When the founders of price comparison site Foundem complained that Google were deliberately demoting their site in search listings, nobody listened.
Their problems began because of an algorithm that was supposed to remove spam – leaving Foundem invisible against the more familiar competitors that are now household names. After eight years of dogged complaints from a determined pair of entrepreneurs, Google was fined a staggering £2.1 billion in 2017 by the European Commissioner for Competition. This was “the largest anti-trust penalty ever handed to a single company,” according to Wired.
Prevent molehills from becoming mountains
Whilst this example is unusual, the lesson is clear – listening to your complainants and preventing molehills from becoming mountains is not only good for your reputation, but for your bank account too. So how should accountants best handle complaints? And what are the best ways to avoid problems arising at all?
For Aimeé Hargreaves, Director at Ultra Accountancy in Wakefield, good communication is the key to resolving problems. “Pick up the phone,” she says, “straightaway. Ask the client why they have complained.”
Understand the nature of the complaint, and you’ll be able more quickly to resolve it. “Establish why the problem happened – and identify who is at fault.” For example, if the client is complaining that they have received a filing penalty, you need to examine whether fault lies with the client or the accountant.
“If it does turn out to be your fault, be honest. Confirm it won’t happen again, and rectify trust – offer either to appeal on the client’s behalf or pay the fine.”
Acknowledge the problem
If the fault is yours, saying sorry promptly can be one of the most effective ways of de-escalating a problem. But it’s essential to get the tone of the apology right.
“Know what you’re apologising for and be really specific about it,” says a compliance officer at a leading law firm, speaking anonymously. “Frequently, a complainant simply wants someone to say sorry. Sincerely saying ‘I’m really sorry you have cause to complain,’ goes a huge way, because the complainant is cross, and calming them down is part of the apology.”
Take personal responsibility and apologise yourself; don’t delegate it to someone else if the complaint has come to you personally. Use plain language, and don’t dress things up in elaborate partial excuses. Have a procedure in place for dealing with complaints, and ensure all staff know what that procedure is. If some on the team need some help, consider finding some suitable training for them on handling complaints (and wider customer service).
Know when to apologise
The personal touch then becomes part of a wider strategy. “If you have a strong quality and risk management procedure, handling complaints well and knowing when and how to apologise will be a key part of that,” the compliance officer says. “In the past, professional services firms have been somewhat weak at understanding the value of an effective apology – or even in knowing how to do it properly. In recent years the culture has definitely changed for the better.”
Alan Jones is Founder and Chairman at Mustard Advisers, a business advisory service for SMEs.
“We have incorporated willingness to apologise into our culture,” he says, “and all advisers adhere to this. For instance, if a client hasn’t understood some advice that we have given, we regard it is as our fault.”
The art of communication, he says, is making sure that the message has been understood. “Sending an email does not mean that it has been read and understood, even if it has been opened. It’s our responsibility to make sure that the correct and timely actions are taken.”
If a client hasn’t fully appreciated an important message, “even if we have spoken face to face and followed up with a reminder, we take the hit on that and apologise.”
“Differentiate yourself,” Aimeé Hargreaves says. “Be available. There are lots of ways to be in touch now – the thing that makes a mistake escalate is silence.” Also, take every complaint seriously – even if you don’t believe, to begin with, that you are at fault – and gather all the facts.
There are two elements to customer service here – anticipating what problems might be, and solving them before they arise; then creating a personal relationship with clients where they will feel they know you. After all, we are more likely to forgive a friend for making a mistake, than a stranger.
Let’s take the first point first. “It’s about minimising problems and preventing them happening in the first place,” Hargreaves says. “Things a client might complain about include: getting a big tax bill and realising they needed to set to work on it months ago; a tax investigation that has gone wrong; or finding out anecdotally that they could have got a tax relief that they didn’t know about.” All of these potential scenarios can be alleviated, if not prevented from happening altogether, by knowing the client better, Hargreaves argues. “Understand their needs and wants and then it will be the professional telling them things they need to know – not someone they might have met in the pub.”
As far as creating a personal relationship goes, this is where Google were vulnerable in our Foundem example. As a smaller company you have an advantage – and arguably, the smaller you are the better, because you are more likely to know your customer personally.
But how can you create that personal relationship? “As well as the obvious – being available at the other end of the phone when the client needs to speak to you, and calling them back quickly if you’re not – it’s about finding less common ways of building a relationship,” says Hargreaves. “Send a birthday card, or a get well card if you know the client’s ill. These are all touchpoints for making the customer feel good and showing that you care about them.”
Be proactive. “Don’t just offer compliance – say to your client, ‘have you thought about X, and do you know about Y?’ Be genuinely interested in them, and ensure you are not just ticking boxes. What are they interested in, what exercises them? That kind of thing. Having an anticipatory mind set means you’re less likely to get complaints in the first place, and more likely to resolve them quickly if you do.”
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.