Complaints not only have potential reputational issues for a business but responding to them takes up valuable management time, energy and money. Regardless of how good a service professional firms aims to provide, complaints are unfortunately inevitable. Every business ought therefore to be equipped to address complaints in a way which minimises their potential impact on the business.

Our Professional Indemnity team acts for a broad range of individuals, businesses and their insurers and is regularly instructed to advise on complaints received by professionals. Experience shows that complaints can range from a simple expression of dissatisfaction to a formal complaint to a professional regulator or Ombudsman. 

Here are our top tips for dealing with complaints, minimising business interruption and ensuring continuity of service:

1. Develop and follow a complaints handling process

    It is surprising how many businesses either do not have a complaints procedure, or more commonly, one which is not up to scratch. Was your complaints handling process drawn up several years ago? Has it been revisited since? If not, it is time for an update. The procedure should be enshrined in an easily digestible document and made known to employees and clients alike. Steps should then be taken to ensure it is being followed. A robust procedure is a business' roadmap for navigating its way to a resolution as quickly as possible and ideally before more formal action is taken by a complainer. Make sure it is compliant with any directions from your regulator.

    2. Appoint a Client Relations Manager

    Even in small businesses it is useful to designate one person to be the point of contact for dealing with any complaints received. Having someone who is familiar with the complaints procedure and used to dealing with issues like this can be invaluable. It is wise to get them involved at an early stage to help diffuse a difficult situation. Indeed, we recommend you make clear in your terms of business who the Client Relations Manager is. Ideally, they will be unconnected with the issue complained of, which helps bring a sense of impartiality and a perspective that can often be lost by the individual who is the subject of the complaint. This can be one of the simplest ways to diffuse a situation and relieve those individuals from managing a personally awkward situation. The Client Relations Manager can also take responsibility for developing and updating the Complaints Handling Procedure as and when needed, or to take account of lessons learned.

    3. Manage client expectations 

    Failing to identify or meet client expectations often gives rise to complaints. When it comes to the handling of a complaint, following the complaints handling procedure should ensure that error is not repeated. Do your best to ensure that you clearly set out what you are going to do, how you are going to do it, how long that will take and how much it will cost. Just as importantly, however, are the terms and conditions under which you do business. Even if unread by the client, they are crucial in setting out what can be expected on both sides of the professional relationship. Many professional regulators consider a failure to issue terms and conditions a breach of relevant codes of conduct.

    4. Identify trends

    While there can be a temptation to swiftly move on from what may have been a difficult experience as soon as a complaint is resolved, recording the circumstances of the complaint and carrying out some risk management analysis is useful. Complaints are an opportunity to learn, adapt and improve. Keeping a record of complaints can assist with identifying any systemic issues and enables changes to be made with a view to avoiding similar complaints being raised in future. Avoiding a blame culture is important and encouraging openness when complaints arise allows appropriate action to be taken quickly and enables a business to improve.

    5. Notify insurers

    Complaints need to be handled sensitively. If handled properly, a business can avoid the matter being escalated to a regulator, Ombudsman or even the courtroom. However, it is increasingly common to see a complaint instigated alongside a formal claim for compensation. Where a complaint might lead to a claim or court action, it is essential to promptly notify the business' insurers (whether under a professional indemnity, directors and officers or other relevant policy) as soon as possible. Insurers and solicitors can often assist in identifying and preventing steps being taken that could ultimately be prejudicial to the business should matters worsen and it avoids the risk that you could be in breach of your policy terms.

    Experience tells us that the volume of complaints and claims against professionals increases during times of economic hardship. Given the landscape of late, this may become a reality which several professionals and professional service firms will face in the coming months. However, following the above steps can enable a complaint to be resolved in-house without formal action being taken and prevent similar situations arising later.

    If you or your business are on the receiving end of a complaint, or need to review your processes, you may wish to contact one of our Professional Indemnity specialists to discuss your next steps and how best to minimise the impact the complaint may have on your business.


            Jo Kelbrick