February, 2004
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Resolving Complaints, A Risk Management Series For Home Inspectors, Part 3 of 4

ALAN CARSON

Alan Carson originally developed this information for Carson Dunlop's training programs. Visit www.carsondunlop.com.

Receiving Complaints

How important is complaint resolution to the long-term success of your home inspection business? When Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop & Associates, found little authoritative material concerning what he believed to be an important business skill, he put together what he has learned through the years, inviting readers to challenge what’s presented and to take away any of the pieces that will work for them.

Introducing the “Resolving Complaints” series in the December Reporter, Carson cited flexibility as key to handling complaints – no one approach fits every situation, issue or personality. He suggests using a four-part process for thinking through the factors that go into perfecting this important skill: Avoiding complaints; Receiving complaints; Performing revisits; and Resolving complaints.

As the series continues this month, consider how his approach might be used to deliver the level of customer service exemplified by The ASHI Experience.

RECEIVING COMPLAINTS

To be successful, satisfy customers. Last month, a number of practices for increasing customer satisfaction and decreasing the likelihood of complaints was discussed. But the reality of life is that sooner or later, a home inspector is probably going to receive a complaint.

The single greatest mistake you can make when you learn of a complaint is to delay your response.

Respond immediately, if not sooner!
Catching things early is great. Letting them fester is a serious problem. Non-response makes you look guilty, rude and evasive. If you take nothing else from this series, take away the thought that complaints are priority issues. Timing is important, but so is style. You don’t calm an angry bull by poking him with a stick.

It’s not about you!

One way to refrain from poking that bull is to remem-ber it’s not about you. How can it not be about you? Well, because it’s about your client. It’s about his or her home. And it is about your business, not about you. It is unfortunate that in the home inspection profession, it’s easy to confuse business and personal issues. Emotional reactions are understandable, but are not useful for dealing with complaints, and they can contribute to poor business decisions.

For example, if you owned a store that sold toasters, and someone called to say his toaster didn’t work, how would you feel? You would take steps to show the client how to use the toaster, fix the toaster or replace the toaster as needed. But it probably wouldn’t ruin your day. You didn’t make the toaster. You just sold it.

It’s not a personal attack, really!
In our business, you’ve designed and built the toaster, packaged it, advertised it and delivered it. To the client, it is a problem with a product or service, but to you it feels like a personal attack.

The call
The telephone call often goes something like this: “Hello, my name is John Doe. You inspected the house we bought in October, and we moved in at the beginning of December, and two days later it rained and the roof leaked into the family room and totally destroyed the hardwood flooring and everything got moldy and the dog, who has asthma, had a bad reaction to the mold, and when my sister came over for the holidays, she tripped on the buckled flooring…”

The conversation often includes a list of problems and considerable emotion. Here’s what we do:

Listen first
The first rule is to listen, saying nothing. This is much harder than it sounds, especially for home inspectors. The second rule is to keep listening. The third rule is not to be defensive. It is important to let the client get absolutely everything on the table, without interruption, and without being challenged.

Say thanks!
When we’re sure the client has told us the whole story, we thank him for calling. We tell him we know this must have been a difficult call to make, and we appreciate the fact he cared enough to call and give us a chance to help him out. This lowers the energy level of the conversation and usually takes the client aback. He’s expecting a fight. We don’t fight with him.

Resolve the problem
We assume the client wants to resolve the problem rather than worry about who is responsible for it, so we move quickly into a problem-solving mode. Some-thing in his home is not working and he needs it to be corrected. The issue of responsibility is secondary.

After letting the client describe the problem and thanking him for the call, we say, “Let me ask you a few questions to make sure I understand.”

Standard questions might include the following:
  • Can you tell me the details of the problem? What does it look like? Exactly where is it? When did you first notice it?

  • What was the date of the inspection, and what was the date you moved in?

  • What was the weather like at the time of the inspection? What was the weather like when the problem first showed up?

  • Is there any evidence of a previous problem in this area?

  • Has any work been done in this part of the house since you moved in?

  • Did you have any notes on your pre-possession checklist about this area?

  • Was there a seller’s disclosure form completed? Does it address this issue?

  • Have you had any other inspections done on the property?

  • Was the house vacant or occupied at the time of the inspection?

  • Do you know how long the previous occupants lived in the house?

  • Have you had any experts offer opinions on the problem?

  • Have any repairs been undertaken yet? (Has the client removed your opportunity to examine the situation and defend yourself?)

  • Have you had any other work done in the home? (Was the problem caused by other work being done?)

  • How was the problem discovered? (The use of special tools and dismantling are beyond the scope of an inspection.)
The last question is an interesting one. For instance, a client discovers all of the windows suddenly leak. This makes sense when we learn a conventional furnace was replaced with a high-efficiency furnace, and the water on the windows is condensation, not leakage. Clients do not generally understand that a house is a complex set of interrelated systems and that changes in one area can affect others.

Is it in the report?
In addition to the standard list of questions, we ask if the client has looked at the inspection report. Com-plaints are often about problems that are documented there, but many clients do not look at it before calling to complain.

Don’t believe anything you are told
It’s surprising the amount of misinformation you can receive from an emotional client talking about his problems. Therefore, we record all the responses to the questions, without considering any of them as factual.

