Dealing with Complaints Guidance

The purpose of this guidance document is to consider how complaints should be managed and propose a design for a ‘Complaints Handling Procedure’ that can be adapted and adopted by member companies.

Introduction

Businesses are often judged by the way in which they handle customer complaints. In any transaction there is the possibility that the client will be dissatisfied and will generate a complaint. If a complaint is made and this is resolved promptly, sympathetically and professionally, it can generate confidence in the service provider and lead to repeat or continued business. If, on the other hand, complaints are handled poorly the client will have been lost, probably, forever. The delivery of poor service can in turn reflect badly on the industry as a whole.

Complaints are frequently the result of misunderstandings and are often exacerbated by mishandling. This may lead to wasted time, financial loss and stress to both business manager and client. Very often the final cost of reaching a settlement far exceeds the cost of rectification. A well-managed and responsive complaints management procedure will save a company time and money. At the start of the complaints process it can be prudent to remember that the adage ‘…the customer is always right’ often applies.

At this stage it is worth pointing out that a request for a re-inspection is not in itself a complaint and should be handled in accordance with the guideline previously supplied to members (Guidelines on Investigation Procedures For Re-inspection TS08) and available on line from our website or by contacting the office. Needless to say a poorly managed re-inspection procedure is highly likely to result in a complaint. The completion of and attendance to snagging items should also be carefully and responsively managed as poor performance at this stage of a contract can quickly lead to a customer complaint.

Receipt of Complaint

Customer complaints may be channeled through any of a number of routes:

  • Verbal to the technician
  • Over the telephone to branch or head office
  • By email
  • By fax/letter
  • Via a third party – solicitor, Trading Standards etc
The adoption of strategies further down the above list may indicate an increasing measure of dissatisfaction and of how persistent and adamant the customer is likely to be in seeking satisfaction. Very often this list forms an ascending sequence of customer action, with a corresponding descending sequence of diminishing returns, i.e. at each stage it becomes more difficult and costly to resolve the dispute.

The technician and the receptionist should be trained to recognise the warning signs of a customer complaint and ‘head them off’ before they develop into something more serious.

Verbal Complaints

When faced with a verbal complaint either face to face or over the telephone the complaint recipient should:

  • Remain calm, patient and polite.
  • Give the complainant the opportunity to describe the nature of their complaint.
  • Refrain from interrupting, contradicting or arguing with the complainant.
  • Remain in control of events and refrain from being provoked by an irate or unreasonable complainant.
  • Try to find a positive solution to the customer’s problem.
  • In the event that a simple solution does not seem feasible or is outside the discretion of the recipient then the complaint should be referred to a higher authority and/or put in writing. The reasons for taking this action should be put across in a positive and helpful manner with an explanation as to why he/she is unable to resolve the complaint immediately.
  • If a practical solution is possible, this should be offered promptly, and should be performed ungrudgingly, if necessary with an apology. A curt manner will undo all of the good being generated by rectifying the problem.
  • If attendance on site is required a mutually convenient date and time should be arranged and honoured. If, despite every effort, a delay cannot be avoided, this should be communicated directly to the customer. Under no circumstance should an appointment be broken leaving the customer uninformed and awaiting the arrival of a staff member.

Written Complaints

If a customer is moved to submit a written complaint it is an indication that the customer has thought the issues through. Treatment of a written complaint should be decisive and timely, the company’s management of a written complaint should not add to the client’s frustration or feelings of dissatisfaction. The recipient of a written complaint should:

  • Record the complaint
  • Acknowledge the complaint within 5 days
  • The acknowledgement should, depending on the nature of the complaint, illustrate what action you will be taking and how soon they can expect a full reply.
  • If the nature of the complaint is not fully understood clarification of the outstanding points should be sought from the complainant at this stage.
  • If the complaint is justified then it should be resolved as described for a verbal complaint.

