Managing Complaints – Part II
Implementing a complaint handling procedure
In part one of this series of three articles dealing with complaint handling, we looked at the need for complaint handling procedures and in particular at the benefits that can be derived from an effective complaint handling system and at the practical and regulatory reasons why firms should have an effective system.
In this second part we will go on to look at the kind of issues to which firms should be giving thought before implementing a system. We will then, in part three, look at the more practical steps and at what needs to be in a complaint handling policy.
Knowing why you need a complaint handling process is one thing but actually going about producing a policy which adequately addresses all of the necessary issues is quite another. In this article we look at some of the factors to be borne in mind and some of the issues which will need to be addressed.
Before we go on and deal with how to set up a system within your firm we should mention that there are a number of external/third party solutions available to assist you with complaint handling. These include consultants who can assist you in setting up a policy which meets the precise needs of your firm, external complaints services that will take some of the burden of complaint handling from you and software programmes that will allow you to monitor more easily across your firm complaints and how they are dealt with. We recommend that you look into whether any of these are of assistance to your firm before embarking on other routes.
If you require specific assistance in dealing with a particular complaint, want to explore more fully the options open to you or simply need help putting in place a new complaints procedure, then the Lawyers Defence Group can assist you. You can contact us by:
- phoning us on 0333 888 4070,
- emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or
- writing to Lawyers Defence Group, Richard Nelson LLP, Priory Court, 1 Derby Road, Nottingham, NG9 2TA.
What is a Complaint?
Before we go on to look at how complaints are dealt with, it is worth taking a moment to consider precisely what we mean by a complaint.
A complaint does not have to be as obvious as someone stating that they wish to complain. Indeed, it does not need to be any specific statement of dissatisfaction. Complaints come in many shapes and sizes ranging from someone expressing annoyance at the fact that the firm has not replied when they said they would through to formal letters of complaint. It is vital that everyone within the firm is able to spot a complaint – or even a situation that could potentially lead to a complaint, and head it off before it becomes a formal one. As we shall emphasise later in this article, the earlier in its life a complaint is dealt with the easier it is to resolve.
Not all clients who have a grievance with the firm will make a formal complaint. They may feel intimated, they may not think it is worthwhile doing so, they may be concerned that it will damage the relationship they have with the firm. They may, however, decide not to use the firm on future occasions or to tell their friends about the problems they had.
A survey undertaken by YouGov on behalf of the Legal Ombudsman found that around half of those questioned were unhappy with the service which they had received whilst other surveys have suggested that as many as 80% of clients with a grievance do not complain.
A complaint can be defined as an expression of dissatisfaction or concern by a client or third party, however made, about the conduct, standard of service, cost, actions or lack of action by a firm or an individual within the firm. The Legal Ombudsman list 18 main categories of complaint, including:
- lack of costs information,
- excessive costs,
- failure to follow instructions, and
- failure to keep papers safe
although the number of issues about which complaints could be made probably far exceed this.
The point to bear in mind about any complaint is that it may start small and may pass almost unnoticed. The client who in passing mentions the length of time it took to write a letter could become one with a formal complaint if it happens more than once. It is essential, therefore, that all staff – not just fee earners – be alert to the disgruntled client and that someone is alerted sooner rather than later so that remedial steps can be taken.
Getting the right culture
If as a firm you are going to avoid small grievances turning into major complaints, then it is necessary to ensure that the right culture is in place. That can mean several things including:
- making sure that staff do not take the view that all clients whinge and they should be ignored when they do,
- taking steps to educate staff in how to explain things so that clients understand,
- getting rid of the “this would be a great job if it wasn’t for the clients” culture,
- remaining positive about complaints and making sure all staff remain positive,
Firms should also avoid at all costs having a culture of blame – taking an overly censorious view towards those staff members about whom a complaint is made is unlikely to persuade those staff members to react positively, and firms may even find that staff members try to hide complaints from managers rather than dealing with them in a way which is in the best interests of the firm.
Steps should also be taken ensure that all staff are aware that complaints often begin life as minor niggles and grievances. All staff members should be alert to these niggles and know how to take appropriate steps to deal with them while they are at that early stage. This means putting in place training on complaints handling.
Implementing an appropriate policy
The most important aspect, however, is to have a complaint procedure that is adequate for the firms purposes – neither too basic nor too complicated – and to ensure that all staff:
- understand the procedure,
- understand what is expected of them, and
- understand the support that the firm will give them in dealing with those complaints that arise.
