints

Investigation

Replying to complaints

Approach to be adopted

Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes

Customers’ use of words

Providing a Full Response

Content

Taking the Complaint Further

Complaints Passed on by Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of the Devolved Legislature (MDLs) or Members of European Parliament (MEPs)

Complaints about Government Policy

Further Advice

Financial Redress

Policy

Lessons to be learned

Complaints made to others: providing reports and drafts to CEO

Avenues for complaints

Reports and Drafts

Complaints made to the Chief Executive's Office

Complaints to a Minister

Reports

Communicating with the taxpayer

Complaints to the Adjudicator

Reports

The Adjudicator's investigation

Complaints to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Complaints about Local Authorities

Complaints requiring Valuation Office Agency assistance

Enquiries Received From the Parties

What CEO does on receipt of a complaint

Action to be taken by the GCSM if contacted

The Parliamentary Ombudsman's investigation

Learning from Complaints

Recording Complaints Consistently

Taking Action

Giving feedback on the action taken to complaints, service users and staff.

Complaints - When things go wrong, dealing with and preventing complaints

Introduction

The Valuation Office Agency (VOA) is committed to providing a high standard of service to its customers. These include taxpayers, ratepayers, council taxpayers, claimants, right to buy applicants and other members of the public. If anything has gone wrong with that service we need to:

  • identify what has gone wrong
  • put it right quickly and effectively
  • apologise
  • consider whether financial redress is appropriate; and
  • consider whether there is anything to be learned from the problem.

Even when it seems nothing has gone wrong, if a complaint is made we need to examine it thoroughly and provide a full response which recognises the complainant's concerns.

This part of the Manual is divided into the following sections:

  • Approaching complainants in a positive manner
  • Dealing with and preventing complaints
  • Complaints; and Cases where no complaint has been made, but something has gone wrong
  • Complaints made to others: providing reports and drafts
  • Information about the way complaints might be pursued, and what is required in the way of reports for complaints handled by others, and the procedures to follow in these cases. Checklists and examples of good and bad responses to complaints. Making use of the information from complaints, How to record complaints and provide constructive feedback
  • Learning from Complaints

Mandatory procedures are highlighted in italics to make them easier to identify (as is the definition of a complaint which needs to be used consistently in every office).

Approaching Complainants in a positive way

Attitude to a complaint

Handling a complaint in a good way will bring benefits by improving our relationship with customers; and saving time and resources spent on protracted disputes.

In addition, complaints can help us to identify issues, which need to be put right, or areas where there is scope for improvement. They might also highlight areas of work were we need to take care or avoid repeating. In these ways, we can reduce the likely numbers of complaints in the future.

We should treat our customers in the way we would like to be treated. Never adopt a grudging or adversarial attitude, when dealing with complaints, and do apologise and admit a mistake when applicable. In fact, when a complaint is made, our first reaction should be to apologise and say we are sorry for the upset or concern caused. It is very important that we look at the complaint from the point of view of the customer. Find out what the customer wants – asking open, exploratory and probing questions in a customer focused way, is an important part of dealing effectively with customer complaints:

  • this is to enable you to understand what the problem is
  • also why it is a problem to the customer
  • additionally what action the customer believes is required to resolve the problem for them

Politely explaining what you will do next will often defuse/diffuse the situation rather than acting defensively or trying to show why it is not justified. Remember the easiest way to turn a mild expression of dissatisfaction into something more serious is to deny that there is any ground for dissatisfaction, or to apologise in a grudging way.

Always adopt a positive attitude towards complaints. Our aim is to get everything "right first time", but in a large business like ours, dealing with millions of customers, things can go wrong and therefore, we must ensure that we deal with complaints in a professional and timely manner and learn from them. We need to accept immediately that the customer is concerned about something, and see what we can do about it - even if all we can do is give a clear explanation and / or apologise for any misunderstanding. This should be absolutely fundamental to our approach. And if something has gone wrong, we need to take extra care in subsequent contacts with the complainant(s).

Handling complaints in this way actually saves time, which would otherwise be spent in disputing the complaint, writing reports for the Chief Executive's Office, the Adjudicator, etc and should be seen as something which reflects well on our performance.

Promoting a positive environment for the handling of complaints is one of the roles of the Group Customer Service Managers (GCSM) here are a few suggestions on how to go about it:

  • ensuring that good handling of complaints is reflected in performance agreements - both your own and those of staff
  • handling complaints well yourself, so that staff will learn from you
  • making sure that training in complaints handling, and inter-personal skills generally, is available for staff who deal with the public
  • allowing staff to see that complaints can lead to improvements: if a complaint highlights a training need, or a defective procedure, do something about the problem
  • where a complaint refers to the actions of a particular member of staff, involve that person in preparing the response, even if you are going to sign it, stressing that complaints should primarily lead to corrective action, rather than apportioning blame.
  • ensuring that complaints are seen as one more aspect of customer feedback - keep a "compliments" file as well as details of complaints, and encourage circulation of positive feedback
  • making it clear that recognising something has gone wrong and apologising is not "being soft" or "letting the side down"

Dealing with Complaints – Principles and Procedures

Foreword

It is the responsibility of the Agency's Group Customer Service Managers (GCSMs) to take the lead in dealing with, and preventing, complaints. However, all staff should be fully aware of the procedures adopted, and of the benefits to the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) of good complaint handling, as they are likely to be involved in assisting the GCSMs.

