When a Client Complains, Be Grateful!

Complaints are Opportunities

I read Lee Rosen’s email newsletter, Friday File. It’s a great place for practical advice on how to run a law practice. You can subscribe here.

In a recent edition, Lee described a traumatic experience with his dentist, who lost control of his drill and punctured Lee’s tonsil. Two weeks of painful healing ensued. Lee did not complain, the dentist did not apologize, and Lee quickly changed dentists. In retrospect, he realizes that his complaining would have been a service to himself and to the dentist. He goes on to compare his challenging experience to clients making complaints to him.

I’ve walked quietly away from many negative experiences where I could have complained, but chose not to. It’s a hassle and takes effort, time, and persistence to follow up on poor service, and as I argue for a living, I am disinclined to advocate for myself. I’d rather exercise my advocacy skills for my clients.

Most dissatisfied clients don’t complain; they just leave. And it’s quite likely they will tell others all about what you did wrong. So, when they do complain, you get to choose whether to treat it as a problem or an opportunity.

See it for the opportunity it is, and be grateful.

Becky’s Cake Experience

My wife, Becky, brought the lesson home to me the other day. She ordered a birthday cake for her cousin from Caroline’s Cakes in Spartanburg,  South Carolina. Her cousin, whose birthday is February 13, loves red velvet cake, appropriate for the near Valentine’s Day birthday. When the cousin lived near us, Becky used to ensure that this was the cake served for her birthday celebration. This year, Becky ordered the cake for her cousin, who now lives in Florida, via next-day air express delivery. Though this was a pricey delivery method, it would insure timely arrival of a fresh cake.

Caroline’s Cakes offered tracking of the cake once it left their bakery. Since the ordering process had been smooth and the delivery seemed insured, Becky almost didn’t check on the cake’s progress. But early on the morning the cake was due to be delivered, she did. The cake was showing “in transit.” In fact, it was still in South Carolina, and the projected delivery was for the following Monday, February 15, despite large payment for next-day delivery. Convinced that the cake had been shipped by ground, Becky sent off a blistering email to customer service at Caroline’s Cakes expecting little satisfaction but manifesting her dissatisfaction.

A Bad Experience Turned Around!

Later that day, she received a phone call from Richard Reutter, President and CEO of Caroline’s Cakes. He explained that her e-mail had been forwarded to him and he wanted to explain the situation. First, five stars to the staff member who made sure the CEO saw the email. Secondly, 5 stars to Mr. Reutter for responding immediately and personally to the complaint. The cake had in fact been shipped air express but the plane carrying it had been grounded due to very rough weather in the south. Through a series of legitimate ongoing weather-related circumstances, the cake remained in transit and clearly would not make the promised on-time arrival. Mr. Reutter apologized. He immediately refunded the cost of the cake and the air express shipping. He offered to send a replacement cake.  He offered a legitimate, remorseful explanation for the cake snafu and did everything he could to make it right.

Though Becky had been saying spiteful things about Caroline’s Cakes, the CEO turned the situation around. He called himself. He took responsibility. He was sorry. He took immediate action to return her money and offered alternatives. Becky will order from Caroline’s Cakes again.

Lessons Learned

So, what is the lesson for me as I steer the ship of my own law firm through any rough waters that come my way? Here are our rules for handling client complaints:

    1. Make sure your staff knows that complaints come directly to you.
    2. Call the client making the complaint immediately.
    3. Ascertain the problem with active and empathetic listening.
    4. Acknowledge the bad experience.
    5. If it’s your fault, accept responsibility.
    6. Even if its not, offer a remedy, whether it is a valid explanation, a refund or further action.
    7. Thank the client profusely for bringing the issue to your attention.

In the long run, every complaint is opportunity to have your cake and eat it too! You can use it to improve your client relationship, protect your reputation, and find a flaw in the way you practice law and fix it.

The result may surprise you.



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