Complaints are a commercial reality; what matters is how you respond.
Historically, complaints against businesses were by and large private and confidential. However, the digital revolution and the rise of social media has meant corporate communications have changed forever, including a rise in direct and sometimes very public feedback from customers.
This has serious implications for the reputations of businesses, which need to consider how to manage risk arising from negative reviews or complaints.
As the profession embraces this new digital landscape, accountants, too, need to consider how they can protect their interests and those of the wider profession, through complaint prevention and complaint handling.
ACCA is urging professional accountants to implement internal-complaints handling procedures. In fact, members in public practice in the UK and Ireland are required to have such procedures in place to handle client complaints.
So what can ACCA members do to avoid complaints or handle them to achieve a positive outcome? Here are some key areas for consideration:
Engagement letters – ensure they are up to date and signed, and are clear about the services agreed and what significant exclusions apply. It is an ACCA requirement that every client is issued with engagement letters and a copy of each, signed by the client, is retained on file.
The rights and obligations of parties – ensure that clients are aware of their legal obligations, such as director’s duties under the Companies Act.
Documentation – ensure all client relationship documentation is retained. Including working papers and records of communications.
These points are also considered by ACCA when it receives a complaint.
But complaints can arise despite the best efforts of all involved. How you handle the complaint may determine whether or not you can achieve a successful outcome.
ACCA deals with complaints through three distinct departments:
Complaints are assessed and allocated either for conciliation or investigation. Serious issues identified through investigation are referred to disciplinary hearings and managed by adjudication.
ACCA’s unique in-house conciliation service combines alternate dispute resolution (ADR) with ACCA’s regulatory and disciplinary duties. This collaboration is unique in the regulation of the accountancy profession.
The conciliation service specialises in resolving disputes through negotiation and conciliation, attempting to achieve an amicable outcome. It is often a far quicker and more cost effective way of dealing with complaints.
Professional accountants can draw on complaint handling techniques used by conciliation and investigations. These are proven to be an effective way of preventing unnecessary escalation of a complaint to a regulatory body.
Here are some techniques that you can adopt when dealing with complaints:
Don’t take it personally – complaints are part of professional life. Detaching yourself can be difficult, but generally people are angry at the situation rather than you - they just may not realise it.
Active listening – there is a big difference between listening and actively listening. People rarely feel that they are truly being listened to, not just professionally, but in life in general. It’s vital that anyone submitting a complaint feels that they are being listened to and that their complaint is understood.
Never interrupt – during the complaints process there will be a time when you want to advance your position and do so without interruption – so you need to stand by that principle yourself. Interrupting is certain to frustrate the process and escalate the matter.
Do not summarise – summarising can trivialise information that may be very important to the person complaining, and it creates an opportunity to miss something. Do, however, feed back what you have heard from the person, using terms and language that they have used. Confirm your understanding of what you have heard is correct; if it isn’t, check again.
Know your triggers – setting off triggers will provoke a defence reaction; defensive reactions inhibit rational thought and behaviour, leading to misunderstanding. Triggers are subjective. One person may be triggered by rudeness, another by politeness. Sometimes an acknowledgement of the trigger is enough to prevent a downward spiral into conflict. In some cases, a quick and simple apology may be merited. Triggers are to some extent unavoidable – an understanding that they exist can help to avoid difficulties.
Complaints are a commercial reality, and there is no shame in getting them, but a great deal more damage can be done to reputations if handled poorly.
The above is just the tip of the iceberg. Handling complaints successfully is a challenge for any organisation or individual, having the potential to drain business resources and ultimately impact negatively on profit. Handled well, a complaint can provide an opportunity to strengthen client relationships and professional reputations.
Remaining neutral, taking a practical approach, and trying to understand both sides of a dispute will help retain control over the complaint before it is escalated to a regulatory body.
Alexander Dunlop & Scott Prince, Senior Investigation Officers
A more detailed webinar by Alexander Dunlop on how to handle complaints is available from ACCA – watch it at your convenience by registering here
Did you know…?
ACCA receives an average of 750 complaints per year
Complaints to ACCA are received from clients, accountants, individuals in a professional capacity, other departments of ACCA such as Authorisations and Monitoring, other regulatory bodies, prosecuting authorities, the police
ACCA has received complaints about members from psychics, wizards, celebrities and journalists, and involving high-profile multimillion pound disputes
Commercial, legal and employment disputes are rejected due to jurisdictional issues
15% of complaints accepted by ACCA are resolved through conciliation
75% referred for investigation, of which around 20% result in disciplinary action.