A brief guide to making a complaint, and our complaints Code of Practice (COP) is set out in our leaflet 'Putting things right for you'. The Customer Service Team provides additional specific training, support and advice to the GCSMs.

Recognising a complaint

Any expression of dissatisfaction, however made, about our standards of service, our actions, or the lack of action, which affects an individual customer, group of customers or our clients – that is, any case where we know the customer feels aggrieved – should be treated as a complaint. Complaints can be made in writing, in person, by fax, by telephone or by e-mail.

A request, within a complaint, for information should be treated as a separate issue. Consider your duty of confidentiality to any taxpayer, under Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 Section 18 (1), and the implications of Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Data Protection Act 1998 when responding / replying.

How to handle a situation where something has gone wrong

Communication with the customer

Whenever something has gone wrong, and regardless of whether a complaint has been made, as soon as possible the customer should be given:

  • a clear and succinct explanation of what has caused the problem. If this is a mistake, delay or oversight you must not hesitate to say so but avoid jargon about the Agency’s procedures and systems. [The Plain English Section of the Manual includes a glossary of commonly used jargon, with plain English alternatives]
  • an apology; and
  • information on what will happen as a result. This should cover both
  • what will happen in that particular case. No action at all may be appropriate - but you should still keep the taxpayer informed
  • if it is appropriate, what will happen more generally as a result of a complaint or the discovery of a mistake. For example, a complaint might reveal a need to change - or at least review - a procedure; provide training on a particular aspect; or pass a suggestion to a colleague responsible for a particular area; e.g. regarding the design of a form. Here, too, you should tell the taxpayer what you propose to do

You should not attempt to put a mistake right without informing the customer what you are planning to do and why you are doing it. If, for example, the customer receives a reduced rating assessment, out of the blue, he or she may well be justifiably aggrieved at not being told what is happening. Even if the revision is in the customer’s favour, we need to explain it - preferably in a separate letter to the customer - and we also need to apologise for not "getting it right first time", or if there has been a delay.

Admission of errors, particularly on matters of valuation judgement

We must exercise caution when it is alleged that an error has occurred. Before any admission is made special care should be taken, particularly in relation to valuations (e.g. rating assessments or council tax valuation bands) to establish beyond any doubt that an error has been made. Matters involving valuation judgements, particularly when a claim for negligence has been made, should not be admitted as errors, and the papers should be referred to the CEO Customer Service Team for advice.

The question of financial redress (compensation)

In addition to putting mistakes right (where possible) and apologising, you should consider whether financial redress might be appropriate. Financial redress is appropriate if we have made an error, caused unreasonable delay or given misleading information. The VOA will reimburse any reasonable additional costs that the customer has incurred as a direct result of our error or delay.

In addition, in exceptional circumstances we will pay compensation for worry and distress or poor complaint handling (known as botheration). These payments are not on a par with payments awarded as damages by the High Court, but they are token payments to recognise the inconvenience and anxiety our actions have caused the customer.

When something has gone wrong, and it is clear that the complainant is seeking financial redress (even if he or she has implied, rather than specifically expressed, this desire) you should consider whether this remedy is appropriate. It is not our policy to offer compensation unless it is clear from the complainant this is what they are seeking or there is a clear evidence of a quantifiable loss. All payments made under our Code of Practice (on mistakes) are on an ex-gratia basis because there is no statutory requirement for the Agency to award compensation.

Further guidance on financial redress is given in the Financial Redress Handbook, produced by HM Revenue and Customs, (contact the Customer Service Team if you wish to discuss).

Action if an error affects customers other than the complainant

If we have made an error, and other customers are likely to be affected, we need to take all reasonable steps to put matters right for them too. When you think others may be affected by an error, including an error caused by systems faults and deficiencies, you should inform the GCSM so that he or she can take the appropriate action. The GCSM will need to notify the Group Valuation Officer / District Valuer / Business Unit Leader and/or seek advice from the Customer Service Team at CEO.

If we provide financial redress to a complainant, it does not follow that we should offer such redress to other customers who are similarly affected. We may inform the others of the mistake and draw their attention to our leaflet 'Putting things right for you'. The taxpayer can then decide whether to make a claim for compensation.

Complaints made verbally

If the customer tells you in person, or over the telephone, that something has gone wrong, good listening and verbal communication skills are very important. You need to let the customer know from the start that you are concerned and that the problem will be taken seriously. In some cases, you may need to encourage customers to tell us something which causes them concern, or what it is they actually want us to do to resolve the matter. They may need reassurance that they will not be disadvantaged or victimised because they have complained. The message to put across is that complaints are a useful way of identifying problems and that we are committed to putting them right.

See Section 7 on dealing with difficult customers for advice on how to deal with particularly difficult situations that can arise when a complaint is made in person or by telephone.

