Good complaints handling is about looking at things from a client’s point of view.
Formal complaints need to be handled by someone who is trained to deal with them and has good people skills. The person has to have sufficient status within the practice to investigate thoroughly and ensure their recommendations are carried through at management level.
The complaint needs to be investigated by someone who has not been involved previously and has no prior information about what happened. This is a valuable opportunity to put the relationship with the person making the complaint on a new footing. In addition, the person making the complaint may well welcome the opportunity to talk to someone they perceive as being more independent and willing to listen to their point of view.
It can help to think of a complaint as a useful opportunity to receive feedback on the service that has been provided and that might even result in a better relationship with the person making the complaint. It is a good idea to offer options, for example, a face-to-face meeting or a telephone conversation to find out whether the person making the complaint has anything more that they want to say and identify any questions that they may have.
It is advisable to be prepared for the unexpected. The person making a complaint that you perceive as minor may see it very differently and may be angry or upset; if so, you need to acknowledge their feelings before they will be able to talk about the problem. Phrases such as ‘I can understand that you are very upset’ or ‘I am sorry that this has made you angry’ may be useful in acknowledging the person’s feelings but remaining neutral about the underlying issue at this stage.
Once the investigator has the full picture, they will be better placed to provide reasons for what has happened or explain what has gone wrong and how things can be expected to develop from this point onwards. Most clients are unlikely to be familiar with the complex procedures with which lawyers feel perfectly comfortable. It is difficult to retain complicated information about a subject area that you do not fully understand – reminding the client about the stages that their matter may be expected to follow and following up with a letter may be all that is needed.
Most client care letters simply give information on how to raise a complaint and details of the LeO service. Complaints need to be acknowledged within two working days of receipt, with full details of the procedure including the overall timescale for investigation and outcome.
If the practice accepts that something has gone wrong, an apology should be offered. It may well be possible to apologise in a way that falls short of accepting liability from an insurance point of view. If you have any doubts as to your professional indemnity insurer’s position, you should check with them first.
An appropriate remedy should also be offered. This could be something like chocolates or flowers in the case of minor errors (but consider cultural issues in relation to the appropriateness of gifts), putting right an error or omission, transferring the case to a different person within the practice, or reducing, refunding or waiving fees and/or paying compensation for loss, inconvenience and/or distress.
At the end of the investigation, the person making the complaint should be told what the next steps will be, and this should be confirmed in writing as soon as possible.
If the practice does not accept that anything has gone wrong, or feels that it did provide a reasonable service, you may still decide to make some gesture of goodwill to the person making the complaint. This may go against the grain for many lawyers, but it can be a pragmatic solution to the situation. Ensuring that the complainant is satisfied and accepts the resolution offered may save hours of management time dealing with a further complaint to the LeO.
In her next column, Vicky will look at learning from complaints.