Take it on the chin

Is the number of complaints a firm receives from a particular client a good indicator of the strength of the relationship with them?

We would say yes. If the firm receives no complaints from a client the relationship is probably in real danger. Complaints are good! Clients do not complain enough. Why? Overwhelmingly, it seems, because they cannot be bothered.

Research into service businesses suggests that only one in 26 unhappy clients complains. The ones who complain are more likely to come back than those who do not. So there are 25 people out there who, if we could get them to complain, would be more likely to remain loyal to us.

Of course our clients will complain bitterly if we deliver bad advice and lose them thousands of pounds, or if we delay our advice so that they miss a massive commercial opportunity. But they will only communicate their niggles about our service if they are given the opportunity and if they care enough.

Think of all the times you are given poor or mediocre service – how often do you complain?

Most of us keep the frustration to ourselves, go somewhere else and then tell our friends about it. The average unhappy client tells 9 to 10 other people about it. Your unheard, but less than satisfied, clients are at this very moment undermining your reputation and making it more difficult to win new clients for the firm.

Conversely, clients who have had a complaint resolved satisfactorily will tell five people about it – marketing that is worth thousands of pounds of your promotional budget.

Handled well, a complaint gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to your client.

The message is clear – get all of your clients to complain or feedback, often. Especially your key clients. Through our research, we have found that most law firms believe their clients are very happy with their delivery of fee earning work. However, very few have a process to get feedback on every major piece of work they carried out.

In our experience, the underlying reason for a firm or individual not maximising the amount and quality of feedback they receive is the unspoken assumption that complaints are bad – bad for the person and their reputation, bad for the firm and bad for the client.

Change will only come once that perception is changed. Only when complaints are seen throughout the firm as opportunities to improve what we do, to demonstrate that we are listening to the client and acting on their feedback, to show that we care and are not afraid of hearing the truth and to differentiate us from the competition, will there be a change of attitude.

Another reason is that firms lack a process and the means to handle feedback effectively. The firm can create this process, or it can adhere to external guidelines such as ISO. Whatever the system, it should include a full understanding of the client’s perception of the situation. We hear many lawyers argue that a client’s perception of a particular situation is wrong. This is incorrect. A client’s perception can never be wrong or right – it just is. They have experienced the firm in a way that has developed this perception. If we are to change it, we must fully understand all the incidents which led to it being developed.

Speed is another vital component, nothing makes a complaint worse than delay – it gives the impression that our firm does not care about the client’s concerns. Any system needs to set key time deadlines for communicating back to the client our understanding of their concern, our explanation and solution to resolve the issue. 

Emotion should not get in the way of handling complaints, but invariably it does. None of us likes criticism, however much we try to show how tough we are. Objectivity and empathy are essential to a complaint being handled well and this can be developed through staff training. Some firms give responsibility to a team of people to handle complaint and feedback gathering – they often represent senior people in the practice to build confidence in the client that their concerns are being taken seriously. A word of warning though – if the feedback is seen internally as a stick to hit people with it will have little positive effect.

Resolving a complaint, may take some time. However the client will be patient if they are kept informed of what is going on and if they perceive it to be in their interest. Silence will only give the impression that we are ignoring them.

The client’s perception of how well their complaint is handled will be influenced by what we tell them we are going to do, what timescale this will take and our actual performance against these. If we can under promise and over deliver – either by being quicker or by taking and explaining our additional actions to resolve the issue, the client is more likely to be impressed. With under promising, our proposition must still satisfy the client – otherwise we will just be aggravating the situation further.

What we offer will depend on what the complaint relates to. Usually when a client complains, they have an idea of the resolution they want. We should not be afraid to ask them what this is. With this knowledge we will be more effective at giving them the result they want, or structuring the dialogue to reach a compromise.

Once we have resolved the complaint, we should not try and pretend it never happened. We can build further loyalty in this client if we periodically check that they are happy and have no further concerns about our service. This can be done through formal client review meetings, or by giving them a call from time to time.

If we are to build a loyal client base by effectively handling feedback, as well as a system we must develop a positive view throughout the firm that feedback is good. This can be achieved through training, but also with encouragement from the top.

Complaints really are good – they just don’t feel like it. 

Building a loyal client base from complaints checklist

1. Establish a framework for feedback and complaint handling within your firm, which covers:

  • a procedure for gathering and reporting feedback/complaints
  • the people responsible for resolving complaints; and
  • action plans which ensure speed of response, good communication with the client and delivery of resolution
  • Test the system to check what the clients like and fine-tune it to make good practice repeatable and learning easy. Communicate its features and benefits throughout the firm.

2. Start changing internal perceptions towards feedback and complaints by:

  • developing fee earners, especially partners, on how to handle feedback
  • educating staff that the client’s perception is all that counts – it is neither right nor wrong – it just is.

3. Measure success in improved client relationships, increased fee income and referrals and increased confidence of all who have client contact. 

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