Complaint handling at Group / Unit level

Foreword

GCSMs are not responsible for dealing with and responding to all complaints. Sometimes complaints will be handled best by someone familiar with the case, (the caseworker), or with the technical knowledge to provide answers that are not within the remit of the GCSM e.g. team leaders. On some occasions complaints will be handled perfectly well without the need to involve the GCSM at all. However, whether the GCSM is involved or not, all complaints must be logged, and for this reason the GCSM will need to be made aware and kept informed.

Inevitably there will be times when the case is not straightforward and advice from team leaders /technical advisor and/or GCSMs will need to be sought. The team leader/technical advisor will need to be consulted about technical issues, for instance whether legislation has been interpreted correctly, and where clarification is required, he or she will be able to call on the CEO technical adviser for the Group. The team leader will also have an interest in complaint cases from a management and development perspective as they may highlight procedural problems or training needs in the team. The GCSM should advise on the implementation of the Code of Practice, other customer service issues, compensation claims and the style of response.

In handling complaints common sense must prevail and the most effective approach will always be supportive teamwork and good liaison with all parties. In more complicated cases the GCSM will be expected to coordinate the complaints investigation and ensure that all concerns have been addressed in the response.

In order to gather the necessary information, the GCSM may request a full written report from the caseworker concerned, or choose to interview various staff to get a good picture of what has happened. In either case he or she should be given full cooperation and timely assistance from the staff involved.

Procedures

Receipt and Registration

Every written complaint should be passed to the GCSM on date of receipt (by fax / scan). He/she will register the complaint as a case on CCR. Verbal complaints should be recorded on CCR and the reference number provided. For further information on CCR see Customer Services Administration.

Acknowledging Complaints

The GCSM should ensure the complaint is acknowledged promptly and courteously, either by telephone, fax, first class post or e-mail (although preferably in writing utilising the CCR template). Our target is to acknowledge all complaints received within 3 working days and a copy of the leaflet ‘Putting things right for you’ should be enclosed (or if appropriate refer to our website) with the letter of acknowledgement. It may be helpful to telephone and establish personal contact at the outset, if customers are frustrated at dealing with what they see as a bureaucratic machine, this may help reassure them. Acknowledgements must be recorded in CCR.

Investigation

Generally, the GCSM will request the papers and a report on the complaint from the team leader / caseworker involved in the matter in order to carry out the investigation. It is usual for all investigations to be undertaken by the GCSM, although there might be occasions when the GVO / DV considers it appropriate that he / she is involved, in which case close liaison with the GCSM is required. The investigation should be thorough and carried out in the context of our Code of Practice on mistakes – as set out in the leaflet ‘Putting things right for you’ and, accordingly, it should identify any ‘errors’ made by VOA or any ‘unreasonable delays’ we have caused. GCSMs can seek guidance / advice from the CEO (CST).

Replying to complaints

The GCSM (or GVO / DV/ team leader) should send a full response to a complaint in line with our standards for complaint handling as set out in ‘Putting things right for you’ and the guidance given in Customer Services Administration. You may want to use the telephone, particularly in less complicated cases, or arrange an appointment in the office or at the customer's home. This personal touch is a good way of re-establishing communication and is often appreciated by customers. If you do this, you should always:

  • clearly record all events and note the content of all conversations with the customer so that there is no scope for confusion or misunderstanding later and that another member of staff will be aware of how the case has progressed so far, particularly if another visit is required, for example if the GCSM realises during the visit that a full inspection will be necessary before the matter can be resolved. A copy of the record of the conversation can be provided to the taxpayer if requested
  • write to the customer confirming any apology or explanation given, and any action agreed; and enclose the booklet ‘Putting things right for you
  • if the customer has made it clear that he or she does not want a letter, make a note of the telephone call, recording whether an apology or explanation was given, and any action agreed

Full and interim replies to complaints should be registered on the Customer Contact Record (CCR) database.

A case should not be closed until the GCSM has confirmed that all necessary action has been taken. The closure of a case should be recorded on the complaints database.

Approach to be adopted

Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes

It is essential to take a step back and look at things from the customer's point of view. In most cases, the complaint has been made because the customer perceives that something is wrong. The reason for that perception may be that:

  • something did go wrong
  • someone did not follow the correct procedures
  • the correct procedures were followed, but they were not the right procedures from the customer's point of view
  • there was an unreasonable delay
  • the customer may be unhappy with the law, or our interpretation of it, on a particular matter
  • the customer may not have understood our forms or letters

or

  • there may have been some other breakdown in communication

If you can put yourself into the customer’s shoes you will produce a reply which is appropriate, and which answers the points in language the customer can understand.

The complaint may arise because of a seemingly intractable problem or difference of opinion. Always try to stand back, look at the issues afresh, and see whether there is:

  • some way of reaching a solution which is fair to this customer and to customers generally
  • a different way of explaining the issues

Remember you should fully understand what the customer is unhappy about before you start to prepare your response. Otherwise the reply may miss the point of the complaint altogether!

In your reply, it is a good idea to start with a short summary of the complaint in your own words. This shows that you have understood the customer's concerns and focuses the response.