Any system which is adopted should be:
- prompt – as soon as a complaint is made, or as soon as someone perceives that a client is unhappy, there should be an effective system for dealing with that dissatisfaction;
- fair – the client should feel that, having complained they are having their matter looked at fairly and impartially. Remember, not every complaint will end up in a finding in favour of the complainant so it is vital that every opportunity is taken to ensure that clients feel that the complaint has been taken seriously, has been thoroughly investigated and has been impartial;
- comprehensible – keep the system as simple as possible and ensure that the client understands now only how it works and what the firm will be doing and when, but also what is expected of them as clients;
- able to respect confidentiality – the investigation of a complaint should not lead to confidences being breached or conflicts arising;
- able to provide both explanations and remedies – if something has gone wrong, the client needs to know why it has gone wrong and why a particular method of compensation is being offered. If nothing has gone wrong, then the client needs to have it explained to them that that is the case and what they can do if they remain dissatisfied with the outcome.
Finally, the system of complaint handling should ensure that the firm is given an opportunity to learn and to take steps so that problems of that nature do not arise again.
Nature of the complaint handling process
The extent of your complaints handling process will be dictated by the size and complexity of your firm.
A large firm may need a more complex complaint handling process than a smaller firm, but in all cases, the process should be no more complicated than is necessary.
The process established should ensure that:
- complaints are handled at as early a stage in their life-cycle as possible. Frontline staff (i.e. those actually dealing with clients) should receive training in how to handle initial complaints and be given authority to deal with low-level complaints where necessary. This could involve, for example, apologising for failing to send a letter or reply to a telephone call sufficiently promptly.
- where complaints are more serious, that they are effectively referred upwards for investigation or review. This could include:
- where the complaint is more serious and requires the firm to look into it, or
- where the complaint demonstrates that there are repeated or systematic failings within the firm, or
- where the complaint follows on from a complaint made to the frontline staff member and that matter has not been able to dealt with adequately
This may involve the need for investigation or review by someone in the practice not involved in the matter and sufficiently senior so as to be able to deal with the matter appropriately.
- where a matter is not able to be resolved within the practice information is provided about subsequent steps – the firm may wish to be able to offer the client the opportunity for an independent person, such as a mediator, to look into the matter. Alternatively, the firm may simply wish for the matter to go to the Legal Ombudsman.
- the firm is able to learn from the experience – thus the firm should have a system for monitoring complaints and analysing why they were made and what needs to be done to ensure that they do not continue to arise.
In addition, firms should have a system which:
- informs the client at the outset about how complaints can be made, the time-frame for doing so and to whom those complaints should be addressed;
- provides the client with a copy of the firm’s complaints procedure on request; and
- in the event that a client makes a complaint, provides them with all necessary information concerning the handling of the complaint.
The client-focused complaint policy
Firms will need to implement a policy capable of explaining to the client:
- the manner in which complaints are to be made. Bear in mind that this should ideally allow them to complain by the method most suited to them and which takes account of any problems they may have in communication – for example language, disability or geography;
- to whom the complaint should be made. It must be made clear to whom within the firm the complaint is to be made and how the matter will be referred on;
- how the complaint will be dealt with after it is made. In other words what will be done to investigate it, how the complainant will be advised of the outcomes, the form that advice will take and the remedies that may be offered,
- how long each stage of the process is likely to take. That is to say how soon they will receive an acknowledgement, when it will be investigated, how long the investigation is likely to take and so forth.
A draft complaints policy for firms to amend to their own requirements can be found on our web site and is available, free of charge, to registered members. That policy covers issues including:
- when an acknowledgement of receipt will be sent. This should be very soon after receipt of the complaint,
- how the complaint will be investigated and who is likely to do the investigating,
- having investigated the complaint, how and when the client will be advised of the outcome and offered the opportunity to discuss that outcome,
- what the client should do if still dissatisfied,
- how, if at all, the matter will be further reviewed,
- what the client should do if still dissatisfied after a further review.
Firm policy and procedures
However, this is only the client-facing part of the policy. For a policy to be adequate, the firm also needs to deal with other issues in its policy, including:
- how complaints are to be recorded – it is vital that the firm knows what is being complained about, who is complaining and why otherwise it will not be able to ensure that complaints of that nature do not arise in the future,
- who within the firm needs to be notified of the complaint and when – minor complaints can perhaps be dealt with at fee-earner or departmental level whilst serious complaints may need to be referred to partners,
- who has authority for dealing with a particular level of complaint – departmental heads for example dealing with less serious complaints,
- what the time-scales for investigation are and the parameters for that investigation,
- when complaints need to be escalated to a higher level of management,
- the circumstances which can result in no action being taken or communication with the complainant will cease,
- guidelines on remedies,
- methods of staff training – all personnel need to be aware of the policy and what it requires of them.
These are then the desired policies behind a good complaints handling system but what does this mean in practice. In the final part of this article we will look in slightly more detail at what is required in practice and put forward a draft policy that firms can take and adapt to their own circumstances