Handling student complaints

Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash

As organizations that provide a multitude of services – classes, accommodation, transportation, and cultural activities, to name the main ones – it’s inevitable that not all students will be satisfied all the time. Among the most common requests resulting from dissatisfaction in an English language program are “I want to change my host family” and “I want to change my class.” It’s easy for busy staff to become defensive or want to dismiss such requests, but we should keep in mind that student dissatisfaction and the resulting complaints or requests can help us learn to serve students more effectively and build a stronger program, especially if issues come up repeatedly.

When handling complaints, it’s important to be seen to be fair to all students, and this can be a challenge. Your program may have a policy that limits class or accommodation changes, and there are likely good reasons for this: complying with too many requests would make the program unmanageable, so to avoid the slippery slope you discourage any changes.

If you have to make a change for a student, in order to avoid charges of ‘not fair!’ the change should be for a reason that is unique to that student’s situation. For example, a student who for some reason was not able to complete the class placement process may ask to change levels, and the teacher(s) of the student may agree that the student is incorrectly placed. Other students may just see that a student got to change levels or classes.

To avoid having to change every student who comes to you, you have to be clear that any changes you made were for reasons specific to individual students – but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) explain what those reasons were. Still, not making a change for a student because of ‘program policy’ can be a hard sell to the student, and you will likely have to do some work to explain why the student should stay in her situation.

Keeping a record of student complaints is not only required by accreditors, it is helpful in your program review process. Reviewing complaints that come up more than once – such as requests for class changes or complaints about a textbook – can guide you in making positive changes in your program. You can design a paper form to record complaints, or set something up using digital tools. I’ve used a digital form that stored the complaint in our internal website and sent a copy of it to the program directors.

Complaint form
Your form should have sections for:

– Student information (name, student number)

– Date of the complaint

– Name of the person filling out the form

– Description of the complaint, including actions taken so far, if any

– Follow-up actions taken

– Record of follow-up with student

Responding to complaints
Your options for responding to a complaint are:

a. Resolve. This may involve work, expense, or inconvenience, but your first goal should be a satisfied student.

b. Persuade. You may not be able to make a change for the student or you may not think it is appropriate. In this case, you will need to explain to the student the reason why you will not make a change in a manner that is credible to the student.

c. Resist. The student’s complaint may not be reasonable. For example, the host family may not conform with the image of the ‘ideal’ family the student had in mind. In this case you will need to explain that the complaint is not justified and that the program has fulfilled the promised made in its advertising.

d. Wait it out. Sometimes you have to accept that you cannot satisfy a student’s request – and not all complaints are reasonable. Although the student may continue to complain, there is nothing you can do. Although this is not the best solution as it will leave a student dissatisfied, you may just need to wait for the problem to go away when the student leaves your program – again, as long as you are sure you have provided what you advertised.

e. Advise out. In some cases, you and the student have to agree that this program is not a good fit. If you believe that the student’s best interest is the top priority, you may decide to help the student find a new program and help with the transfer-out process.

Dealing with a complaint
Here is my Standard Operating Procedure for a complaint:

  1. Ask the student to take a seat, take out a notepad and pen, get ready to listen and write.
  2. If you don’t know the student’s name ask for it. Write it down and check the spelling with the student. Then you can ask the student to describe the problem.
  3. Listen carefully and take notes. Ask questions to clarify.
  4. Ask the student if s/he has already raised this problem directly with the person concerned. Find out if this might be a possibility.
  5. When the student has finished explaining the problem, ask any further questions, then re-tell the problem back to the student to ensure you have understood correctly.
  6. Tell the student you cannot give an answer right now as you need to investigate. Say you will check back with the student in 24 hours.
  7. Make a note in your calendar or on your to-do list to get back to the student in 24 hours.
  8. Start a formal record of the complaint. Your program should have a paper or digital means of recording complaints that includes the student’s name, the nature of the complaint, and the resolution.
  9. Investigate, try to find a solution to the problem, discuss with colleagues, and be ready to speak or otherwise communicate with the student the next day.
  10. Be sure to follow up with the student within 24 hours, whether you have been able to resolve the problem or not.
  11. Complete the written record of the complaint and archive it.
  12. Take any disciplinary action needed if the complaint is about a teacher or staff member and you have found that the complaint is justified.

Avoid complaints by being honest in your advertising, managing student expectations, and providing great classes and services.