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How to protect your reputation

When clients complain, architects go on the defensive. Things might be improved if they learnt basic social skills

Dealing with complaints has become a standard part of the work of all professionals, and architects are no exception. These days many clients appear to be more difficult to satisfy, less tolerant of problems and more likely to complain or take action.

The growth in complaints - and in some cases litigation - not only damages the reputations of the targeted firms or practitioners but affects the way that dissatisfied clients are handled right across the profession. It seems common sense to assume that architectural firms are anxious to avoid becoming embroiled in costly and damaging legal action or formal investigations.

As a consequence of assuming the worst, along with complaining we are seeing the parallel growth of avoidance strategies. Some firms become so concerned to head off possible litigation by unhappy clients that they overreact to complaints and devote excessive time to investigating problems and preparing extensive documentation. Others adopt a siege mentality and are reluctant to acknowledge clients' problems for fear that apologies amount to admissions of guilt or liability.

Having worked for many years with companies and organisations facing the kinds of challenges to their reputations posed by dissatisfied (and litigious) clients, one thing has become clear: the vast majority of damaging allegations, complaints and legal actions can escalate - and in some instances can stem - from a mishandling of customers'concerns at an early stage. But there are some sensible approaches to handling complaints which can help to chart a path between the two extremes of avoidance strategies; and which can help to ensure that complaints do not escalate into reputation-damaging crises.

Vulnerability Architects are especially vulnerable to reputation damage. The problems of trading on, and safeguarding, reputation are particularly significant for them.

This is because the profession is characterised by many small firms competing, and dist- inction is often based on reputation, as much as on product.

What takes years to build up through viral marketing and tendering can be undone overnight when allegations of malpractice or incompetence become the property of the local or national media.

There are also very significant risks of complaints escalating into reputational crises because architects are frequently involved in works which affect people's lives more seriously than many other products and services. Delayed work in housing may leave the client in temporary accommodation or facing additional weeks of upheaval, for example.

Obviously, when works fall below the required standard, there are good grounds for complaint and, in some cases, more punitive action.

But many of the cases which reach the ARB, and form the basis of arbitration or legal action, are not as straightforward as clear malpractice. This is partly because of the nature of the architect's position.

Firstly, with several parties to most contracts, fault is not always easily established and parties usually have differing views of the responsibilities. In these circumstances, architects are often the easiest targets for complaints because of their pivotal role within the contract.

Secondly, the risks of delay and unanticipated problems are likely to be understood differently by the parties involved, particularly between professionals and lay people, and complaints often arise where expectations are unrealistic.

Thirdly, insensitive handling of complaints appears to play a big role in their escalation. In professional negligence cases that reach the courts, it is often the case that complainants have felt driven to such measures not just by the initial problem but by the perception of indifference, or even contempt, on the part of the firm when trying to have it addressed.

As part of a modernising drive to respond to the cultural changes that have given rise to increased complaining and a growth in litigation, the ARB has set down standardised procedures for architects.

Under recently revised codes of conduct, architects are expected to record in writing the full details of the scope and charges for work. They must also make clear to clients, at an initial stage of contracting, that architects are subject to disciplinary sanction by the ARB in cases of complaint about unacceptable professional conduct or incompetence.

Formal evasion

Some architects have found it frustrating that the ARB can offer only formal and formulaic responses to the fundamental concerns about how to protect the firm and its reputation. Many firms and partnerships, unlike large companies, experience serious problems trying to absorb the costs and time associated with complaints investigation and legal action. Sole practitioners are particularly vulnerable to the loss of livelihood during investigations (although it is to be hoped that these will be less severe from now on as the overhaul of ARB procedures will speed up its complaints process). More importantly, there is a limit to how many problems can be anticipated at the contract stage and no code of conduct is a fire wall against future breakdown. Although it is useful to set out realistic and clear expectations, it is worth noting that, just as we rarely examine the breakdown manual when we buy a new car, most clients do not take an interest in the technical details unless something goes wrong.

So how can you prevent a complaint becoming a crisis which threatens the reputation or livelihood of a practice?

Sorry situation Apologising is the best policy when things do go wrong and you are at fault. It often defuses a situation at an early stage and avoids a stand-off.

In some cases the responsibility is unclear or architects may feel that the fault is being wrongly laid at their door. But even where this is the case, it is vital to consider the perception of the client: if the response they receive seems evasive or unconcerned, the complaint may well escalate into action and this will become a time-consuming problem for the architect, even if someone else is to blame.

Contrary to the 'no comment' advice given by some lawyers, it is quite possible to express your dismay and concern without shouldering liability.

Be aware that wronged clients (even if they have been wronged by another party) are particularly sensitive to how they are treated. Unreturned calls or being unable to speak to someone who can 'provide some answers' can turn initial frustration into anger.

Even if you are unable to provide a solution to the problem immediately, express your commitment to seeing the problem put right. In fact, it is especially important if some other body (including the client) is to blame that you avoid drawing unwarranted fire by taking the initiative in emphasising how important it is to you to see their concerns resolved.

The key is to spot the potential for a situation to escalate. In the abstract, most would agree that a conciliatory or understanding approach works best.

But we still see disputes becoming entrenched and seriously threatening the practice before firms realise that the situation needs addressing.

Try to maintain direct contact by telephone or in person if you feel that the complaint might become a major issue. Faceless companies, obstructive receptionists and unanswered phone calls are all likely to escalate a complaint into a crisis. Letters often do not show the concern with which they may have been written and should be used to confirm discussions rather than in place of them. It is also important not to second guess the cause of complaint, but get the client to detail it for you in person. The opportunity to make their frustrations known is often a key part of what complainants are looking for.

Listen and learn

Keeping communication lines open through informal, personal contact also helps to ensure that a client's concerns are addressed to you rather than to the media or other external third parties.

It gives you better control over the problem and its resolution and inspires more confidence in your organisation.

Once complaints have been formal-ized through third parties, the scope for compromise and a straightforward resolution is narrowed.

To borrow from the experience of the medical profession, a number of doctors privately report that it is more difficult to deal with patients' concerns in cases where a simple explanation is required if a formal complaint has been made. Each stage of formalising a complaint entrenches it. Once a patient (or client) has initiated formal procedures, such as legal action, it becomes very difficult for them to reconsider or disentangle themselves from the process without feeling some humiliation.

That said, even if you face litigation and media hostility, there are measures you can take to overcome the problem and reduce the damage to reputation.

Apologise immediately for any deficiencies in how a complaint has been handled; seek to establish face-toface contact; and find out how the client thinks the problem can best be resolved. Remember to be particularly sensitive to clients who do not have specialised knowledge of the works being undertaken and ensure that they have a clear and realistic understanding of any rectification measures. Above all, if the media become involved, be factual and open ('We are seeking a joint meeting to resolve the problem, 'and so on) but do not try to respond to a complaint through the media because you have no control over how your views will be put across.

Case-study data across a range of services and professions provide compelling evidence that at all stages of a dispute clear expressions of concern, no matter who is at fault, defuse the frustration that escalates complaints. Open communication gives you better control of the situation, so bringing a swifter resolution of any problems and reducing the financial impact.

Firms that adopt these maxims in handling complaints eliminate the need to overcompensate with costly investigations and unwarranted remedies, and usually enjoy better client relationships even when things go wrong.

In fact, handling problems and complaints well has done more for some firms' reputations than the slickest advertising!

Judy Larkin is co-director of reputation risk management specialist Regester Larkin, tel 020 7831 3839

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