Keep calm and carry on

09 October 2017

Has your business received a complaint? Gemma Carson, head of Wright Hassall Solicitors' dispute resolution team, explains how to avoid making things worse

At some point a customer is going to complain about the service or goods you provided – it’s just a fact of modern business life. If you believe your reputation is good, you might feel this is an unjustified attack. You might even think the customer is simply doing it to avoid or delay payment, but whatever the reason, there is a risk you will take it personally and decide to ‘have it out’ with the complainant.

This could make things worse. People often respond with an email, while still angry about the complaint, but such a knee-jerk response can prove costly. Emotions get in the way and can lead to a heated dispute about the rights and wrongs or actions and inactions of one party or another.

The situation can quickly escalate and real problems can arise when threats to take certain steps are made without due consideration of the terms agreed when the commercial relationship started.

Virtual mantelpiece

Initially, consider the content of the complaint and make no commitments or threats, even if you feel outraged. Write in an email, everything you want to say, but do not send it. Rest it on your ‘virtual mantelpiece’. 

When the initial anger has passed, return to this draft, re-read it and decide if it makes sense to send it – chances are, it won’t. Responses made in the heat of the moment can come back to haunt, if a complaint turns into a dispute.

Check whether you have a service agreement and/or contract with the complainant. Read them carefully to check what’s covered, as an agreement could help you manage the situation, allowing you to point out any relevant contractual terms when responding.

Don’t ignore it

You not only have to react calmly, but take steps to deal with a complaint as soon as it occurs, which can help prevent it developing further – a personal meeting often helps resolve issues before they worsen.

If it gets serious, retain all the information relating to the complaint, including: documents, correspondence, any products or specimen products from the same batch. If possible undertake and document any inspections of equipment involved.

Early intervention

When a dispute cannot be easily resolved, early intervention with more collaborative methods of dispute resolution can be effective. These include mediation, conciliation and negotiation, rather than traditional adjudicated court proceedings or arbitration.

The benefits of early intervention include:

  • Speed: Disputes can often be resolved more quickly.
  • Costs: Reduced costs of dealing with a dispute compared to court proceedings. 
  • Flexibility: More flexible and commercially focused resolutions.
  • Relationships: Parties can preserve their commercial relationship.
  • Publicity: Confidential resolution process that’s beneficial and often obligatory.
  • Concurrency: Can be used together with other methods of dispute resolution.

Professional help

Seeking legal advice early does not necessarily mean a serious legal dispute has occurred and dispute resolution advice can be very effective if delivered when the issue arises. 

Lawyers do not need to assume an active role, but can offer legal guidance focused on diffusing potential disputes, whilst preserving the commercial relationship for the future.

Remember, a rash statement or decision to stop providing services or products, by sending your angry or threatening e-mail, may cause a serious breach of contract. You risk a serious argument and potentially a threat of injunctive proceedings.

A breach of contract can entitle the party affected by it to terminate the contract and bring legal proceedings against you for damages. 

Responding to a complaint without first considering all the aspects could be a huge mistake that costs your business a lot of time and money.

Finally, if legal proceedings are threatened and appear the only option, then choose lawyers well-versed in commercial disputes, who are committed to an early, commercial and cost-effective resolution - you should get the result you want without the anger.