Mediation matters

Disputes between homeowners and installers are rare, but they are a fact of life. Tony Pickup, founder of consumer protection organisation DGCOS, discusses how effective mediation often provides the best outcome for everyone involved – especially the installer.

Installing windows, doors and conservatories is a complex business, one which homeowners don’t always appreciate. We’re dealing with the very fabric of a building here and – especially when installing replacements – every fitter can tell you horror stories of the unexpected problems they’ve found when old windows have been removed. On top of that, there are more people involved in a window and door job than meets the eye: installers, fabricators, hardware suppliers, glass manufacturers – they all have a part to play (and deliver).

However, when a homeowner signs a contract and pays their deposit, they’re entitled to expect a professional job, done on time and to a specification that was agreed. This is their home, and they have a right to want things done correctly. They understand that things don’t always go to plan, but in most cases they just want the problem resolved to their satisfaction.

The problem occurs when – occasionally and for whatever reason – customer expectations don’t match up with what’s delivered and installed. In those circumstances, you have the seed of a dispute.

When things don’t go quite according to plan, the key to avoiding friction is communication. Tell the homeowner what has happened and why. Be honest. Whether it was something outside of your control or a genuine mistake, in most cases the homeowner will understand and be reasonable about it. Between the two parties you’ll be able to work out a compromise, whether that’s coming back to rectify something, altering a specification, or even as a last resort offering a discount, there’s usually a reasonable solution that saves everyone time, money and stress.

However, if that doesn’t work, and you hit an impasse, that’s when tempers can start to rise. When that happens, it’s time for professional mediation.

Some people view mediation as the last resort – something to go to when you’ve tried everything else (and failed). It’s almost like admitting defeat.

In reality mediation works best when started early, before positions get too entrenched and mistrust sets in. The goal of mediation is to find the simplest possible compromise that is acceptable to everyone, and by starting the process sooner rather than later, everyone can benefit.

Homeowners don’t want long, drawn-out disputes with constant call-outs and days off work, while installers don’t want to waste time and money arguing with a homeowner over unreasonable requests while not getting paid.

Mediation can help avoid all that by bringing in a third party who’s knowledgeable, calm and impartial, and whose only agenda is to find a solution that works for everyone.

Once a mediator is involved, they’ll assess the situation clearly and impartially. What did the customer expect? What has the installer done? How and why do they differ? Are other parties (eg suppliers) involved and what can they do to help? What has already been done to resolve the situation?

Based on that, the mediator can then suggest a workable, reasonable compromise agreement based on the facts, from a position with no vested interests, and that gives everyone a satisfactory outcome.

DGCOS members and the homeowners who sign contracts with them have access to the DGCOS mediation service. In the eight years since DGCOS was launched our mediation service has been used more than 3,000 times. Since 2015, more than 65% of disputes have been resolved satisfactorily in under seven days.

Although many view DGCOS as primarily an ombudsman scheme, in reality fewer than 1% of disputes ever get that far. It’s good to know that it’s there, but it’s very rarely used.

More importantly, what those numbers represent are hundreds of projects where things went wrong, an immediate solution didn’t present itself and often tempers were frayed. However, rather than turning into full-blown disputes, the issues were resolved quickly and efficiently, orchestrated by DGCOS mediators.

For installers that means less management time wasted and less money spent. But the most valuable benefit of all is that the projects were completed without public complaints or any loss of reputation.