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Complaints handling

Complaints handling

Complaints-handling procedures

There are many reasons why clients complain, and it is not unusual to receive at least one complaint during your professional career. Despite this, most people find it difficult to receive a complaint. This is why it is vital to have a good complaints-handling procedure (CHP), in order to provide reassurance and support that you are following the right process.

RICS has issued extensive guidance on this subject in the current edition of Complaints handling, RICS guidance note.

If you have never received a complaint, it can be difficult to know where to begin when one arises. It’s important to consider what is proportionate when handling complaints. For instance, a minor expression of dissatisfaction may be resolved with a phone call, whereas a serious complaint about misconduct or negligence is likely to require a much more formal approach.

Below are some helpful pointers.

  • Publish your complaints-handling procedure and signpost your clients to this.
  • Record all complaints in a complaints log.
  • Make sure everyone who works for you understands what complaints should be logged and where.
  • Empower employees to deal with dissatisfaction themselves where appropriate, but encourage them to direct more serious concerns or dissatisfaction to the complaints process. Check that they do so.
  • Understand what your professional indemnity insurance says about informing the insurer about concerns. If you are not sure, speak to your broker.
  • Take all complaints seriously. Do not make any assumptions about the likely outcome of the complaint until it has been fully investigated.
  • Maintain professionalism when handling a complaint. You may feel angry or upset but it won’t help to resolve the complaint if you come across as overly defensive or argumentative.
  • If the complaint is about the service you have provided, consider asking someone independent, such as another member at your firm, to review it or to check that the tone and substance of your response is appropriate.
  • If you are finding the complaint difficult to deal with, seek support. Lionheart offers support to members if you would prefer not to talk to friends, family or colleagues, but remember that having a complaint is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Handle the complaint in a timely manner and keep the complainant updated throughout. If you can’t meet any timescales in your CHP, tell the complainant as early as possible and tell them when you will be able to respond.
  • If you can’t resolve the complaint, help your client understand where they can go next. This is especially important if you offer a wide range of services and so have multiple alternative dispute resolution (ADR) providers listed in your CHP, or if your ADR provider has a limit on claims it will consider.
  • If a complaint has uncovered a serious breach by the firm or a member of staff (e.g. missing client money), report this to RICS regulation in accordance with the Rules for the registration of firms and Bye-Laws.

Alternative dispute resolution

Where available in their jurisdiction, regulated firms must provide alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as part of their complaints-handling procedure (CHP). The RICS Standards and Regulation Board approves ADR providers and, in some global areas, requires that this provision is free for consumer complainants. Your CHP should include details of your ADR provider(s).

ADR is an important part of RICS regulation and helps to protect the public. The Rules of Conduct expect that firms will not do anything to dissuade clients from using ADR providers. This would include any contractual attempt to recover costs from consumer clients where ADR is intended to be free for them to use (when required by the RICS Standards and Regulation Board).

ADR is also beneficial for firms. It allows them to issue a final decision letter concluding a complaint and then refer complainants to an independent body if they remain dissatisfied, rather than having to continue correspondence indefinitely. ADR is usually quicker than litigation and involves less formal preparation of documents and responses because it is designed to be accessible without legal representation. It is therefore likely to be cheaper for firms than responding to legal claims even if a case fee has to be paid by the firm on complaints that are not upheld.

Different ADR providers cover different types of surveying work. For some types of work and in some jurisdictions, you might have a choice of ADR provider. Providers have different fee structures; for example, some charge a registration fee whereas others charge a case fee. This means that, depending on the nature of your business and how many complaints you are likely to receive, some ADR providers may be more cost effective for your business than others. You may want to research this before deciding which provider to include in your CHP.

Example of how to handle a complaint well

An RICS-regulated firm that undertakes survey and valuation activities is instructed by a client to do a level 2 survey of a house he is considering buying.

The firm agrees the scope of work with the client. It clearly outlines the limitations of the survey, namely that it will assess the general condition of the property, including a visual inspection, but that the surveyor will not move any items, lift carpets, etc. 

After agreeing the scope of the work with the client, the surveyor undertakes the inspection. During the visit, she does not find any major defects with the property. She takes photographs of the minor defects she does find, as well as making site notes.

The client proceeds to purchase the property. When he moves in, it becomes apparent that he is not alone. He hears noises coming from the loft space, which he discovers is due to squirrels that have been able to get in through a damaged fascia board. 

The client is so distressed by the presence of the squirrels that he has to stay with his mother for a fortnight while the defect is repaired and while pest control takes steps to remove the squirrels from the property.

After speaking to a friend who is an estate agent, the client realises that he can make a complaint to the firm about the fact that the defect was not picked up on the survey. He is advised by RICS to request the firm’s complaints-handling procedure (CHP). On the CHP, there is a clear, two-stage process identified for making a complaint, including clear signposting to:

  • the firm’s RICS-regulated status and
  • the appointed ADR mechanism.

The client can clearly see that the first stage of the process is to make a complaint in writing to the firm. He does so without delay and encloses evidence in the form of photographs that the defect is visible from ground level. He asks that the firm provides compensation for the following.

  • The cost of materials and labour to repair the defect: £550.
  • The full fees of the pest-control business: £475.
  • Emotional distress: £2,000.

Upon receiving the complaint, the firm emails the client the next day, acknowledging his concerns and thanking him for getting in touch. The firm explains that a surveyor will revisit the property to corroborate the client’s claim that the defect is apparent when viewed from ground level. The firm explains that it should be in a position to respond to his complaint in full within ten working days and that, if this is not possible, it will let him know.

When a different surveyor from the firm goes out to the property, she can see the issue with the fascia quite clearly from the pavement. She takes a photograph of the defect for the file and reports back to the firm with her findings.

Through this process, the firm cannot verify with 100% accuracy that the defect was present on the day of the survey. However, because the surveyor did not include photographic evidence of the condition of the fascia board on that day, the firm agrees that it is probable that the defect was already present and that this was not picked up on the day of the survey.

The firm agrees to make payment as requested for the cost of the repairs and the pest-control firm. It does not think that the amount requested for ‘emotional distress’ is proportionate or fair, but does offer the client an additional £300 as a gesture of good will. This is outlined in the firm’s response to the client, which is sent within the promised ten-working-day period. The response also clearly tells the client what next steps are available to him if he is not satisfied that the complaint is resolved.

The client responds to the firm and confirms that he will accept the payment.

The firm documents the complaint in its complaints log, reflecting on how it arose and whether it was handled appropriately. The surveyor who did not spot the defect is given feedback.

Reflective practice

Remember that complaints can offer good insight into future improvements you can make to your service. Take the time to reflect on:

  • why the complaint arose and
  • whether there are any gaps in your processes and procedures that could be addressed to help prevent future escalations.

This may also shape your continuing professional development (CPD) for the coming year.

You should also encourage a culture of open reflection in which your team can identify where things have gone wrong, whether or not a complaint has been made. It is also important to celebrate and learn from each other’s successes.

You should review within your complaints log what you could do differently – either to prevent something escalating into a complaint and/or to handle the complaint differently. You might identify improvements that could be made to:

  • processes
  • communication or
  • knowledge.

Share the lessons learned more widely in the business.

A good complaints log is more than just a list of complaints with brief descriptions and dates. It should contain information on:

  • what went wrong
  • the actions taken and
  • any improvements to processes (e.g. clearer terms or report writing, addressing knowledge gaps through CPD, etc).

RICS provides an example complaints log that may help.