On the same side: how to handle complaints

Rebecca Atkinson
Rebecca AtkinsonDirector of risk & compliance at Howard Kennedy LLP

In the first of a two-part series on complaints, Rebecca Atkinson, the director of risk & compliance at Howard Kennedy LLP, looks at some of the reasons why clients complain and how to avoid complaints by focusing on providing good service in key areas.

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In July 2019 the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) published its First tier complaints report, which found that while firms were getting better at resolving complaints, the number of complaints being raised had actually increased. Could this be because overall law firm revenue is increasing, with more work being completed? Or are clients becoming more willing to complain? Or maybe, just maybe, do law firms still need to improve the service they provide?

It goes without saying that providing good service is good for business. Happy clients stay, and also refer other clients, who in turn refer more. It is therefore important business development to provide the best possible service you can.

I look at what makes service 'good' and why clients complain. I focus on some of the reasons most often cited for complaints in the report, and on soft skills solicitors can develop to help stave off complaints. These are not in order of importance, as they are all equally important. In the next edition of Property in Practice, I will look at how to resolve complaints when they do arise.

Coming from a large law firm with nearly half of our business being property work, I set these aspects of service out for you from a place of experience.

The SRA has published a report Maintaining standards of service and reducing complaints, which is, of course, also worth a read.

1. Explain delays out of your control

The most common reason cited for complaints in the SRA report was delays. 18.5% of complaints related to delays in the completion of the legal service, 8.7% to failure to progress, and 9.1% to failure to keep informed.

But in my experience, delays are not always what they seem: it may be that the solicitor is being held up waiting for a third party to come back to them, and that's why they haven't updated the client. If you're waiting for someone else to come back to you before you update your client, tell the client that's what you're doing, or it will look like to them like you're not doing anything.

A client who knows what's happening is a happy client.

2. Explain clearly

Too often, processes that solicitors use every day go unexplained, not through incompetence on the solicitor's part, but because they are extremely busy and want to get on and do the work, be paid and move on the next job.

Adapt your writing style and content to suit your audience. If you're working with a sophisticated property developer, they may not need you to explain what, say, a deed of variation is / does, but if you're working with a first-time buyer, they will need and appreciate explanations of legal processes – a little hand-holding goes a long way. 13.5% of respondents to the SRA report complained that their solicitors failed to advise.

Stop and think about the level of explanation that is needed on a matter – but don't go mad and write tomes. Think of it in a Goldilocks-type way: the porridge needs to be 'just right'.

3. Listen well

Gone are the days where a client would come to see a solicitor and be told what was going to happen. Clients want to be carefully listened to. I'm sure you do this already, as if you're reading this, you're the type of person who cares about client service, but we're all busy and we all might forget sometimes that clients need to feel their story is being listened to and their instructions being carefully heeded.

4. Manage expectations

Managing expectations on timing and what can be done is vital. It is better to under promise and over deliver than over promise and under deliver – the latter can result in both complaints about service and arguments about costs.

Be realistic with clients about what can be achieved. I know this is far easier said than done – after all, you want to win the work – but no one wins if you say something can be done in a certain timescale that you just cannot meet.

5. Respond effectively to grumbles

Where possible, nip grumbles in the bud quickly and respond well. Use conciliatory and non-patronising language. If there has been a mistake or a delay, say so and apologise for it (subject to seriousness, of course, and insurer approval if it is a negligence matter). Most of the time, all that's needed is an acknowledgement of the client's unhappiness, a willingness to understand why, and a simple apology.

6. Give accurate costs information and updates

Interestingly, the SRA report found that 4.7% of complaints were made about deficient costs information, and 11.2% about excessive costs. In my experience, one issue creates the other: complaints about excessive costs come about because the cost information is deficient.

Pricing is ultimately very tricky: you need to balance winning the client with making the work profitable. Some firms adopt a 'yes we are expensive, and if you can get it cheaper elsewhere, please do' attitude, but that is not where most firms sit.

Carefully, very carefully indeed, provide a good cost estimate of what the work will cost, with a simple to understand caveat about that estimate and what is and is not in the scope of the work. Engagement letters are vital here. It is worth spending a good amount of time carefully scoping a piece of work and getting it right – if you rush it, you might get it wrong and face a complaint and writing-off fees, killing any profit that should have been made.

In my experience, solicitors are good at initial costs estimates, but not always so good at updating that estimate when necessary. Keep a careful eye on costs, and if possible, set up triggers by email or reports that tell you when you are at 75% or 90% of your estimate, and should revisit the estimate with the client. If the costs were fixed but the client has asked for something out of scope, explain before you do the work that this will cost more, and seek the client's agreement.

Lastly, if possible, give clients choice. For example, you could offer a client a fixed fee of £5,000 with no leeway for increasing, or alternatively, an estimate of £3,000-£6,000. You could also offer clients a fee for a bronze, silver or gold service depending on what they would like done. It is then up to the client to decide, and clients like choice.

Conclusion

Let's be clear: you cannot make everyone happy. But you can give it your very best shot. Clients like transparency, clear explanations, being updated, and clear costs information, with choices if possible. If you can get those aspects of client service right, complaints will reduce.

In the next edition of Property in Practice, I will look at how best to respond to a complaint.

This was first published in our Property Section magazine Property in Practice

 

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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