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Top Ten Tips to dealing with complaints effectively

Having worked for the predecessor to the Legal Ombudsman, the Legal Complaints Service for nearly 10 years and then setting up a consultancy where Solicitors outsourced their internal complaints procedure, I can safely say that I am somewhat of an expert in the area of complaints handling. I have seen first-hand where firms have gone wrong in their complaints handling process and advised many firms on what they can do to improve their service, in order to retain their clients.

Recently the Solicitors Regulations Authority (SRA) and the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) jointly commissioned London Economics and YouGov to conduct research into the effectiveness of first tier complaints handling by Solicitors. The research surveyed 539 Solicitor firms and 2016 dissatisfied consumers.

The research highlighted that there are many lessons that could be learnt by Solicitors in improving their client care and internal complaints handling process, in order to avoid complaints. The research also highlighted clients’ perspective of how their complaints were being dealt with by firms which as expected differed to that of the firms.

The findings of the research commissioned by the SRA and LeO can greatly assist those firms who find it difficult to deal with a complaint and put in new mechanisms to improve the process.

The key findings were as follows:

  • There was some disparity between what consumers expect from their Solicitor’s service and Solicitor’s perception of consumers expectations: 62% of consumers want regular communications about progress, 60% want clear information about costs and 48% want information about the legal process. On the other hand, 23% of firms think that consumers top 5 key expectations would include a clear explanation of the legal process.
  • Majority of complaints to law firms are about delays or failure in communication: 55% were dissatisfied that Solicitor failed to update them, 47% were dissatisfied about delays and 37% were dissatisfied that their Solicitor failed to keep them informed.
  • 98% of firms provide information about their complaints procedure at the start of the process, usually in the client care letter. However, 37% of consumers are saying they were not told about the complaints procedure.
  • 92% of firms provide information about the Legal Ombudsman at the start of the process, but only 34% do so at the end of the complaints process, despite this being a regulatory requirement under Section 112 of the Legal Services Act!
  • Directive 203/11/EU of the European Parliament requires Solicitor firms to signpost consumers to ADR agencies to resolve complaints, although they are not obliged to use them. 51% of firms reported they did not inform consumers about this option and 72% of consumers reported that they did not receive this information.
  • First tier complaints are mostly about work in Conveyancing, Wills and Probate, and Family Law.
  • The main barrier to making complaints experienced by consumers were: 37% felt that the Solicitor will not handle their complaint fairly and 32% felt that their Solicitor will not take notice.
  • 44% of dissatisfied consumers approached LeO before making a complaint to their Solicitor because they wanted someone independent to look at their Solicitor or the firm’s initial response to the complaint.
  • When it came to resolving complaints: 53% of firms find it hard to identify when a consumer want them to take action about their dissatisfaction and on the other hand, 83% of consumers want firms to take action or resolve their complaint when they express their dissatisfaction.
  • The outcomes that consumers wanted following their expression of dissatisfaction: 58% want an explanation, 39% want an apology and 35% want work progressed to resolve their complaint.
  • 93% of firms stated that there are business benefits to complaints handling.

Complaints are a business risk that cannot be avoided, so what can firms do to improve their complaints handling?

My top ten tips for an effective complaint handling process are:

  1. Acknowledge the complaint.

Consumers want firms to take note of their complaint, so by acknowledging the complaint, this will instil confidence that their complaint has been taken seriously and will be dealt with. LeO recommends that complaints are acknowledged within two days.

  1. Provide a copy of your firm’s complaints procedure.

By providing clear and timely information to consumers about the complaints procedure, consumers will be aware of how their complaint will be dealt with, by whom and the timescales. Consumers will also be aware of what happens after the complaint has been investigated and of the next steps, if they remain dissatisfied such as being signposted to LeO.

  1. Confirm preferred method of communication.

There are various methods in which a firm can communicate to the consumer regarding their complaint such as by letter, email, telephone or face to face. There are advantages and disadvantages of each method and as such it is important that the most appropriate method is chosen which is tailored to their needs. Ask the consumer when acknowledging the complaint what is their preferred method of communication and comply with their request, unless advised otherwise.

  1. Identify the exact heads of complaints for investigation.

Identify exactly what the consumer is complaining about. If there is more than one issue, you want to ensure that you have dealt with all of the consumer’s concerns. The last thing you want is the consumer coming back to you saying that you have missed one of their complaints and having to review the file again or worse, escalating the complaint to LeO for failure to adequately deal with their complaints.

  1. Confirm and agree heads of complaints with the consumer.

Once you have identified the heads of complaints, confirm and agree with the consumer the complaints your investigation will be focusing on; and give them the opportunity to add or amend any of their complaints

  1. When responding to the complaint, address each head of complaint one by one.

Structure your response so that it addresses each complaint one by one. Use bold headings to identify and address each complaint. The information underneath each heading should include an explanation of what went wrong and what evidence was considered.

  1. Give an explanation on what evidence you have considered.

If you have considered emails, attendance notes, file notes etc. when reaching a decision on each head of complaint, make sure to mention them in your response. Identify each document by date and type. Consumers would want to know what evidence you have considered when reaching your decision.

  1. Give clear reasons for your conclusions and findings.

Once you have completed your investigation into each head of complaint, share the findings and conclusions by explaining in as much detail as necessary so that the consumer can understand how and why you reached that decision.

  1. Avoid the use of legal jargon and technical terms.

Last year, LeO commissioned IFF to conduct research exploring the language used in the complaints process to identify better practice for the use of language by both the Ombudsman and legal service providers. One of the key points was to keep the language simple by avoiding using jargon, acronyms, pretentious language and legal or technical terms as these can be confusing and intimidating to consumers. If you need to use legal terms, then explain what they mean.

  1. Do not be afraid to apologise and offer suitable redress.

If you have identified that poor service has been provided do not be afraid to apologise. Sometimes, a simple apology is what a consumer is looking for as an acknowledgement and acceptance by your firm that something has gone wrong. So many Solicitors are scared to apologise for fear it may be regarded as an admission of negligence and invalidate their insurance.

An apology is not an admission of negligence – LeO’s Scheme Rules 5.21 state: An apology will not of itself be treated as an admission of liability”  and Part two of the Compensation Act 2006 is headed ‘Apologies, offers of treatment or other redress‘, and states: “An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty.”

For advice and assistance on updating your complaints handling policy and procedure, to ensure your firm has an effective and efficient complaints handling process in place, contact Legal Compliance Consultants.

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