Customers’ use of words

Sometimes our customers use words that can have a general meaning but also, for those of us in the VOA, a specific meaning do not get confused! It is always worthwhile asking for (or consider providing) clarification of what the customer means or understands. An example of this is an appeal. A council tax payer says that they want to appeal against a decision, what they really mean, from our perspective, is that they wish to complain about the way their appeal has been handled. They have been told that, because the dispute is not about their banding or because the banding has become final, they have no right of appeal. But the customer does have the right to have the case looked at by someone else as, in the way we have handled their concerns, as set out in our complaints procedure.

When something has gone wrong, your response should contain an apology, a clear explanation and information as to what will happen as a result, as outlined above (communication with the customer). When your investigations can find no mistake or unreasonable delay following a complaint, use the opportunity, if you can, to provide a customer-focused response, which acknowledges the customer's point of view or concern.

Providing a Full Response

Content

Ensure that the response addresses all the customer's concerns, as it will only mean more work when they contact you / us again. So ask yourself “has the whole of the case been reviewed comprehensively?” Check the accuracy of the facts and of your reply.

There will be occasions were you discover mistakes and address them - the customer may appreciate the thoroughness of your review, particularly if they are in the customer's favour.

Equally, your review may disclose errors on the customer's part, if you do discover errors by the customer:

  • only refer to them if they are relevant to the issues raised. Do not attempt to counterbalance our mistakes by pointing out (small) errors made by the customer
  • remember the customer's mistakes do not justify ours: you need to apologise for any error on our part, or misunderstandings, regardless of whether the customer has made mistakes too

It cannot be stressed enough to make sure you have replied to all the points raised.

If you focus on the needs of the complainant you will be aware of the type of reply that will be most appropriate. It is important to avoid explaining things using VOA jargon which is simple for you to understand, as you use it every day, but the customer will not understand them.

It is important to make sure that any staff, and possibly their team leader, is involved in the complaint. This includes the preparation of the response. It is also good practice to allow the staff and his / her line manager to comment on the factual content of the draft reply. They may clarify something which could be misunderstood, and gives them the opportunity to pass on apologies, if appropriate.

So you should:

  • use plain English and do not use jargon. There is guidance on the Agency’s “house style” which covers dates, monetary units and numbers, metrication, layout etc.
  • use active verbs, "I am sorry we made a mistake" is better than "I am sorry a mistake was made" or worse still " It is regrettable that a mistake was made". Using the passive can give the impression that we are trying to avoid responsibility
  • do not use expressions that may unintentionally suggest that we are trying to avoid blame. "I am sorry you found it necessary to complain" can be misinterpreted in this way. "I am sorry that things went wrong" is clearer
  • if it is essential to refer to law, use plain English and mention the Act, by its full title, in brackets
  • A good rule is that you should try not to write anything you would not say to someone’s face for example say "Thank you for your letter of...." not "I am in receipt of..."; and say "I am sorry", rather than "Please accept my apologies"

Points to Watch:

  • When dealing with customers, remember you are dealing with behaviours, policies and issues. Never criticise others personally, including colleagues, other Departments, or the Government
  • Where more than one office is involved in a complaint issue, and the VOA has done something wrong, the member of staff who receives the complaint should either
  • apologise on behalf of the VOA and not attribute blame; or
  • pass the complaint on to the office which made the mistake so that they can apologise
  • Do not say to the customer that the complaint is nothing to do with you or your office: the customer is simply concerned with the Valuation Office, or in some cases with HMRC as a whole
  • Never write unnecessary comments, even in pencil, on customers’ letters. Subjective comments can unfairly prejudice people who look at the file including the customer. The Adjudicator has criticised HMRC for this, particularly when the pencilled comments were derogatory
  • A small number of complainants pursue the same issue repetitively in letters. A point comes where no purpose is usefully served by continuing to reply. But if you decide not to reply in such cases, always make sure that you follow the guidance contained in Section 7
  • If you wish to quote legislation in a reply consider placing the relevant sections in a separate Appendix, and refer to this, rather than pepper them throughout the reply

Further guidance on writing letters in reply to complaints is given in the section on writing letters and plain English. The CEO Customer Service Team also gives training on complaint handling. The Learning Team has produced e-Learning on Grammar and Punctuation

Taking the Complaint Further

Always explain to the customer what they can do next if they are not satisfied with your response, even if, in your view, the complaint is unjustified. Customers are entitled to receive a fair hearing and a courteous reply, without regard of the merits of the case, their motives for complaining or their perceived behaviour. The exception is when the complainant is identified as a persistent or vexatious complainant. Guidance on this issue can be found in the section dealing with difficult customers.

Remember there are different procedures, dependant on what the concerns are, for example a complaint about a valuation / council tax valuation band will need to be considered having regards to the proposal / appeal / review measures. In other cases, the customer can contact The Customer Service Team at the Chief Executive’s Office (CST). If the customer is dissatisfied with the reply from the Chief Executive’s Office Customer Service Team, he or she can take the matter to, the Adjudicator. In addition, at any stage, the customer can contact an MP, or the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman through an MP. However CST, Adjudicator and Ombudsman will have regard to the Agency’s complaints procedure if a customer approaches them direct and also give guidance on what they will and will not investigate .

