Ensuring a customer complaint does not end up in court

Advice  |   21 August 2018

If someone takes the time to complain about your business they are clearly disappointed with the service they have received.

If someone takes the time to complain about your business they are clearly disappointed with the service they have received. Recognising this is important if you want to preserve customer relations and avoid a serious complaint ending up in court.

The key to ensuring damage limitation is to have an effective complaints procedure and to seek early legal advice where it is clear the complaint could escalate into something more serious if not handled appropriately, as David Hacker, commercial dispute resolution lawyer with Thackray Williams explains.

Complaints handling

Every business needs a complaints handling procedure, which as a minimum explains:

  • how to complain, for example by letter, telephone call or filling out a form;
  • how long it will take for a complaint to be investigated and for you to reply;
  • whether the customer can ask you to reconsider or refer the matter to someone else, such as an ombudsman, if they are dissatisfied with your response; and
  • whether you are willing to try things like mediation to reach a resolution.

Legal advice

For any complaint about the quality of goods you have supplied or the standard of a service you have performed, consideration should be given to whether legal advice is needed. This will be the case for any complaint where the customer alleges they have been hurt or suffered damage because of something you have done and there is mention of compensation of more than a notional amount being sought.

By seeking early legal advice, you can ensure that:

  • the complaint is fully investigated and all relevant evidence considered;
  • any potential legal claim, for example for negligence or breach of consumer protection legislation, can be quickly identified;
  • the extent of your potential liability can be assessed;
  • any correspondence with the customer adopts a suitable, non-inflammatory tone;
  • nothing is said in correspondence which could prejudice your position if the customer subsequently decides to make a claim at court;
  • possible ways to resolve the issues raised in the complaint can be explored;
  • any offers of settlement are carefully controlled and properly documented; and
  • where legal proceedings are issued you are fully prepared to deal with them

As David explains:

‘By speaking to a dispute resolution lawyer as soon as possible you will be able to approach the complaint fully aware of your potential liability and with the benefit of suggestions from your lawyer about commercially sensible terms for settlement. Not only will this save you time in the long-run, but also money in the majority of cases.’

‘And remember, the other advantage of seeking legal advice at an early stage is that if a complaint is obviously groundless your lawyer will advise you of this and you can then reject the complaint safe in the knowledge that this is the right thing to do.’