Complaints are an inevitable part of the world in which we live. Although they are something that many of us struggle to cope with (whether through frustration, offence, confusion, embarrassment, upset or even anger), if we take a step back to think about why people complain, and how we, as professionals can engage with the complainant, the process could actually be a very positive one for all concerned.
Understanding why complaints are made.
Primarily it is because the client feels that the solicitor has failed to meet their expectations. So, surely logic would dictate that if we manage expectations effectively in the first instance, the number of complaints should decrease accordingly.
Most complaints made are on issues of communication. Communication skills can be taught, refined and practised and should be part of every solicitor’s training and appraisal. Communication often falls down when lawyers are over-worked, stressed, or under-supported, so managers should use complaints as a way of identifying red flags.
Client Satisfaction Surveys can also be used as an early warning system of things that may not be working as well as they should be. Conversely, they are also good indicators of what is working well. The key here is to ask specific questions, not generic ones.
The Code of Conduct requires the solicitor to provide certain information to the client at the outset (including information on cost and how to make a complaint). This is also a golden opportunity to set out realistic time frames, likely outcomes and next steps to be taken. Excessively optimistic predictions will set the retainer on course for disappointment. Also bear in mind the dangers of overly “commoditised” client letters that fail to take into account the client’s individual circumstances (for example see Proctor v Raleys Solicitors  All ER (D) 227).
The client in context.
We must remember that when a client instructs a lawyer, it is usually with a heightened sense of anxiety. The breakdown of a marriage, buying a house, the legalities of their business can cause great stress. We must never forget that we have been chosen to guide them through these difficult times.
Dealing with a complaint.
When a complaint is made, above all, don’t get defensive – it will not help in solving the issues. Part of the Client Care Strategy should be to apologise when a complaint is made – ultimately, it will aid in resolving things quickly and effectively. Empathy should be shown and the complaint handler should endeavour to show the client that the firm have taken ownership and that something will happen. Obviously this precedes taking action to fix the problem and of course, usually informing the client via written communication, although often simply picking up the phone will sort the issue out there and then.
Where the complaints procedure is invoked in full, make sure you follow it to the letter, especially timescales. The Code of Conduct requires complaints to be dealt with “promptly, fairly, openly and effectively”.
The importance of constructive criticism.
Criticism, whether it be verbal, through a returned survey or a written letter, can be very positive if it is received in the right way. Nobody likes the negative parts of themselves or their business highlighted, but if we accept that complaints are inevitable in our business, then taking control and managing them effectively and consciously will undoubtedly make us better at what we do. All feedback, god or bad, is a learning opportunity.
The positive side of complaints.
Although it is imperative that complaints are dealt with in an appropriate manner, it is well worth looking at what positives can be taken from complaints.
Firstly, they can provide a valuable a learning opportunity for the firm and a training opportunity for the lawyer. Where can we improve as a business? Is there a need for individual or firm-wide training on communication, client care etc.?
They are also an opportunity to re-gain the client’s trust and put things right – much better than them leaving you with a grievance. After all, a happy customer is likely to come back for more. You can probably relate to this as a retail customer or restaurant diner – if the establishment acknowledges the problem and takes steps to remedy it without hassle, then we are unlikely to hold a grudge. (Conversely, we all have experience of terrible complaints handling – sitting in a call centre queue, dealing with lengthy letters and so on…).
It could also be a way to see how we measure against our competitors. As the Legal Ombudsman publishes details of the number of complaints escalated per firm, we could have general insight into where we sit and the satisfaction rate of our customers. As time goes by this is likely to become a useful tool, and no doubt the comparison sites will use the data.
From a management and governance level, complaints mean that the senior people in the firm, including the complaints partner and the COLP, have to take service issues seriously. A COLP taking their role seriously will accept that complaints are an important compliance metric to monitor.
Ultimately, complaints have the potential to provide us with an opportunity to improve, so we should listen and be open to the feedback we receive.