Lawyer Gemma Carson of Wright Hassall Solicitors explores the steps you should take when caught up in a customer complaint.
Keep calm when you receive a complaint, or make matters worse
Whether you are working for an independent garage, a larger organisation or part of the supply chain, there will undoubtedly come a time when a complaint is made about the goods or services provided to your customers.
This may feel like an unjustified attack on your good name or even a tactic to avoid or delay payment. It’s human nature to take complaints personally and they can often trigger a knee-jerk reaction to defend the business by confronting the complainant.
Gemma Carson, Head of Dispute Resolution at law firm Wright Hassall, explains why businesses should first consider the consequences before acting on impulse.
Keep calm and don’t click send
It’s common to react badly to a complaint by sending an angry email or arguing the case over the phone. However, responding this way is likely to be a costly mistake.
When emotions run high, it is easy to fall into a dispute over the rights and wrongs, or actions and inactions, of one party or another.
The real problems surface when allegations or threats to take certain steps are made, without fully considering the terms originally agreed upon when both parties entered into the commercial relationship.
If you feel enraged, resist the temptation to respond aggressively. Before sending any e-mails, wait until you have calmed down as emails written in the heat of the moment can often backfire, particularly when a complaint becomes a dispute.
There are steps to be taken to help prevent making the situation worse. First, consider the content of the complaint.
It’s vital to carefully examine any service/contractual agreements to understand what they contain; are there relevant contractual terms you can refer to which could help manage the situation?
Never bury your head
It is important to take a proactive approach when dealing with a complaint as it’s unlikely to resolve itself. Prompt handling of every complaint can often prevent it developing into a major issue.
Face-to-face meetings in person often help to resolve issues before they escalate, so it is worth considering raising the matter directly.
But, if you suspect the complaint is a serious one, seek legal advice before making contact with the complainant and retain all relevant documentation relating to the complaint, including correspondence and any products or specimen products from the same batch.
Consider early intervention
Early intervention can prove very effective when a dispute cannot be resolved easily. Sometimes, more collaborative methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation, conciliation and negotiation, can deliver better outcomes than the traditional adjudicated court proceedings or arbitration. The potential benefits include:
Speed: A dispute can often be resolved more swiftly.
Costs: A significant reduction in costs compared to traditional court proceedings.
Flexibility: Offers more flexible and commercially-focused resolutions to disputes.
Relationships: Often enables both parties to preserve working or commercial relationships.
Publicity: Allows a confidential resolution process which will often be obligatory.
Concurrency: Approaches can often be used alongside other methods of dispute resolution when needed.
When to seek professional help
Seeking legal advice early on doesn’t necessarily mean a serious legal dispute has arisen.
Dispute resolution advice is very effective when delivered soon after the complaint is received. Whilst lawyers do not need to take an active role in the issue, they can offer strategic legal guidance focused on resolving complaint situations and diffuse potential disputes, whilst preserving the commercial position for the future.
The most crucial legal factor to remember is that a rash statement or decision to stop providing services or products, by sending that email without first considering the consequences, may cause a serious breach of contract.
In simple terms, a breach of contract can entitle the party affected by it to terminate the contract and bring legal proceedings against you for damages.
And for this reason, sending an email in haste could be a huge mistake that ends up costing time and money, both of which could be better spent managing or growing the business.
If parties have become so embroiled and legal proceedings seem the only option, appoint lawyers experienced in handling commercial disputes, who can clearly demonstrate a commitment to reaching an early, commercial and cost-effective resolution.