Good complaints handling is about communication and clarity. Fiona du Feu, Director of My Compliance Colleague, takes a look at how firms can improve.

In the Legal Ombudsman’s (LeO) Annual Complaints Data Overview we learn that 24% of complaints relate to delay. Failure to advise accounts for another 24%, poor communications 21% and costs 19%. There will always be external reasons why some matters do not make the progress expected, but even so, there is a common theme here.

Communication is key

Lawyers are failing to communicate and they don’t always recognise that. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’

Clients naturally come with expectations as to progress, timescale and costs. If these are not well managed, anxiety can build and, with the added stress of consulting lawyers, may well spiral into a complaint.

If a practice does not resolve that complaint internally, a client can take it to LeO and last year 6425 complainants did exactly that. This looks like a communications breakdown on an epic scale.

Can anything be done?

We must be up front and transparent about the complaints procedure and practices must have key information about complaints-handling on their website. It should be prominent and easy to find.

Provide it at the start of each transaction too: either in the retainer letter or Terms of Business. Is it clear to clients that they will not have to pay to make a complaint? Complaints must be addressed promptly, fairly, and free of charge under the Codes of Conduct.

But it’s not just about having the right procedures. Complaints do happen, but they can be reduced by pro-active management. Practices with a positive attitude to complaints can take positive business benefits.

Get feedback

Client feedback can be positive—cards and handshakes, flowers and glowing reviews all tell us we are doing well. But feedback can also be negative—including complaints, criticisms and grumbles. That feedback is equally valuable, because it tells us what needs to change to improve our business offering.

Look at complaints as the other side of the client satisfaction coin—the juxtaposition of the positives of client satisfaction and the negatives of complaints, highlights key client care issues for the firm—what’s good and what’s not going well. Practices that simply dismiss complaints are missing out.

Look for the learning opportunities that arise and then work hard to get things right.

There is a clear business case for getting complaints right: if each complaint absorbs roughly five hours of management time, regardless of any financial compensation or refund, it makes sense to reduce complaints to a minimum.

So, what can you do to ensure you are handling complaints well? Consider the following:

1. Defining a complaint

A good complaints procedure will only work if everyone in the firm can spot a complaint and is encouraged to do so. Spotting early indicators of discontent can avoid a grumble escalating into outright conflict.

If a complaint is discussed empathetically with the client at the time by the lawyer in charge, a full clear explanation is given, and followed up in an email, that may well be the end of it. Clients feel ‘heard’ when their concerns are listened to and ignoring those clues can lead to escalation.

2. If a complaint is made, stay objective

In analysing the client’s complaint in detail, the essential threads should be identified and addressed separately, taking into account any repetition. Again, this is about ‘hearing’ the client—treat their complaint respectfully but not defensively. Look at the evidence as a whole, being aware of any vulnerabilities of the client.

Ensure you have a detailed, objective knowledge of the file so that you can weigh the validity of the complaint, carefully referencing the evidence to support your objective conclusion. Avoid emotive or blaming language and strive to be clear and fair.

3. Create culture of support

Creating the ‘right’ culture around complaints is important—ensure that all complaints are taken seriously and are not habitually dismissed as mere whingeing. Staying positive about complaints, always seeing the potential for learning and improvement and, of course, avoiding blame, are all part of a support culture.

Focus on any learning opportunities which can be taken from the complaint—not just for the lawyer involved, but also for their team and the firm as a whole. Good complaints handling builds the team, it does not vilify the individual.

4. Record and analyse

Use the complaints register as an effective management tool to show at a glance all complaints received, arranged in chronological order with department, fee earner, theme of complaint, outcome and date of closure. The clear presentation of the data allows it to be analysed to identify weaknesses and trends, both immediately and over time.

Your analysis will show frequent flyers. Clients rarely complain about the advice given or the legal steps taken, but failure to stick to timescales/respond in a timely fashion/keep the client informed are far and away the most complained-of issues, as we have seen.

This information allows you to be an effective communicator who makes it a priority to discuss these vital issues frequently with clients. A review of your complaints data may indicate a need for targeted training for ineffective communicators as well.

5. Be clear and concise

Finally, check you are ‘speaking client’. Avoid slipping into legal language or jargon or using pompous or patronising language. Effective complaints handling, like almost every other legal skill, is about communication, not obfuscation.

What does success look like?

If you are leveraging complaints information to extract the maximum benefit for your practice, success will be evident:

  • the frequency of complaints received will be reduced
  • your management team will spend less time managing complaints
  • staff will deal pro-actively and empathetically with any unhappy clients and operate within a no-blame culture if a complaint is made
  • you will understand there are no negatives to having an effective complaints process
  • you will be able to analyse complaints data to identify corrective actions to refine and perfect your procedures
  • you can roll out further training when required, hold supervision meetings and ensure that best practice is adhered to through file reviews
  • you are tracking complaints by date and department to achieve challenging complaints KPIs

Job done - you are already fully awake to the business case for effective complaints handling.