We’ve gathered four surveying experts on a panel to discuss how surveyors should handle client complaints in order to minimise reputation and financial risks to their businesses. We talk about how it is to receive a complaint on a survey, what to do exactly upon receiving one, and how to avoid the common pitfalls when it comes to handling complaints.
Christine O’Rourke is Head of Conduct Standards at RICS, supporting surveyors by producing standards and guidance on professional conduct including the Rules of Conduct. Peter Habert is Director of Policy at the Property Ombudsman. He is responsible for TPO’s Policy and Communication Teams. Angla Chamberlain is a partner of EC Surveyors LLP, a small team that provide residential surveys and valuations in South Devon. Michael Holden is the MD of a surveying practice in the North West of England, Cumbria and the Dales. He had a varied career over 30 years covering real estate appraisals, high-end residential surveys, property management and regeneration.
Marion Ellis is the founder of The Surveyor Hub and Women in Surveying Initiative, and Managing Director of BlueBox Partners. She is currently leading The Surveyor Hub Mastermind, where she mentors surveyors who want to improve their business skills and have interest in personal development.
The Importance of Having a Complaints Handling Procedure
It is often the case that surveyors don’t understand their obligations when it comes to acting on a complaint. As Chrissy O’Rourke explains, it is essential that a surveyor has a complaint handling procedure that their staff knows about. It is a relatively straightforward document that should reassure the client that if they have a problem, it would be handled properly.
“There’s some information on our website about the requirements around complaints handling procedure. There’s also an example of complaints handling procedure that firms can use, as well as an example of how to keep your complaints log, because it’s important for a firm to keep a record of how they’ve handled complaints. You want to see if there are lessons learned, and if there are patterns and things that you can improve. The other thing that RICS has on its website is complaint handling guidance, such as why a complainant might complain, how you should handle the initial contact, what to do if you need some more investigation, and what to do if it escalates.”
“I would be really open about my complaints handling procedure,” she adds, “I would be putting it on my website, I would be sending it out with initial letters as terms of engagement to clients. If somebody seems dissatisfied, there’s less harm in sending out a complaint handling procedure then battling on and on.”
Peter Habert agrees it is important to have a complaints procedure and be upfront about it.
“The procedure should explain the different stages, and then what happens and where you need to take it if you’re not satisfied afterwards,” he explains. “If you’re brave enough to be providing this with your terms of business, you’re showing to that consumer that you’re not afraid of complaints. It also allows people to contact you with their grievances in a controlled way, and in a way that you can handle them better. If consumers have to search for all these information, they are going to be upset, even more upset by the time they actually contact you.”
The Stages of a Complaints Handling Procedure
Peter goes on to explain the stages of this procedure.
“It is essential to first acknowledge the complaint and act on it within an expected timeframe. Throughout the whole process, it’s important to have empathy with consumers and see things from their perspective.”
He also highlights the most common mistakes that surveyors make.
“Don’t be defensive. If a mistake has been made, the best thing you can do is actually acknowledge it and apologise. If you take a defensive stance, you’re more likely to escalate the issue. There are themes which are common across all sorts of complaints, not just for surveys. Invariably, there’s some kind of communication failure – whether that’s happened at the start, because somebody hasn’t explained properly what the services that they’re getting, or whether it’s happened further down the line where somebody hasn’t done something that they’ve promised. Secondly, the most common is failing in complaint handling, such as not taking the complaint seriously or not following the procedure.”
And when surveyors cannot resolve the complaint themselves, they need to provide a deadlock letter to the client that explains their options and offers third party redress, such as the property ombudsman.
“If they bring a complaint to us, then we will assess it to see if it meets the criteria for a progressive complaint. If it does, we will go back to the business and ask them for evidence to support their side, and go back to the consumer to ask them for evidence to support their side. Once we got both of those evidence packs in, we can sit down and we can begin an assessment and investigation of it. And then, we will look at that against the RICS’ guidance and get to a point we can make a proposed decision on it.”
Experiences with Complaints
Both Angela Chamberlain and Michael Holden go on to describe their personal experiences with complaints. Angela talks about a particular case she has dealt with that went through the ombudsman and what she learned from it. Among other things, she highlights the importance of having evidence to support your claims.
“One of the brilliant things that we had was some superb evidence, which was very helpful. Over the years, the amount of digital photographs we take are just immense. And I would say, don’t worry about storage, just have the evidence and make sure that you’ve got general shots to show what you can’t see.”
Michael continues sharing his experience with different complaints, explaining they could be divided into categories.
“All the complaints that we’ve got go into three categories. The first one is where we genuinely missed something, while the influence of the third party falls into the second one. And then the final one is people just basically being nasty. Out of these three, there are 10% of genuine ones, out of all the complaints that we’ve had.”
When a Complaint is Taken to RICS
Chrissie explains what happens when people go to RICS to complain about a surveyor. As she highlights, RICS receives around 1200 complaints a year, which is not a lot.
“What often happens is that the complaint is directed back to the firm, because it hasn’t been through the complaints handling procedure, or it’s directed towards alternative dispute resolution. There’s then a triage process where we look at the evidence, and we look at whether the allegation is serious. I think it’s important to say that RICS accepts that people make mistakes, and making mistakes is not a reason why we would necessarily take disciplinary proceedings. Once the complaint is triaged or we can’t really tell what the complaint is about, we might come out to the firm. Sometimes the initial letters we write look quite scary, but from a legal point of view, it is important that people understand that this is a formal process that they might be going into and exactly what the allegations are.”
“What we are hoping to get back from you is evidence which allows us not to proceed with the complaint or allows us to say that something’s gone wrong here,” she continues. “The cases we take disciplinary action on are people who completely stick their head in the sand and don’t cooperate with us,” she concludes.
- The Property Ombudsman https://www.tpos.co.uk/
- The complaint portal tool that surveyors can give to complainants where they are unable to resolve the dispute themselves https://selfserve.tpos.co.uk/
- Hart v Large Go Fund me page https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-savaged-large-surveyor
- Complaints Handling Guidance https://www.rics.org/globalassets/rics-website/media/upholding-professional-standards/sector-standards/valuation/complaints-handling-1st-edition-rics.pdf
- Help sheet on requirements for a CHP https://www.rics.org/globalassets/rics-website/media/upholding-professional-standards/regulation/complaints-handling-procedure-guidance-for-firms.pdf
- Example CHP and complaints log https://www.rics.org/globalassets/rics-website/media/upholding-professional-standards/regulation/complaints-handling-procedure-and-complaint-log-examples.doc
- Assigned Risks Pool https://www.rics.org/uk/upholding-professional-standards/regulation/regulatory-support/professional-indemnity/assigned-risks-pool/
- Lion Heart https://www.lionheart.org.uk
Connect with Christine O’Rourke
Connect with Peter Habert
Connect with Angela Chamberlain
Connect with Michael Holden