Why your firm should treat client complaints as a Christmas gift

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] December 13, 2018

Rather than viewing client complaints as an affront to your firm and your lawyers, it is time to treat such feedback as a gift that can build stronger client-firm relationships, writes Trish Carroll.

Complaints are a form of useful feedback. Proactively eliciting and acting on client feedback is a great way of receiving complaint ‘gifts’.

If your firm is not doing that, then it should at least have a solid complaints-handling process so that if clients complain you can deal with the complaints and the clients in a professional, respectful way that strengthens your relationship.

We all know that retaining clients costs far less than attracting new clients and that client loyalty is tough to maintain. It relies on putting your clients’ interests first, which is not just your professional responsibility but also good business.

The book A Complaint Is a Gift introduced the revolutionary notion in 1996 that customer complaints are not annoyances, but valuable feedback. The authors were so convinced their book had changed complaints-handling mindsets and behaviours that they were deeply shocked to find that, 10 years after it was published, complaints and how they were being handled remained a huge challenge and a source of client defection. They wrote an updated edition in 2008. There has not been a new edition since; perhaps the authors have given up because there is no lack of material for a third edition, if the shocking stories that many ordinary people shared at the Royal Commission into banking are anything to go by.

I certainly empathised with many of the experiences customers shared at the hearings about having had unacceptable experiences with banks for which no logical, plausible or credible response was given.

How do you rate?

NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst said in a speech in November 2018 about the Future of the Commercial Bar that he felt it was inevitable a TripAdvisor-style service whereby the public can see comments on particular barristers, their performance, pricing and so on, will happen. This is what democratising feedback is about; providing people with an easy platform to share their experiences so others can benefit from it. This is TripAdvisor in a nutshell.

In the Australian legal world, TripAdvisor does not yet have an equivalent and the closest thing that currently exists internationally seems to be America’s Avvo, a site offering free access to lawyer profiles, consumer reviews, peer endorsements and overall lawyer ratings. There have been a few Avvo-like attempts in Australia and none has succeeded, but that does not mean clients, especially clients of the bigger variety, do not have their own TripAdvisor equivalent operating across their legal panels.

Recently I have heard some startlingly different stories from law firm clients about how their complaints were dealt with and it has made me wonder where your firm sits on this spectrum. Here are two very different scenarios that have been raised with me recently.

1. Best-case scenario

  • The client has a genuine concern and the causes are logically, objectively and thoughtfully put forward in writing to the partner responsible for this client with a request that the issue be discussed.
  • The partner responsible advises the client that the firm appreciates being informed of these issues and will activate the complaints-handling process, which includes the complaint being referred to a partner whose responsibility it is to investigate complaints using a process that was outlined in the firm’s Terms & Conditions. The partner responsible outlines the steps and the timeframe and seeks feedback/agreement from the client about undertaking this process.
  • The partner responsible for investigating the complaint makes contact with the client, who agrees with the process and the timeframe for investigating and reaching an outcome.
  • The investigation’s findings are shared with the client in writing and discussed in a meeting, where the actions are agreed.
  • The end result is that the client feels its concerns have been understood and addressed in a way it agrees with and the relationship is strengthened as a result of this interaction.

2. Worst-case scenario

  • The client has a genuine concern and the causes are logically, objectively and thoughtfully put forward in writing to the partner responsible for this client with a request that the issue be discussed.
  • The partner responsible sits on the complaint. The client needs to follow up more than once and the partner is dismissive and defensive. The client again puts in writing the issues it would like to see addressed and receives no communication from the partner.
  • The actions giving rise to the complaint continue. The client is frustrated and escalates the issue further up the chain in its own organisation and it is decided the complaint needs to be escalated at the law firm.
  • The client seeks a meeting with the firm’s managing partner and outlines its concerns. This is the first time the managing partner has heard of anything being amiss. The managing partner is uncomfortable about having this meeting without the relevant partner being present and seeks to postpone the discussion until they have consulted with that partner. There is no discussion of any complaints-handling process or what steps will be taken.
  • The partner responsible learns of the client meeting with the managing partner and the next day contacts the client and behaves belligerently.
  • Time passes before the managing partner contacts the client and the discussion does not leave the client feeling the complaint is being treated seriously or objectively.
  • The end result is that the client feels it has wasted its time in raising the issues and has little confidence the behaviours that gave rise to the complaint will be addressed. The relationship has been weakened as a result of this interaction and possibly is irretrievable.

Various research over the past decade shows that when customers experience a negative service experience, they did one or more or all of the following:

  • Swore and shouted!
  • Decided never to use that company again
  • Registered a complaint or told others
  • Fought back by posting a negative online review or blog comment.

Ten out of ten

If NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst is right and a TripAdvisor-style rating system is introduced for lawyers, then the profession needs to put an emphasis on training its staff to provide a consistently positive experience and encourage staff at all levels to seek, share and act on feedback.

Here are a few simple tips for managing complaints:

1. Review existing feedback and complaints-management practices and decide where improvements are needed, and implement those improvements.

2. Ask the clients you respect most about their own complaints-handling procedures and see what you can learn from them.

3. Do everything possible to help everyone in your firm understand that a complaint really is a gift – buy the book and discuss ideas from it that you could use in your firm.

4. Implement training to help your staff feel more confident in dealing with complaints and eliciting feedback, and establish forums for people to share their experiences.

5. Implement and document processes that can be monitored and evaluated – go hard on the processes being properly used.

6. When a complaint is the catalyst for making a change for the better, or when corrective action has been taken in response to a complaint, make sure your client knows how they have helped you improve.

7.Communicate improvements inside your firm as a way to encourage continuous improvement and get naysayers on the program.

8. Make it easier to complain by looking for and removing barriers that inhibit feedback.

9. Do not punish people for being the source of complaints – treat it as an opportunity to improve, to learn new ways and unlearn the unhelpful ways.

10. Reward the right behaviours.

TripAdvisor for Lawyers could be the best thing that ever happened for your firm if the service experience and value you provide warrants five-star ratings and glowing comments. It may even prove to be your best business development tool yet, so get cracking.

Trish Carroll is the principal of Galt Advisory, a firm focused on helping law firms devise and implement successful marketing and business development strategies. She can be contacted at trish@galtadvisory.com.au.