The recent RICS Complaints Handling guidance note (1st Ed, July 2016) pools the experience gained by residential valuation firms, their insurers, brokers and legal advisors following the financial crisis and provides a user friendly guide on how best to handle complaints. Although the publication covers the "full life cycle" of a complaint, we consider those sections covering the early stages of the process to be particularly useful.
At its simplest, a complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction and, from time to time, all businesses will face complaints whether justified or nuisance. In our experience, effective handling of a complaint in the initial stages often results in an early resolution which can save substantial management time and resources and, perhaps more importantly, minimise the reputational repercussions on the business.
All RICS regulated firms should now be aware that they are required to have a published complaints handling procedure ("CHP") that meets the requirements of Rule 7 of the RICS Regulations. The Regulations do not provide a 'one size fits all' approach and it is left to each firm to decide on a CHP that is relevant to the scale and scope of the services they provide. When reviewing or updating your firm's CHP you should be sure to liaise with your firm's Professional Indemnity Insurance ("PII") broker to ensure that the processes prescribed by the CHP do not compromise PII cover but are symbiotic with its terms.
Receiving a complaint: initial actions
Upon receipt of a complaint, the first step is to identify whether it has been made by a valid complainant (i.e. one to whom the firm owes a duty of care). Once this is established, the firm must provide the complainant with a copy of the firm's CHP. The complaint should be acknowledged and, if not already provided, a written copy of the complaint should be requested.
The next step is for a senior member of the firm or compliance team to review the complaint, identify its root cause and consider how it can be addressed. We have seen complaint files where an early misunderstanding has led to an irreparable breakdown in communication resulting in the premature instruction of solicitors. RICS highlights that while all complaints should be taken seriously, it is important not to assume that there is a major problem. A surveyor will usually be an expert in his or her subject, whereas some clients may be far less familiar with the profession. A complaint may, therefore, sometimes not uncover a major error in the service provided but rather may reflect a client's lack of understanding of the advice or information provided.
Response and access to dispute resolution
A well-drafted initial response to a complainant is a crucial step towards resolution. A lack of care, empathy, accuracy or reasonableness at this stage could cause the complainant to harden their stance and lead to the early instruction of solicitors.
RICS highlights the following points as key when responding to a complaint:
- Check your insurance policy to establish if you are required to consult your insurer or broker prior to responding to the complainant.
- Respond within the timescales previously set out to the complainant or contained within the CHP.
- Put yourself in the position of the complainant and consider whether the draft response directly addresses their concerns.
- Tailor the tone of the response to the circumstances and the client. If it is directly to the client, the tone may be less formal than to a solicitor.
- Refer to the availability of an external ADR provider. Make it clear that the complainant should use this route before pursuing a claim.
- Make the complainant aware of the Ombudsman service, emphasising that use of this service can bring a quick and effective resolution to complaints.
RICS also highlights that, while it is appropriate to apologise for the client's need to complain, firms should be careful not to make admissions of fault or liability. The apology is merely to establish a degree of sympathy. If in doubt as to how best to word an apology we recommend liaising with your broker who will often have experience of handling similar complaints and will ensure the PII cover is not compromised.
Terms of Engagement
Commonly, a client will complain when they consider that the service provided to them has fallen short of their expectations. These expectations should be set by the terms of engagement provided to the client during the instruction stage. Terms of engagement should be used as a tool to define the scope of the services provided, using clear, non-technical language. In our view, it is not a coincidence that many of the complaints that we receive as formal claims relate to files where no Terms of Engagement were provided.
Escalation and learning from experience
In summary, well drafted terms of engagement coupled with careful and considerate handling of a complaint from the outset are the best tools to ensure quick resolution of any complaints. The much-repeated advice of keeping accurate records also applies. If you are able to show a client that the appropriate steps were carried out, by reference to contemporaneous documentary evidence, you may well be able to take the heat out of the complaint before it is escalated any further. However, it will not always be possible to resolve a complaint at an early stage, and if a complaint is indeed escalated it is important to keep your broker informed, particularly if a formal claim is intimated. Often PII policies contain provision for external claims handling services and your broker will be able to advise on cover and next steps.
Last but not least, it is important to remember that a client who has had their complaint efficiently dealt with at an early stage, before any significant financial or emotional investment, is more likely to move on from the grievance and relay a positive message about the firm in circumstances where they felt their grievance was taken seriously and dealt with professionally and efficiently. A final word of warning from the Institute of Customer Service: four out of five customers would spread the word if a complaint has been handled badly, whereas nearly all customers would recommend a company if a complaint has been resolved efficiently. This is surely all the incentive that is needed!