The addresses, together with advice for the complainant, are contained in the VOA Charters complaints procedure as set out in our Code of Practice on mistakes in the leaflet, “Putting things right for you”. These are available on our website and may be available as leaflets.

Complaints Passed on by Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of the Devolved Legislature (MDLs) or Members of European Parliament (MEPs)

Group Valuation Officers (GVO) / District Valuers (DV) receive letters from MPs, MDLs and MEPs which contain no complaint but are more in the nature of an enquiry. The GVO / DV has the authority to deal with these cases and the matter may be dealt with in the ordinary course of office correspondence.

Any complaints received direct from a Member should be registered on CCR. If the GCSM / GVO / DV wish to consult the CEO (CST) before responding a background report will be necessary to assist CEO (CST) in understanding the facts of the case unless these are clear from the draft reply. Where a complaint concerns the conduct of, or action by, an individual, whether he or she is an employee of the Agency or not, no steps should be taken to deal with the matter without CEO (Human Resources) first being consulted.

Complaint letters should be answered promptly, accurately and courteously but with care, bearing in mind that the substance of the complaint and the reply may well be raised in a Parliamentary Question or debate.

Business Heads and / or Team Leaders must personally ensure that replies to Members are dealt with at the appropriate level. If there are any concerns about the approach to be adopted in drafting your reply consult your GCSM. It is helpful to let Members have a spare copy of the reply to pass on to the constituent. You should frame your response with that in mind.

You can normally assume that the customer, by writing to a Member, has given implied consent to that Member to receive all relevant information about the concerns raised. For further guidance take a look at HMRC IDG52500. If, exceptionally, the correspondence implies that consent is not given to disclose the relevant information, the GVO / DV should:

  • explain the position to the Member; and
  • offer to obtain a specific authorisation from the customer

Such situations should be rare but may happen when, for example, someone writes to a Member about the affairs of someone else, such as his or her spouse. Where it is thought likely that the Member would wish to pass on a copy of the GVO's / DV’s reply to his or her constituent, then a duplicate should be attached. Where, however, the reply contains matters of a confidential nature, or some background information, which is not considered desirable to pass on, this, should be made clear to the Member.

Complaints against GVOs / DVs made by members of the public to Members, Treasury Ministers, other Government Departments, will normally be forwarded to the Customer Service Team at CEO (CST) by the respective Member’s / Minister’s Office.

The CST will contact the relevant Group or DVS concerned, if appropriate, for a report and the relevant papers. The CST will then forward a copy of the correspondence direct to the respective Business Unit (BU) with a covering note setting out any specific instructions ensuring the respective GVO / DV / BU Leader is aware.

Complaints about Government Policy

If we receive a complaint about Government policy, the GCSM should consider whether he / she is aware of repeated expressions of dissatisfaction with this area of Government policy. And / or considers there may be substance in the customers concern that the law may be having an unintended or unfair effect. If so, the GCSM should bring the complaint, via their GVO/DV, to the Head of Customer Services at CEO attention. If appropriate, the Head of Customer Services will bring it to the attention of the relevant (CEO) Business Unit so that it can be referred to the appropriate client.

For the avoidance of doubt not every case will be a complaint about policy just because we explained that we have to apply the law. In some cases, the response to the complaint will be about why we did something and the explanation that we did it because the law required it. The GCSM should not pass on cases of this type as policy complaints.

What the GCSM does need to pass on are cases where the taxpayer complains that the law, or the way the VO applies it, is unfair - and the GCSM thinks there may be some substance to this. While needing to exercise some judgement here, it is not expected that the GCSM research the point. If the GCSM's view is that there may be something in the point, that is sufficient to justify passing it on.

The GCSM should not comment on whether a complaint about policy may be justified. He or she should explain to the complainant that we have to apply the law as it stands or in accordance with published guidelines. The GCSM should, however, tell the complainant that their view about the law being unfair has been noted, and will / has been passed to the Head of Customer Services and / or the respective Head of the Business Unit who can raise it with the appropriate Government Department.

If the GCSM needs to provide an explanation of a particular policy in order to deal with a complaint, he or she should contact the Head of Customer Services at CEO and ask for the appropriate line to take.

Further Advice

If you are unsure how to respond to a complaint, contact the Customer Services Team at CEO.

Financial Redress

Policy

The VOA Code of Practice on Mistakes (as set out in the booklet putting things right for you) provides that when we have made what we regard as an error or an unreasonable delay, the taxpayer may be entitled to financial redress. Such financial redress is paid on an ex gratia basis – i.e. whilst agreeing to pay compensation, VOA is not accepting legal responsibility for a customer’s loss. The term “ex gratia” must be included in any letter to the customer which states that we will provide financial redress.

What payments should we make?

