How to Deal with Complaints – when the client is wrong

Client ComplaintsKnowing how to deal with complaints is a very difficult skill to master. It’s even harder when the client is irrational or the complaint is unjustified.  There are a large number of lawyers who will seek to restore or repair the relationship with the client to everybody’s ultimate satisfaction.  Others I know will fly off the handle, tables will be bashed, and faces will turn red.  In all, client complaints whether merited or not can cause a bad day.  What is the best way to deal with complaints in these circumstances?

There are No Rules in How to Deal With Complaints

This is one of those circumstances where listening to your client is going to have the greatest impact.  If you have done that properly, you will know what their drivers are and be able to identify fairly readily what the issue has been.  Perhaps it’s perceived overbilling, slow service, lack of attention, or they just lost and don’t like to lose.  Whatever it is, your groundwork with communication will have had a big role to play.

It is, for that reason, that there is no hard and fast rule to deal with complaints.  What works for one client may not work for another.  Reducing a bill might save you with Bob but perhaps Jane couldn’t care less unless you start returning her phone calls.

So really the first tip is this: remember to communicate with your clients, because having done that in the first place will let you deal with client complaints that much better when they arise.

Determine Whether you can Handle the Complaint

A little while ago on Facebook I ran a “real skills” exam (which is mostly a bit of fun that I through up on Facebook from time to time) about a client who had complained about a bill and what should be done about it.  The answers varied from “fix it myself” to “shouldn’t have happened in the first place” to “get the partner involved”.  It was an interesting study to see the answers that came through because of the different approaches and reasons people gave for their answers.

That variance is the reason you need to determine early on whether you can personally handle the complaint.  Of course it’s a question of authority – are you empowered to do anything?  However it’s also a question of wisdom – if they are not your client, or you know someone with a better relationship, is that other person going to get a better result if they weigh in?  Also, however, you need to ensure that if you’re not the primary contact for a client that they are given a chance to weigh in anyway.

But the Client’s Wrong, Remember?

Yes – I know this article is about the client being wrong.  However that doesn’t change either of the above steps.  You see, the issue isn’t whether the client IS wrong but whether the client THINKS they are wrong.

That involves persuasion.  And persuasion is much easier when there is an existing relationship of trust behind it.  That relationship might exist with you if you’re put in the work (the first point above) or it might exist with someone else who’s better placed (the second point).

There is nothing particularly onerous about telling a client they are wrong, but the final piece of the pie is that judgment in how you go about telling them is important.  Dismissing their complaint out of hand won’t work (I know this from experience) and nor will crumbling under the pressure and writing off an entire bill (good luck explaining that to your boss if the client was in the wrong).  Use your judgment when the client complains, don’t feel pressured to respond on the spot, but deal with it in a timely fashion nonetheless.

So in summary:

  • Good communication allows for better conflict resolution;
  • Determine who the best person is to deal with it;
  • Then determine the best way to go about communicating the bad news that the client is wrong;
  • Then get on with it and let the cards fall where they may.

Happy Lawyering!