The good ship Legal Ombudsman has been navigating some pretty treacherous waters of late. We have managed to steer past one or two potential rocks – notably the announcement that we will be taking on claims management complaints from next year, and then the publication of the first quarter of ombudsman decisions, both within a couple of weeks of each other. And with the work on the proposed changes to our scheme rules still to come, we will need to continue to keep a steady hand on the tiller over the coming months.

As we knew would happen, some in the profession do not like what we have done. It is perhaps worth reiterating that the Legal Services Act requires me to work just as much in the interests of consumers of legal services and of the wider public. So when we consult, we have to balance the responses we get from the legal profession with what consumer bodies – and government departments – say to us. I am sure the debate will flare up again the next time we publish the updated list of names and the first public interest cases, and perhaps too as the claims management jurisdiction and scheme rules changes get closer.

And while debate is entirely healthy – you may note that we have made a point of featuring critical contributions from lawyers and the Law Society in our stakeholder newsletter LeO News – the consultation periods are over and the policies are now decided. Sure, there will be glitches in the implementation where feedback is helpful, but nothing major is now going to change.

As one debate closes, however, another opens – and perhaps a more constructive one. Our research and policy team has been working with the Legal Services Consumer Panel to explore customer experiences of first-tier complaints-handling and the complaints which were reaching us prematurely, before they have been raised with the lawyer concerned. The research is based on a survey of 1,000 legal services customers carried out for us by YouGov, who have also tested some recommendations about how complaints can be successfully turned around. So what we have is a body of informed customer feedback to help us with our update of our lawyers’ guide to good complaints-handling. We have also used the research results to refine our companion guide for customers. We hope both will be really useful to our audiences.

Handling complaints properly is not just a matter of avoiding contact with my office (I am struck – and always a tad discomfited – by the frequency with which lawyers say to me ‘it is very nice to meet you but I hope I never come across you again’). A legal services survey conducted last year showed that a whopping 82% of consumers would choose a lawyer based either on personal experience or recommendations from friends, relatives or work colleagues. Your customers represent not just current but future income. How you treat them dictates how successful you will be: leave them happy and you will prosper; leave them dissatisfied and you are doomed to failure. Which is where complaints-handling comes in.

Of course the emphasis must be on getting it right first time, on giving great customer service. But we are all human, we all make mistakes, and law is an unpredictable, complicated business. As lawyers, you know that things can happen out of the blue and that plans you made with your client at the start can be knocked off course in an instant. You may understand and be prepared, but your client, involved in some mysterious, expensive process with their livelihood, house or family at stake, may not. For a lawyer, even for the best lawyer, complaints are inevitable.

How you handle that mistake is critical in avoiding the possibility that you will have a former customer who may make it their business to sabotage your reputation. More than that: the evidence is that a customer who has complained and got any service failure acknowledged and repaired is a more satisfied customer than one who never had cause to complain. So good complaints-handling is not just a matter of regulatory obligation and avoiding the dubious pleasure of dealing with us; it also makes sound business sense. The following case studies provide compelling evidence as to why.

Redeeming features

Mr A was making a personal injury claim after being hit by a car while cycling. The solicitor originally dealing with his case went on maternity leave and then a second solicitor assigned to the case also left the firm without notifying Mr A. During this time, a deadline was missed, which meant Mr A was faced with having to cover the legal costs of the case himself, rather than his insurer. Mr A complained due to a missed deadline and neglect in the handling of his case. While he did feel that major errors had been made, which could have had serious financial implications, he put the problems down to a lack of co-ordination within the firm rather than personal misconduct of one single solicitor.

Mr A sent an email to both his original solicitor who was now on maternity leave and to the firm’s general email address. His original solicitor was first to reply. She replied the next day to let him know that she was looking into it. She then sent an email two days later with an explanation of what had happened, what they could do to resolve the problem and what he could do if he still wasn’t happy with the response.

Given that Mr A had been expecting a ‘generic’ email outlining the complaints procedure and telling him they would get back to him in so many working days, he was pleasantly surprised to receive such a detailed letter, which provided a full explanation of what had happened in clear and understandable language, reassuring him that his complaint was being taken seriously.

Two days later, the same solicitor emailed to let him know that they had negotiated with the insurer to ensure he wouldn’t be personally responsible for these legal costs. The solicitor was astute enough to realise that the issue required immediate action; she was ‘proactive’ in addressing the cause of the complaint rather than just responding to the complaint itself. The issue was resolved and the firm continued to work on Mr A’s case. For him, the way in which this complaint was handled was proof that the firm was reputable and dependable, and he confirmed that he would be happy to use the firm again.

Exceeding expectations

Miss B had used a law firm previously to undertake a conveyancing transaction. She was happy with the work it had done so decided to use the firm again to draw up a will. Unfortunately, second time round Miss B was disappointed with the quality of the work as a string of basic errors had been made. Miss B felt she had spent too much time rectifying these mistakes herself. Despite being quite hesitant at first – she felt she lacked the confidence to confront the lawyer – Miss B made a phone call to set out the reasons for her dissatisfaction. To her surprise he apologised. Miss B was then told that she would receive a more formal response shortly after the lawyer had looked into the matter in more detail.

Miss B received an email within an hour of the initial phone call from a senior partner to notify her that they were looking into the issue. The following day, the original lawyer got back in touch with her by phone and agreed with all of her complaint. This was followed up by an email to confirm the details of the conversation.

The firm suggested issuing new documents and a reduction in its service fees as a means of remedying the issue. This offer actually exceeded Miss B’s expectations as she had not anticipated a fee reduction. The matter was considered closed once the remedies had been agreed and Miss B was left feeling satisfied with the way the complaint had been handled. She also confirmed that she would still recommend the firm to friends and family in the future.

In both of these cases the complaints have been turned on their head. The firms simply focused on keeping the client informed, acting quickly and offering an appropriate remedy. And I think these case studies show it is not rocket science. The lawyers’ guide to complaints-handling has at its heart three concepts: listen, inform and respond.

First and foremost, make sure you are genuinely open to hearing what your customer’s concerns are and what they may be complaining about – indeed, understanding that they are making a complaint at all can sometimes be an issue. Second, tell the customer how you intend to look into the complaint, give an indication of time frames and – where applicable – reassure them that a complaint will not affect their existing case.

Finally, respond with a clear indication of your findings; where there has been poor service, provide an appropriate remedy, and where you feel the complaint is unwarranted be specific about why. These concepts are enshrined in a 10-step process suggested in the guide.

And that is pretty much it. We are not trying to be prescriptive, but just to get you to build your complaints-handling process on what we understand customer feedback – and our experience of the 150,000 or so complaints we have now seen – is telling us. But of course not every customer is going to have their concerns settled by even the best complaints-handling. Sometimes they need somewhere independent to turn and, hopefully from your point of view, some independent verification of what you are telling them.

That is where the Legal Ombudsman has to step in. It is a regulatory obligation for you to signpost customers to us, both at the start of any engagement with them and again when you reply to any complaint they make. It is not that we are actively touting for business: with any ombudsman scheme, the aim should be to work with the profession to try to make sure that customers only need to use an ombudsman in extremis. But as the debate about publication of decisions shows, even the best relationships occasionally result in disagreements.

Adam Sampson is chief ombudsman