Redress payments can be made:

  • to reimburse any reasonable costs that complainants can show they have incurred as a direct result of our error or unreasonable delay
  • in recognition of worry and distress caused to the complainant consequent upon our error or unreasonable delay (formerly known as a ‘consolatory’ payment); and
  • in recognition of poor complaint handling (known as a ‘botheration’ payment)

Payments for worry and distress are made only in exceptional circumstances. The Customer Service Team at CEO maintain a record of these and botheration payments.

In certain circumstances, in respect of Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax cases, the Revenue can waive interest on overdue tax where there has been an unreasonable delay. This may be appropriate when the total delays by us and any other HM Revenue & Customs officers involved are considered unreasonable. If a taxpayer - or his or her agent or Member of Parliament - objects to an interest charge he or she should be advised to contact the Revenue Office which made the valuation request; eg HM Revenue & Customs, etc.

When you are looking at a complaint, you need to decide whether financial redress is being sought. Some complainants are not looking for compensation but simply an apology and evidence that we will take action to prevent recurrence of the error / delay. Accordingly, we should only consider, or invite, a claim if the complainant makes it clear (either expressly or by implication) that he or she is seeking compensation.

If you believe the customer is seeking compensation, and that he or she is entitled to such a payment, or that you believe you should turn down the claim, refer the matter (setting out your views and reasons) to the Customer Service Team at CEO. [The team will advise on the appropriateness and quantum of any payment to ensure a consistent approach throughout the network having regard to recommendation for worry and distress or botheration you have made.] Internal Audit has endorsed this process so that the Customer Service Team can ensure a uniform approach.

HM Revenue and Customs has produced a Financial Redress Handbook, and this is available on their website for reference purposes.

The booklet "putting things right for you" should be on display in reception areas and a copy should be routinely sent to anyone who makes a complaint.

Lessons to be learned

All complaints should be recorded by the GCSM on the Customer Contact Record (CCR) database. This enables us to monitor problems nationally. Because of the scale and diversity of our business, monitoring at the national level is more likely to produce information on general trends rather than identify specific problems.

The GCSM who deals with a case in which something has gone wrong must take responsibility for identifying lessons that need to be learned. He / she should monitor any remedial action considered appropriate.

Whenever a GCSM deals with a case in which something has gone wrong, or in which a complaint has been made, he / she should ask himself / herself:

  • if the problem was an error or oversight, or a failure to communicate properly, is there a need for training, or a reminder to colleagues to watch out for a particular point of difficulty in future?
  • if the problem arose because something went wrong with a procedure or process
  • should the procedure or process be reviewed / changed?

If it is not within the GCSM's power to make the change, he / she is responsible for passing on the suggestion to the Group VO, who will pass it to the Head of Customer Services. See section ‘learning from complaints’

Complaints made to others: providing reports and drafts to CEO

Avenues for complaints

Most complaints about the VOA's handling of people's affairs are settled locally. Our publicity encourages customers who are dissatisfied with the way their affairs have been handled to contact the person with whom they have been dealing, the GCSM or the Group Valuation Officer at the office concerned in the first instance. If the matter cannot be resolved at this level, the customer can take his / her complaint to:

  • the Chief Executive's Office
  • the Adjudicator (if he / she is still not satisfied with the reply received from the Chief Executive's Office)

Customers may also complain to a Member of Parliament (MP), Members of the Devolved Legislature (MDLs) or Members of European Parliament (MEPs) The MP/MDL or MEP may:

  • take the complaint up with the relevant Group office. In the past, Ministers have encouraged MPs to contact the relevant local office
  • write to a Treasury Minister, or to the Chief Executive; or
  • MPs can refer the complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (the "Ombudsman")

Occasionally, complaints may be made to the Chairman of HM Revenue and Customs. In such circumstances, the complaint will be passed to the Customer Service Team at the Chief Executive's Office, to prepare a draft reply for the Chairman to send.

Reports and Drafts

If a complaint is to be handled other than at the Group level, the Customer Service Team at CEO will normally ask the GCSM for a report, together with all the case papers. The Customer Service Team will give the GCSM a deadline for the provision of a report.

The Customer Service Team will use GCSMs’ reports in formulating replies from CEO, drafting replies for others (eg Ministers, Chairman of HM Revenue and Customs, etc) or writing reports for the Adjudicator or Parliamentary Ombudsman.

GCSMs’ reports should normally include:

  • a summary of the complaint or complaints
  • an explanation of what has occurred
  • comments on any errors made, or unreasonable delays caused, by VOA; mentioning any mitigating circumstances
  • a recommendation on what needs to be done to resolve the complaint or put right any mistakes; including a view on what financial redress, if any, might be due
  • a conclusion; and
  • any lessons to be learned from the case

A schedule showing the history of events is useful as an appendix to the report and to explain what has happened.

When a file is sent to CEO to accompany a report, the GCSM should check all papers are tidy and in proper order. It is important that all relevant papers are sent to CEO and that they are the originals, not copies.

If for any reason it is not possible to meet the deadline for preparing a report, let the person who asked for it know immediately and explain why.

Complaints made to the Chief Executive's Office

If a complaint is made to the Chief Executive’s Office, and it has not been dealt with at the local level, the Customer Service Team will pass it to the appropriate GCSM for a reply (and inform the complainant of this action).

