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Are you ready to publish your firm's complaints data?

There did seem to be a news article nearly every other week at the tail end of 2017 announcing that Solicitors will be forced to publish their complaints data on their websites. Such articles came from “consumer interest” groups and others such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority publishing research on the subject of complaints.

Many of our solicitor firm clients simply don’t understand why firms may be forced to publish their complaints, after all, first tier complaints are already published on the Legal Ombudsman website, should clients want to look. And to paraphrase one solicitor, “do hospitals publish the number of deaths that have occurred on their wards on their websites” – this in reference to clients checking firm’s websites as comparators for performance based on complaints.

Unfortunately for solicitors firms, this measure at the present time looks set to happen at some point, as the SRA pile unrelenting change on the profession. It’s difficult to know which future event is more unpopular at the moment; being forced to publish complaints data on the firm’s website, or being forced to publish prices, both of which could well take place in 2018.

Rather than dwell on the negative, it may be time for firms to consider their approach to complaints prior to any such publication of them.

So, firstly what is a complaint?

The Law Society Lexcel standard states the firm has to provide the definition of a complaint, and the most widely used is “any expression of dissatisfaction received by the firm whether verbally, electronically or via letter.”

That is a really wide definition and firms already treat it in different ways. For example, a client ringing to complain that they can’t reach a particular fee earner on any given day is treated by some firms as a complaint, because they take the view that any expression of dissatisfaction is a learning opportunity to improve their client service.

And that’s fine, until you have to report it and it is being compared with other firms, some of which do not take the same rigid approach. In this case, it might be better to simply note it as client feedback rather than a complaint, which is the view other firms will take.

It will be interesting to see if the SRA prescribe the mechanism for firms to complete this activity and publish it. If they do, then it will be a level playing field with all firms, if they don’t then it will allow room for firms to treat statistics on complaints with some “margin for error.”

Overall, the best thing for firms is to adopt a high quality client service ethos in the first place, and prevent any form of complaint from occurring in the first instance. The best place to start such an ethos is with the initial client meeting, where expectations and costs are explained in language the client understands and followed up with a good quality, easy to follow client care and terms of business letter.

For many firms, given the amount of regulatory information that has to be provided to the client, this can be a real challenge, and the burden of such information is only likely to increase. Take the provisions in the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) set to come into force at the end of May 2018. These provisions require new information and in some cases it has to be clearly separate to the rest of the information sent to the client in order for them to provide unequivocal informed consent regarding the processing of their personal data.

Following the initial communication however, the client has to receive communication regarding their matter as appropriate to the firm’s service standards and the client’s expectations – another area where firms are exposed, particularly if the fee earner dealing with a matter is over capacity with too much work on; the usual trend following this is that communication with the client becomes one of the first casualties, and often this is not recognised until a complaint is received.

So to summarise;

·         Start considering the firm’s current approach to complaints recording and decide whether its definition of complaints is too wide or too narrow

·         Review the firm’s services for how effective the initial client care meeting and information is across all categories

·         Ensure Supervisors understand the problems with over capacity and that systems are in place to alert to the issue and prevent complaints from forming

 

There are many other things that can be considered to effectively minimise complaints, but for this article, we just wanted to raise awareness of the issues connected to firm’s if they do have to publish their complaints data on their own websites for the first time.

 

If your firm could do with training on how to handle complaints effectively, we will be running a complaints handling course on the 21st May 2018.

More information can be found here;

http://cpm21.co.uk/uploads/downloads/COMP002%20-%20Complaints%20Handling%20&%20Dealing%20with%20The%20Legal%20Ombudsman-%20V1%20Elective%20May%202018.pdf