Disputed Complaints

In the event that a complaint cannot be resolved easily then a dispute resolution procedure needs to be available. There are usually two sides to every story and it is human nature for each side to put a ‘supporting spin’ on their account of events. A manager will need the ‘judgement of Solomon’ to resolve such disputes and, since business managers are hardly impartial, resolution ultimately may require the mediation of a third party, or, ultimately some form of arbitration. When such a situation arises, a personal letter to the complainant will be required. The letter should be:

  • Polite and unemotional.
  • It should summarise the points that the manager understands the customer to be dissatisfied with.
  • It should offer explanations where appropriate and set out any differences in interpretation between sides.
  • Even in the event that the manager considers the complaints unreasonable, compromises should be considered.
  • In the event that the customer is demanding a refund this may not be considered reasonable if there has been no opportunity to resolve the outstanding problem.
  • If a full or partial refund is offered it should be made clear that this is ‘without prejudice’.
  • If the complainant alleges that damage or injury has taken place, the businesses’ insurers should be notified straight away. The insured should not wait until a claim is made, since statements made during the dispute may jeopardise defence of that claim. The insurer will guide the insured in such disputes.

Complaints Received via a Third Party

In the event that a complaint is received via a third party e.g. a solicitor or a trading standards officer, it should be handled as with a written complaint. If legal action is being threatened other than acknowledging receipt of the complaint, no further action should be taken before reporting the facts to your insurers. Remember actions taken by you without reference to, or contrary to the advice of your insurer, may jeopardise your position. If necessary it may also be useful to prepare a defence against the claim or to lodge a counter claim, in such circumstances it may be wise to seek legal advice.

Mediation and Arbitration

If mutually acceptable in situations where agreement still cannot be found, stalemate may be broken by mediation or arbitration. Although often thought of as the same thing, there are considerable differences:

Mediation – Usually does not seek to impose a resolution to a dispute, merely to find a mutually acceptable compromise for both parties. The PCA operates its own low cost mediation service.

Arbitration – Involves the intervention of an independent third party who takes evidence from both sides and then makes a judgement. Arbitration requires that both parties agree to accept the outcome of the process before it gets under way. To all intents and purpose the final judgement of arbitration is legally binding. The PCA has retained access to independent arbitration through The Institute of Independent Arbitrators.

In each case a third party will be involved and there will be some element of cost. The final fees could be considerable and so an understanding as to who will meet these costs must be reached prior to the commencement of these procedures. Failure to quantify costs before the utilisation of these services may become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Appendix 1

Model Complaints Handling Procedure

It is a requirement of the Association that all members and affiliates demonstrate that they have adopted a procedure for dealing with complaints. This model complies with the minimum standard expected by the PCA.

This document can be reproduced amended or adopted by any members of the PCA as considered appropriate by the individual member.

This document provides an example of a complaints procedure that can be provided to a client in the event of a dispute.

Model

This note sets out the procedure that we will follow when dealing with any complaint.

We have appointed name, contact details to deal with your complaint. If you have any questions or if you would like to make a complaint, please do not hesitate to contact him/her.

If you have initially made a complaint verbally – whether face to face or over the telephone, please also put it in writing and address your letter to contact details shown above.

When we have received your written complaint, name above will contact you in writing within seven* days. At this stage we will give you our understanding of the complaint that has been made. It may be necessary to arrange further site visits and collect additional information from other parties involved with the complaint. We will also invite you to make any further comments that you may have in relation to this.

Within twenty one* days of receipt of your written complaint, name will write to you and inform you of the outcome of his/ her investigation into your complaint and let you know what actions we have taken or will take.

If you are dissatisfied with any aspect of our handling of your complaint or the outcome of our investigations, please feel free to contact insert name, who will review your complaint and contact you within fourteen days* to inform you of the conclusions of this review (complaints reviews should be conducted by senior directors, regional managers or in the case of a very small company or sole trader, another person who the sole trader or principal is prepared to have reviewed unresolved complaints).

If you remain dissatisfied with any aspect of our initial handling of your complaint and/or the separate review, then we can discuss whether we can agree to go to mediation that is operated by the PCA.

If you remain unhappy with the result of any of the above and your complaint remains unresolved you can refer your complaint to arbitration provided that it falls in scope of the scheme. The Institute of Independent Arbitrators currently operates the arbitration scheme for the PCA.

Note
If you decide to seek a legal remedy to the dispute at any time, then the following procedure will be curtailed with immediate effect.
The time limits shown are recommendations only but should ensure that complaints are dealt within a reasonable time frame.