If, however, the complaint has already been dealt with at the local level, the Customer Service Team will acknowledge its receipt and will normally ask for a report and case papers from the GCSM. A member of the Customer Service Team at CEO will send a reply to the complainant. However, if the complaint to CEO is from an MP, addressed to the Chief Executive, he will sign the reply.

Complaints to a Minister

The Chief Executive will reply personally if the complaint is to a Minister.

Reports

The Customer Service Team at CEO will fax details to the appropriate GCSM and ask him/her to send them a report, and if appropriate, the relevant files within three working days. The GCSM must ensure that the report:

  • covers all aspects of the complaint; and
  • draws attention to shortcomings or mistakes in the way the case has been handled

He or she should also ensure that the Customer Service Team is told if the deadline cannot be met or if the matter concerns another office.

Communicating with the taxpayer

Make up a dummy file containing copies of the original complaint and the Group office response, in case the taxpayer/ratepayer or his agent makes a follow-up call. Consult the Customer Service Team before contacting the taxpayer/ratepayer about any matter related to the complaint.

After the reply has been signed the Customer Service Team will return the file (if held) together with a copy of the reply to the GCSM for any necessary "after issue" instructions.

Complaints to the Adjudicator

For more information about the Adjudicator take a look at the website. The Adjudicator looks into the way the VOA has handled the customer's affairs - for example, complaints about excessive delay, error, discourtesy, or the way the VOA has exercised any discretion. The Adjudicator will review a case only after the Customer Service Team at CEO (tier two / step 2) has considered it and the customer is still not satisfied with the reply.

When The Adjudicator's Office receives a complaint from a customer it forwards details to the Customer Service Team at CEO to establish whether or not they have been given the opportunity to address the complaint. If the Customer Service Team has not had this opportunity they will consider the case and reply to the complainant. These cases are known as Assistance Cases.

If the customer has already received a reply from the Customer Service Team, or remains dissatisfied with the outcome of the Assistance Case, the Adjudicator will review this case. These cases are known as Investigation Cases.

In Investigation Cases, the Customer Service Team, who will arrange for a formal report to be sent to the Adjudicator within 28 days of receipt of this complaint.

Reports

The Adjudicator does not lay down precise rules about the form the report should take: we suggest reports from the GCSM to the Customer Service Team follow the same format as for reports to CEO in cases being dealt with by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The report should:

  • contain a full statement of the relevant facts, clearly cross referenced to the appropriate documents in the papers, together with a chronological sequence of events
  • comment on specific points raised, indicating whether the office's actions were justifiable and reasonable and/or to what extent office error or shortcomings are involved
  • contain any other useful background information relating to the complaint

The Adjudicator's investigation

The Adjudicator normally produces a factual summary of events. If the case is complicated the Adjudicator will often check this with the Customer Service Team at CEO and the customer. The Adjudicator will try to resolve the complaint by mediating between the parties. But, if this is not possible, the Adjudicator will make a formal recommendation. The VOA has undertaken to accept the Adjudicator's recommendation in all but exceptional circumstances.

If you receive a letter about a complaint under investigation by the Adjudicator, you should:

  • tell the GCSM who will liaise with the Customer Service Team at CEO.
  • send a copy of the letter to the Adjudicator; and
  • tell the complainant what action you have taken

If you receive a complaint about the way the Adjudicator has investigated a complaint or The Adjudicator's recommendations, you should explain that:

  • as the Adjudicator is outside the management structure of HMRC and the VOA it would be inappropriate to comment on the Adjudicator's actions and that you will forward a copy of the complaint to the Adjudicator; and
  • that the complaint can be pursued further by asking a Member of Parliament to refer it to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The Adjudicator cannot subsequently investigate a case investigated by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

The Customer Service Team at CEO will be happy to give further advice if it is needed

Complaints to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

The Ombudsman is responsible to Parliament, through a Select Committee, for investigating complaints referred by Members of Parliament. For more information about the Ombudsman take a look at the website. The Ombudsman has set out three sets of Principles which outline the approach public bodies should adopt when delivering good administration and customer service, and how to respond when things go wrong.

If a complaint is ever received in the network ensure it is forwarded immediately to the Customer Service Team at CEO.

Complaints about Local Authorities

These should be referred to the relevant Local Government Ombudsman

For England and Wales

Local Government Ombudsman • Home

For Scotland

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman | Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Complaints requiring Valuation Office Agency assistance

Valuation Office Agency may be involved in some of the complaints made to the above bodies. Where the District Valuer business stream has been requested to provide a reports or valuation, these should be made in writing and endorsed "In Confidence". Hard copies will be provided if specifically requested. The report should set out any assumptions made in arriving at any valuation provided. The reports should be sent direct to the relevant body with the relevant sector and resource leader being copied in.

Enquiries Received From the Parties

If the local office is approached by either the complainant or the authority concerned whilst the matter is still under investigation, the matter should be referred, to CST CEO who will advise on the way forward and will liaise with the Head of Land Services Professional Policy.

