October, 2017
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

Handling Complaints, Part 1


Author’s note: The material in this article is based on our experiences in the home inspection industry during the past 39 years and is not meant
as a substitute for professional legal advice.

What does handling complaints have to do with marketing your home inspection firm? The way you respond to complaints from clients can work for you or against you in retaining thoseclients and attracting new ones. Remember, marketing is an activity designed to encourage prospective customers to contact your company.

Marketing is also part of inspections themselves, including the way you handle problems when something seemingly or actually goes wrong. Without trying to sugarcoat the situation, we believe that you can turn a complaint into a marketing opportunity. And because every home inspector eventually gets complaints, you should polish your skills in this area of your business. 

Keep in mind, we are assuming that you already have an adequate errors and omissions (E & O) insurance policy, and a properly written inspection agreement that has been reviewed by a lawyer who is familiar with the home inspection industry. Ideally, the lawyer who would defend you (through your E & O insurance company) also would have approved the wording of your inspection agreement.  

Complaints are opportunities...
If you handle a complaint well,

you may save money and time,
prevent the situation from turning into a lawsuit, keep your insurance
premiums down and reduce the stress in your life.

A complaint is an opportunity…

To satisfy your client: Satisfied clients refer you to others.

To generate goodwill: Strive to generate goodwill with all parties involved in the transaction. In doing so, the agent, the seller and perhaps even the lawyer will see how professionally you handled the situation.

To avoid bad publicity: Whether you are right or wrong, if you handle a complaint badly, you could end up losing lots of business if a disgruntled client decides to sink you at all costs. With the proliferation of social media and web-based review sites, this is easier to do than it ever was in the past.

A complaint is also an opportunity because many clients who have had a bad experience will not complain to you. Instead, they will just post it on their Twitter account for all to see. Thank people if they complain. Consider it a chance to turn a client around. If you end up paying out, consider it a learning experience and, perhaps, use part of your marketing budget.

Avoiding Complaints
Obviously, the best way to deal with a complaint is to prevent it. Some novice inspectors say the best way to avoid complaints is to never make a mistake. The fact is, however, you don’t have to make a mistake to get a complaint. Many complaints we get are not the result of inspectors making mistakes; they are the result of clients not understanding the inspectors’ scope of work. When clients book an inspection, they have their own idea what their $400 should get them. They often think they paid you $400 to ensure that they would not have any problems with the house. They don’t know that the $400 will get them a specific scope of work that excludes a number of areas.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could pay $400 one time and get an insurance policy that nothing would ever go wrong with their home? There would be no deductible, no exclusions, no limit and no expiration date. Just call the home inspection company and they will take care of it! Clearly, you cannot afford to offer this type of guarantee, but unless you tell your client otherwise, they may assume that is exactly what they are paying for. You can reduce the number of complaints significantly by setting realistic expectations before the inspection.

With respect to mistakes, you should realize that making mistakes is inevitable. We may be experienced and intelligent, but we are not perfect. We make hundreds of observations, decisions and conclusions at each inspection. Then we document them in a report. By conducting a few hundred inspections a year, you easily will have made 100,000 observations a year. What are the odds of perfection?

Add to that the issues that are not visible or present during your inspections, and it’s pretty clear that, eventually, you will have to handle a complaint.

Handling the Complaint Call
Avoiding complaints altogether is the ideal, of course, but not the reality. Handling the call properly from the first moment it comes in is critical. Having a proper procedure in place can make the difference between coming to a quick resolution of the problem and dealing with a lawsuit.

Here are a few methods we have developed over many years:

Call back right away: If the call was a message left on your voicemail, return the client’s call as soon as you can. You want to show your client that you are interested and concerned about the problem. There is nothing worse than calling back a day or two later except not calling back at all.

Delayed call-backs send the message that you don’t care. Further irritating an unhappy client makes no business sense to us. We would always rather speak to our clients before they decide to call their lawyer.

Don’t be defensive: Being open is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do. A complaint about the inspection is, indirectly or directly, a complaint about you. Defensive behavior is almost sure to make things worse. It may help to keep telling yourself that the complaint is just business and that the call is just a business
communication, not a personal attack.

Thank the caller for calling and listen to the complaint:
Recognize that calling you with a complaint also may be difficult or uncomfortable for your client. Thank him or her for calling and for drawing your attention to the problem. Acknowledge that this must have been a difficult call to make. Thanking the client often defuses the situation.

Likely, the caller will launch into the problem right away, but if they don’t, encourage the caller to explain exactly what happened. Listen carefully without interrupting.

Take notes and resist the temptation to speak up as soon as you hear something with which you disagree. Not only is interrupting more likely to make the caller angry, but you also are more likely to say something that you will wish you had not said after hearing the rest of the information.

The more your client speaks, the better. We have often found that the client eventually says something that you can use or, at least, may be helpful to your cause. There is no downside to letting them speak their mind completely.

Once they are finished, repeat the situation back to them from your notes to be sure you got it right. A good technique is to paraphrase what the client said. It shows that you listened and that you are actively trying to understand their position. Ask if there is anything else you should know. They will usually clarify or add some detail.Make notes of these comments as well.

Ask some questions: After the client has had a chance to explain the situation and you have reiterated what they said, you should ask some questions. We often empathize with the client by saying something like, “I’m sure this is very frustrating for you. Let’s see if we can get it resolved.” This makes the client feel a little better. You are not brushing them off and you are acknowledging that they have a problem. Although you have not taken responsibility, the client’s attitude often changes noticeably. Take on the role of consultant and focus on solving the problem rather than worrying about who is to blame. The client has a problem in their home and their priority is to solve the problem, not ruin your day.

The next step is to drill down into the situation to get more information.  We say, “May I ask a few questions to make sure I understand completely?”

You should have a standard list of questions to ask. These might include the following:

  • Can you give me some more details about the problem? Where is it? What does it look like?
  • When did you first notice the problem? How did you find the problem? 
  • Had anything about the house changed from the time of the inspection until the time you took possession? For example, had the house been left vacant or had anything been removed from the house?
  • Has anything in the house changed since you took possession? For example, have you done any repairs or made any improvements?

Once you have asked your questions and listened to your client’s answers, you will start to have a better picture of the situation. You may have some follow-up questions, and you should ask these and document the answers. Take everything with a grain of salt. We often find that a substantial amount of what we are told is not true or is distorted. Take nothing at face value and be sure to check
everything without being confrontational about it.

Reviewing the Report 
Now that you have listened to the client attentively and have shown that you understand the situation, tell the client that you will pull the file and call them back in 60 minutes. If you are about to go into an inspection, tell them that you will call them back in three hours.

The golden rule of complaints: Never make a definitive comment until you have reread the report. Even if you think you remember the house, reading the report will remind you of what was visible and what was not. You have probably inspected many homes since the home in question.

After you’ve reviewed the report, call the client back earlier than you promised. If you said you would call them back by 3 p.m., call them back at 2:30 p.m. Do not leave them waiting. Calling back early has significant value. Calling back late can do significant damage.

When you call the client back, you will have developed an opinion. You may have determined one of or more of the following
four conclusions:

You need to go back to the home to get more information.

The client doesn’t have a problem; the situation is normal or typical. (You will need to prove this to the client.)

The client has a problem, but it was documented in the report.(Explain where to find the documentation in your report.)

The client has a problem, but it was not in the scope of a home inspector to discover it. (Explain to the client the section of your contract or standard that excludes it.) 

Watch for Part 2 of this article series in next month’s edition of the Reporter.

Carson Dunlop - Consulting engineering firm devoted to home inspection since 1978. www.carsondunlop.com