Research
After again thanking the client for calling, we promise to pull our files and to call back within 60 minutes. Our rule is always to look at our report before responding to any complaint. If another inspector in the company performed the inspection, we also try to speak to him or her before responding to the client. Resist the temptation to immediately defend yourself, even when you’re reasonably sure you have no liability.

Call back as promised
We call the client back before we said we would. If we said 60 minutes, we call back in 30 minutes. If 30 min-utes doesn’t work for you, tell the client you’ll call back in 3 hours, 24 hours or whatever, but always call back before you said you would. There is little to be gained and much to be lost in aggravating a client by keeping him waiting. This requires no additional effort on your part, and is simply good customer relations.

The problem is covered in the report
If the problem is documented in the report, we promptly call the client, taking a positive and helpful approach. Assuming the client is looking for a solution and not a scapegoat, we offer to send them the appropriate section of the report and accept some of the responsibility for the miscommunication. After offering to go over the issue to make sure the client understands what action is needed, we once again thank him for calling and check to ensure he is comfortable with our response.

The problem is out of scope
Sometimes the problem is clearly outside the scope of the inspection. We explain this, but more importantly, we point out where we indicated this at the time of the inspection, by referring to the contract, to the Limitations section of our report, to the Standards of Practice, or to our handout,“When Things Go Wrong,” featured in the January Reporter. Remaining positive and proactive, we might ask if there is something we can do to help such as finding a specialist. Before ending the conversation, we try to make sure the client understands that this was something no home inspector would have identified. Thanking him again for calling, we encourage him to call back if there are any other issues.

We may have made a mistake
If the problem is not included in the report, and it seems to be within the scope of an inspection, we schedule a revisit to the property for the following reasons.
  • The information reported is often incorrect or incomplete.

  • The client’s assessment of the cause may be wrong.

  • The client’s assessment of the implication may be wrong.

  • There are a number of issues that cannot be confirmed over the phone.

  • There may be circumstances that prevented us from discovering the problem.

  • The client will take some comfort in a revisit. We’re responding rather than ignoring him.
If a contractor discovered the problem and told the client that that the home inspector should have seen it, we ask that the contractor be present at the revisit.

Written complaints
To this point, we’ve been discussing complaints received by phone. Sometimes, the complaint is received in a letter from a client or an attorney. We believe you should call the client, no matter who sent the letter. This is an opportunity to re-establish your relationship with the client and to keep the problem from escalating.

Call, don’t write
Writing a defensive letter to a client or attorney may resolve the issue, but more often it aggravates the problem. As we said earlier, verbal communication is better than written communication in many ways. There is an opportunity for immediate feedback and the tone of voice and speech pattern are useful. Speaking is also less work than writing. Many people are intimidated by writing and are reluctant to write as much as they are willing to say. You will learn more in a conversation than in writing (assuming you can listen effectively), and knowledge is power in this situation.

The attorney’s disadvantage
Understand that the attorney has a problem. Inevitably, attorneys are told one side of the story. Clients almost always frame the story so they don’t appear foolish, often leaving out key pieces of information or adding details. Attorneys’ letters take strong positions based on hearing one side of the story.

The attorney is doing his or her job without all the information. Responding antagonistically to an attorney does nothing to help resolve the issue. Almost without exception, we find that the attorney has not seen our report, has not reviewed the contract and is missing key pieces of information.

If you must write
We suggest you call when you get a complaint letter, but we bet you won’t follow our advice. Therefore, here are some suggestions if you respond by letter.
  • Choose your words carefully; you can’t take them back.

  • Do not reply via e-mail; it’s just too easy to widely distribute e-mails.

  • Avoid being defensive or aggressive. This is a business issue, not a personal issue. It can be very difficult to separate the two, but you need to retain perspective.

  • In your response, do not accept any of the information in the complaint.
    Ask for the opportunity to revisit the property.

  • Avoid building a defense based on the material presented in the complaint letter since it is rarely accurate and complete.
If the letter is from an attorney and contains a demand for payment, you may want to turn the matter over to your insurance company. This is a business decision for you.
We believe that if you choose to respond to an attorney’s letter with a letter, you increase your risk. Your insurance company may believe you have prejudiced its opportunity to defend and, if so, you may find that coverage is not available or is restricted. You should discuss these strategies with your insurance broker or carrier ahead of time.

Complaints through the real estate agent
If a real estate agent complains on behalf of a client, it is important to deal directly with the client, while keeping the agent informed at every step. The agent will have heard only one side of the story, and you need to ensure that both sides are communicated clearly. In addition, you need to let the agent know you are handling the issue promptly and professionally. This is an opportunity to educate the agent and to create a positive impression of your firm. Never assume the client will pass information on to the agent.

Be ready to receive complaints
Knowing how you will receive a complaint before it comes in means you won’t be caught off guard. Getting off on the right note will increase the likelihood of a positive resolution.


Alan Carson of Carson Dunlop is an ASHI Member and Past President. Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, ON, offers home, commercial and home warranty inspection services, as well as educational services, reporting systems and the Home Reference Book. For information, call 800-268-7070 or visit www.carsondunlop.com .