Complaints can be branding opportunities – here are 10 tips to embrace them

[Australasian Law Management Journal,Compliance & Risk Management,General Management,Strategy & Leadership] December 13, 2018

Rather than treating client complaints as an assault on their professionalism and a chance to fire back with tit-for-tat disparagement, smart lawyers take the opportunity to engage with their clients and make every effort to win back their trust, writes Peppy Mitchell.

Client-focused lawyers listen out for complaints and regard them as valuable opportunities to improve their service.

If you listen, consider, care and calmly respond to a concern, you can increase client trust and strengthen your relationships. Having a well-branded complaints process – and training your people to follow it – will encourage an open culture of learning, feedback and goodwill.

In the legal profession, the voice of risk takes many forms. Occasionally, it heralds loudly in the form of new client bids, technological disruption, a cyber threat or a large professional indemnity claim. There is a softer, more constant voice of risk, though. It is there to be heard in everyday practice, often through relatively minor client complaints – for example, communications of concern, dissatisfaction, or frustration with the quality or delivery of legal services.

In a busy legal practice, this softer voice can be missed. Most practitioners say they are ‘client-focused’, yet nobody likes negative feedback. So when a client raises a concern or makes a complaint, there is a tendency to be not so client-focused. Some lawyers will perceive the complainant as irritating, ‘pesky’, demanding or emotional, and so ignore the issue and avoid the client for a while. The more adversarial practitioners may fire off an impersonal email with a self-serving explanation, consider the matter as ‘dealt with’ and move on.

Learn from your mistakes

When time is money, to avoid properly dealing with a complaint, it can indeed be tempting to quickly jump to a quick fix, such as reduced fees or a write-off. The client may be relieved that they do not have to pay you. But unless you address their underlying concern, you are only buying time. Your client will leave you when the next mistake is made.

In ignoring, dismissing or literally writing off a complaint too quickly, you may well miss the rich opportunity in the complaint. If a client is complaining to you, they are after all still engaged with you. They have not ‘voted with their feet’, or worse, involved a regulator. Rather, they are giving you a chance to improve, to embrace their problem and deepen your relationship with them. As Bill Gates once said: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest sources of learning.”

It is important to appreciate that, despite our efforts to provide high-quality legal services, we all make mistakes from time to time. Good clients know this. They do not usually expect perfection, but they do value openness and authenticity. We differentiate ourselves from competitors by not by sweeping mistakes quickly under the carpet but in the way that we respond to mistakes. Openly listening to and effectively responding to a complaint is the key.

Brands such as Apple are experts at this. In the early 2000s, Steve Jobs introduced open, airy stores with friendly staff who invite you in to experience technology, rather than pushing you to buy it. They are ready to answer your multiple questions and deal with any issue. If you have a problem or a complaint, you are not ignored, made to feel like it is your fault or whisked out the back for a refund. Instead, you are reassuringly directed to a central ‘Genius Bar’. Your issue is not treated as negative or unusual. It is treated as a challenging question for an expert problem-solver. Your genius stands beside you, dressed comfortably, competent and ready to collaborate. If your device needs to be tested or repaired, possibly under warranty, they clearly explain the process to you without making any promises. Then they walk with you to a more traditional repairs-claims counter.

There are obvious differences between selling consumer technology products and delivering legal services that are often confidential and sensitive. For both, however, complaints are invaluable sources of information.

Here are some tips for effective management of complaints or concerns about legal services.

1. Approach the complainant promptly in person or by phone to demonstrate your care and respect. Do not avoid them or delay. Welcome their honest feedback.

2. Acknowledge that they are busy and apologise for how they are feeling, which may be frustrated and disappointed. This demonstrates your empathy.

3. Listen actively to get all the facts. Let them speak naturally, without interrupting. This helps the complainer to feel heard and gives them space to vent. Ask questions to understand the facts and what they hope to get out of their complaint. Summarise their concerns, without judgement or comment. As you listen and ask simple, open questions, you are not denying, defending or admitting.

4. Carefully consider if the complaint amounts to a claim, or circumstances that might give rise to a claim under your professional indemnity and other insurance policies. If it reaches that threshold, if you are unsure, or if the regulator is or could be involved, stay polite, end the discussion and immediately talk with your insurer or broker.  You do not want to jeopardise any indemnity by failing to notify on time or not seeking approval before negotiating or making a concession.

5. Clearly communicate and follow a fair complaints process (including about the availability and timing of recourse to relevant regulator/s). This helps to diffuse emotion. It helps to set a realistic timeframe. It engenders confidence about the appropriate way forward and conveys a sense that all complaints will be dealt with fairly.

6. In presenting your considered response to the complaint, avoid flight, fright or fight mode. Although these approaches may be strategic in adversarial litigation, they may antagonise an already unhappy complainant and exacerbate their complaint.

7. Be caring, not in a glib way, but in an engaging way. Use the time to get to know the client and their needs better. Involve them in any solution so that ‘we’ can work together better. Demonstrate your commitment to the bigger picture and the longer term.

8. Add the complaint to a central risk register so that your firm can monitor any patterns. The register could include information on things such as the date of the complaint, the client/s, the practice area, the stage of the matter, staff, technology involved, and the current status.

9. Where and when appropriate, share your experiences with trusted colleagues within your firm. This encourages a strong learning culture, without shame or blame. Good managers know that real people make mistakes from time to time. The aim is not to cover them up, but to openly learn from them.

10. Proactively and regularly seek client feedback, even from seemingly happy clients –ask them ‘How could we do this 10 times better?’, or ‘How can we improve our relationship with you?’ Some legal practices appoint ‘client relationship partners’ to nurture specific client relationships, monitor and respond to even minor drops in satisfaction levels.

Taking these 10 steps can be time-consuming. Yet a legal practitioner with risk-aware ears will do so.  This is because they know that the time they spend on a complaint is an opportunity to improve and develop their business.

By addressing a complaint or concern, you not only address the particular issue but you identify service level gaps and position yourself as a problem solver. Prompt, open and caring complaints handling can resolve an immediate issue, prevent recurrence or future claims and become a vehicle to reinforce, grow and enhance loyalty. And, after all, if you are not taking care of people, your competitors will.

Peppy Mitchell is a senior lawyer and risk manager with 25 years’ experience in commercial law firms, both as a practitioner and in practice management. She drives strong risk management cultures, solid corporate governance and robust compliance programs. She can be emailed at peppy.mitchell@gmail.com.