What CEO does on receipt of a complaint

The Customer Service Team at CEO will take their lead from the Ombudsman and have regard to any earlier investigations / complaint cases, and if necessary:

  • telephone the GCSM (who acts as the point of contact) and sends details of the complaint; and
  • request a report / updated report to be sent with all the relevant files to the Customer Service Team within four working days, copy request attached
  • where a specific officer is named in the complaint, provides guidance as to options available to the individual

Action to be taken by the GCSM if contacted

The GCSM must make a report within four working days of being advised of a complaint by the Customer Service Team. Before finalising the report, he or she should contact the Customer Service Team for advice if, for example, a Tribunal hearing is imminent.

The GCSM's report must be factual, and in chronological order. It should:

  • cover every aspect of the complaint
  • include relevant background material
  • comment on whether or not it is considered that the actions taken were justified, drawing attention to every mistake and shortcoming even though they may not be the subject of the complaint

The GCSM should ensure the CST is fully aware of any changes, updates if an earlier report has been complied.

The GVO / DV is responsible for:

  • ensuring the report(s) covers the appropriate ground; and
  • sending it with the file(s), if appropriate, to the Customer Service Team

If a file is missing, telephone the Customer Service Team for advice immediately. The Ombudsman will not normally accept that a file is missing until an exhaustive search has been made.

The GCSM must ensure that the report is prepared in time for despatch by the due date.

This work must not be delayed. The GCSM must telephone the Customer Service Team if there is any doubt that the report will be despatched on time.

If the file papers are being sent the GCSM should keep a copy.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman's investigation

After the files have been received the Chief Executive will send a report to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. The Ombudsman's Investigating Officers may ask for all the papers to be sent to them. They will then photocopy them and return them. During the course of the investigation, the Investigating Officers will ask questions and may also wish to speak to or interview the staff involved in the case. If this happens the Customer Service Team will give them advice.

When the Ombudsman has concluded the investigation a draft interim report is sent to the Chief Executive for comment on factual accuracy and recommended remedies. This will be sent to the GCSM for information if necessary. The GVO / DV, via the GCSM, may also be asked to comment on draft replies to the Ombudsman. When the draft report has been agreed the Ombudsman issues a final report to the MP who referred the complaint. He sends a copy to the Chairman and the Chief Executive with additional copies for sending to any officers who were named in the complaint.

The Customer Service Team will normally keep all the files while the Ombudsman considers the complaint. The CST can, however, return the file temporarily if it is required.

While the Ombudsman is investigating the complaint, the GCSM should ensure that:

  • discussing the complaint in correspondence is avoided if possible
  • if it is necessary to discuss the complaint, the Customer Service Team is consulted before doing so

and

  • any correspondence about the complaint - including notes of any telephone calls - is copied to the Customer Service Team

If you receive a complaint about the Parliamentary Ombudsman's investigation, or the results of that investigation:

pass the matter to the GCSM who should consult the Customer Service Team;

do not quote from the Parliamentary Ombudsman's Report - even in response to a letter from the customer or the customer's representatives - without consulting the Customer Service Team. The legislation governing the actions of the Parliamentary Ombudsman protects him from libel proceedings. The Valuation Office Agency has no such protection. If we were to repeat comments in the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report, which could be viewed as defamatory, we might be sued for libel.

Learning from Complaints

Using information as a basis for action and change

We need to use the information from complaints as the basis for action and change.

This Involves: -

  • consistent and comprehensive recording of complaints and the improvements and analysis of their implications
  • getting a clear picture of users' views of the service and the improvements they want
  • channelling the information to those who can take action to prevent problems recurring
  • taking that action
  • giving some feedback on the action taken to complainants, service users and staff

Recording Complaints Consistently

Accurate and relevant information about complaints is essential if our service to customers is to be improved and the VOA is hampered if it does not have this information.

All complaints should be recorded, even if they are resolved at the first point of contact, as they can provide valuable information to the Agency which is otherwise lost.

GCSMs are required to complete an entry in the complaints database for every complaint received.

The Complaint database enables complaints to be categorised by:

  • source
  • subject
  • nature
  • outcome

The database also allows staff to record what was done to try to resolve the complaint.

The aim of the system is to capture basic information in a simple manner to identify trends and allow the pattern of complaints to be established. For example, it may be worth knowing that we have say 100 complaints about the Form of Return but it would be much more useful to know that 60 of them were about one particular question.

In order to provide a complete audit trail, complaints paperwork should be cased and filed by the GCSM.

Taking Action

Complaints should be an agenda item at management meetings to ensure that action is taken to prevent complaints recurring and to ensure an improvement in the service.

Giving feedback on the action taken to complaints, service users and staff.

In responding to complaints, managers should inform the complainant of the action taken so that the complainant can be reassured the problem will not recur either to the complainants or to other service users.

Staff directly involved in the issue that caused the complaint, (if not handling the matter themselves), should be kept informed of progress during the investigation and on most occasions should see the response to the complaint.

Most Groups provide formal feedback in the form of a bulletin or circular informing all staff about types of complaint, outcomes and redress provided. This alerts people to possible problems in their own work and helps improve customer service and complaints handling in general.

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