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April 2014 - Client complaints - an inevitability of heightened expectations or a route to improved service?

Client complaints - an inevitability of heightened expectations or a route to improved service?

Previously we looked at expressions of dissatisfaction.

By way of illustration, a scenario from an alternative consumer service experience.

Almost perfect

A car owner decides that it is time their pride and joy has the love and attention of a main dealer MOT, full service and all round check up. The experience as a customer is excellent, with a full explanation of all that will be done and, on collection, all that has been done, including discussion with the mechanic and a view of the car on the ramps to see the work.

The payment of £800 for the pleasure of being looked after by one of the top service centres in the city was palatable, despite the shock of the hourly rate of £120 plus Vat.

What rather took the gloss off the service was on driving away, discovering that the new brake fluid had not been bled through, leading to virtually zero braking ability. Followed by a swift about turn to the main dealer and a robust discussion.

This scenario is just by way of example that it can be a small error that takes the shine off an otherwise exemplary service experience and leads to a less than happy memory, even if there was no loss or claim to be made akin to a negligence scenario.

The reality check for many lawyers is that acting for clients as individuals, occasionally clients will be unhappy with some aspect of the service they receive.

Service

The key word we look at here is service. This is distinct from an allegation of professional negligence or breach of contract. Indeed it is distinct from an allegation of misconduct. However it is inevitable that those areas may well also raise the cloud of disappointment as to service and to that extent overlap.

As more law firms move towards a culture of consumer service standards ( indeed many law firms have operated in that way for years, whether via Service Level Agreements or Client Relationship Management, or simply by being fundamentally alive to the most important person namely the client), aside from accepting that complaints will happen, other changes are needed.

The utopia is one of no complaints. In that world everyone is delighted with your service and recommends your firm to friends, family and business colleagues in a heartbeat.

The reality is that you need to:

  1. Operate in a way that minimises the occasions when your clients feel the service fell short (perhaps road testing the car before the customer drives it would have been useful);
  2. Have an effective reasonable fair proportionate accessible and responsive complaint handling scheme;
  3. Be alive to the role of the LeO if the complaint is brought to their attention.
    This way you minimise the potential for damaged reputation, you retain your client for future work for them and you avoid the drain on your time and resource by proper investigation and resolution of the complaint.

Retainers

Your complaint scheme will have been set out by you in the retainer agreement you entered in to with your client, signed by them and by you. It is that document that will set the parameters, albeit increasingly clients can take another look at your website and publications for what you promise to deliver by way of service levels.

The Legal Ombudsman

Working backwards, the hope is that the LeO need not be troubled by your clients, thus reducing the workloads on the LeO (and the cost of that operation borne ultimately by the profession - and indeed by the firms suffering the complaints to a point).

The LeO makes very sensible suggestions for what you could have as the basis for your complaints service. This incorporates the fundamentals mentioned earlier. Keeping it simple is attractive, especially as you should resolve the complaint within 8 weeks. If not, then the LeO will accept it for investigating.

You will also have had to be mindful of your contractual obligations to your Professional Indemnity Insurers as to whether the complaint is a claim or a circumstance or an intimation of an intention to make a claim against you. This may also apply to the situation in which you are making an admission of an error or omission and an offer of redress and apology.

This was perhaps put in sharp focus in recent weeks by the news that the LeO is to publish the total number of complaints processed against named law firms.  To date the LeO has provided what many consider to be a constructive summary of complaints and their resolution - hopefully going some way ( if read ) to enabling law firms to improve their service.

The LeO website has a consumer focused section on "stories "with snappy titles. They may not all appeal to the lawyers or be particularly detailed as to cause and effect however. Fairly, it seems to take a balanced view, with a number of stories of complaints not upheld at all.

The recent angst was whether publishing in July 2012  a league table of law firms that the LeO have had to become involved with is naming and shaming. Whilst that is a debate that will no doubt rumble on, it is a fact that we live in times of league tables and scores of many aspects of service and performance, be it schools, universities, hotels and restaurants.

As lawyers, firms are entering that consumer driven world with some alacrity. Apparently however of the 75,000 complaints in the first year of the LeO service, only around 7000 needed investigation.

Conclusion

We anticipate it is impossible for any law firm dealing day in day out with clients both new and existing, to have zero complaints and indeed zero claims. It is a case of active risk management in a way that is proportionate to your particular business, to minimise the disappointed clients and maximise the service experience enjoyed both by them and by you in providing it.

Whilst the high service standards of the profession have been and should always be a given, management of them can lead to more widely applicable improved service levels .

For further information on the Wesleyan Active Risk Management service:

Phone: 0800 107 8171

This article is a general guide and is not a substitute for professional advice. No responsibility can be taken for any loss incurred by anyone acting or failing to act on the basis of this article.

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