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Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Very recently I was privileged to be invited to be a guest speaker at the Association of Residential Management Agents (ARMA) to talk about redress and complaints. Yes, I could have spoken about my scheme and how great we are at dealing with disputes and deciding the outcomes and remedies required, but I decided that the most productive thing I could do was to share my experience and give some tips and indicators on how agents can avoid complaints coming my way in the first place.

 

Now, I hear you all say, but surely that just takes Common Sense? No, believe you me, Common Sense more often than not, goes out the window when the emotion and stress of even the smallest complaint lands on your desk.

 

Of course, the first thing you need is a robust complaints process, which clearly lays out the steps you are going to take and how long it will take you to deal with a complaint. As a member of a redress scheme you have the fall back of us dealing with it if all else fails, however I want you also to understand that complaints are not to be shunned, but embraced and welcomed.

 

So, with that in mind, my short presentation was entitled, ‘Complainants are your Friend’.

 

I took the agents through a whistle stop tour of the dos and don’ts of dealing with complaints and why despite the fact we all find them difficult – who likes to admit they were wrong? – handling them correctly is a powerful tool, both for building and repairing relationships but also for the information and learning you gain for your business in order to improve what you do and get ahead of your competitors.

 

We explored the myths about complaining, such as ‘they always cost you money’, that ‘conceding your position is weak and will damage your relationship’ and that age old one of ‘I just do not get complaints’ – er you do, you just don’t know about them!

 

I outlined the new normal in the complaints world - the empowerment of the consumer, both in terms of the law, but also due to the rise of social media, consumer protection regulations, subject access requests, review sites and multiple outlets online for your customers to vent their spleen at your expense and hang you out to dry for millions to see. A mere 280 characters in a tweet can bring the business empire you spent years building tumbling down. On the other hand, a glowing account of how you dealt with a complaint could propel your market to stellar proportions.

 

I also highlighted the insidious position an agent often finds themselves in as the middleman in between two fractious parties. And whilst you are appointed to act on behalf of a client under their instructions, you also have a duty of care for the other party and, quite frankly, you have the obligation of acting in the best interest of your client. And if that means ‘do the right thing’ rather than blindly following orders, you will achieve this even if it appears to go against what they think they want.

 

We finally looked at both the most difficult, but most powerful part of a complaint – yes, that of having to say sorry. I asked the ARMA agents, who they related more to, John Wayne or Benjamin Franklin? The big screen tough man, or the great American statesman who helped forge the early USA and the values of the new age. Wayne’s uncompromising character in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” boldly declared “Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness,” whilst the enlightened Franklin is credited with saying “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

 

The evidence weighs strongly toward the latter as being the most sagacious advice - a well-structured and heartfelt apology is far from a weakness but a strength.

 

We at the Property Redress Scheme, very often include the need for an apology as part of our resolutions to complaints; sometimes this is all we request an agent to do. It is amazing, however, how hard some find this to do, it is even more painful than signing a cheque for a monetary compensation. Yes, a forced apology is not a real apology and I have seen written apologies of barely a sentence and yes, even just the one word! This is rarely acceptable to the complainant and actually makes things worse. This is why, we require not only the expression of remorse, but an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and an explanation of how the agent intends for the mistake not to happen again.  This process in itself is cathartic as it demonstrates that the agent has thought about what has gone wrong and that they have not just put things right, they intend to get things right in future.

 

Now, I know that even if this is done properly a customer may doubt the sincerity and validity of the apology, and this is why I urge you to take control of your complaints before I get involved. However, we have produced a detailed guide that you can use throughout the process to ensure that you provide the best apology you can and not only move on from a complaint, but move to a better and stronger relationship with the complainant in the future.

 

I leave you with this thought. I once dealt with a complaint against a firm I was working for and nothing I seemed to do would satisfy him. It got to the stage that when the name “Bob” was mentioned as being on the phone, or an email popped into my inbox, the blood would drain from my face. However, I continued to deal with him, politely and diligently and eventually we came to resolution. A few weeks later another e-mail arrived, and my immediate thought was, “Oh no what now!” To my surprise and delight, Bob had sent a glowing thank you for the professional way I had dealt with his complaint, he had renewed his business with us and had also recommended us to two of his associates to boot. Had nothing gone wrong in our relationship, he may well have never done this and maybe even he would have left for a slightly lower priced competitor.

 

Decided which of the great Americans you want be? Only one of them is on the $100 bill!

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Property Redress Scheme is approved by Government under the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015