Don’t react hastily to complaints

Despite the quality service your business prides itself on, there is likely to come a time when you receive a complaint from a customer. Gemma Carson, head of Wright Hassall Solicitor’s dispute resolution team, explains how the wrong reaction can do more harm than good.

Many companies complaints as an unwarranted attack on their reputation or even a ploy to avoid or delay payment. Understandably, some business owners can feel aggrieved after receiving a complaint and feel compelled to engage in a war of words with the complainant.

It’s not uncommon for an individual to respond to criticism with an angry phone call or email, but that could exacerbate the matter.

When emotions are running high, it is easy to get embroiled in a heated dispute as to the rights and wrongs, mistakes and failures, or actions and inactions of one party or another. This can prove to be an expensive mistake for businesses.

Things can quickly escalate and problems arise when allegations or threats to take certain steps are made, without consideration given to the terms originally agreed when the commercial relationship was entered into.

There is plenty that can be done to reduce the risk of worsening the situation. Initially, consider the content of the complaint and, importantly, make no commitments or threats.

One strategy people use is to ‘mantelpiece’ their original thoughts and feelings by writing an email and saving it to their drafts. This allows time for you to calm down, and assess whether it’s logical to proceed with such a response; it’s likely you will see things differently having taken a step back.

Check whether a service agreement and/or a contract exists between the parties; read any agreements carefully to clarify what they actually say.

With an agreement in place, you may be able to respond by pointing out relevant contractual terms to help better manage the situation.

When dealing with a complaint, be proactive and do not ignore it. By responding to a complaint promptly you can stop it from developing into a much bigger problem.

Meeting face to face often helps air problems before they escalate. Either raise the matter directly or seek legal advice before doing so.

If it feels more serious, retain all the information relating to the issue, including documents, correspondence and product checks.

If a dispute cannot be resolved easily, early intervention could prove effective by using more collaborative methods of dispute resolution. These include mediation, conciliation and negotiation, as opposed to traditional adjudicated court proceedings or arbitration.

Early intervention options offer significant benefits:

Dispute resolution advice is very effective when delivered as an issue first emerges. Lawyers do not need to necessarily take an active role, but they can offer legal guidance focused on strategy and resolving complaint situations by diffusing potential disputes, while preserving the commercial position for the future.

The most important legal factor to remember is that a rash statement or decision to stop providing a service, by sending that e-mail draft without first putting it on the virtual mantelpiece, may cause a serious breach of contract.

A breach of contract can entitle the party affected to terminate the contract and bring legal proceedings against you for damages.

Finally, if parties have become so embroiled that legal proceedings seem the only option, choose to work with experienced lawyers, accomplished in commercial disputes who demonstrate a commitment to an early, pragmatic, commercial and cost-effective resolution.