Complaint handling: Top tips from the Legal Ombudsman

The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) recently published research exploring the language used in the complaints process and the impact that it may have on the outcomes for consumers. LeO Ombudsman Jason Chapman explains the main learning points from the research.

Research conducted by IFF examined the extent to which the use of language and communication influenced people’s ability to engage in complaints at both the first tier (when the consumer complains to the service provider) and second tier (when the consumer then complains to the Legal Ombudsman), and the choices they made during the complaints process. Here are some key points to take away from the research.

Keep it simple. Avoid using jargon, acronyms, pretentious language and legal or technical terms. They may seem commonplace to you but these can be confusing and intimidating to people who are not familiar with the legal profession.

Be timely. Give a timeframe for how long you will take to investigate and respond to the customer so they aren’t constantly checking for a response. This will reassure the customer that the complaints process will not go on indefinitely.

Take it seriously.  Ensure that it is clear that you are taking the complaint seriously. Overly informal language or poor grammar or processes can suggest that no formal investigation is underway. I have seen examples of providers saying that they will “have a word”, which can leave people unsure of whether the complaint is being dealt with through a proper process.

Don’t be afraid to apologise.  Start with a proper apology if appropriate and avoid burying it at the end of lengthy letters. The researchers highlighted phrases such as “I’m sorry you have felt the need to complain” or “I’m sorry you feel this way” being used, which came across as disingenuous and patronising. If you’ve made a mistake in the delivery of your service simply say “sorry” without caveats and conditions. We would not consider this to be an admission of negligence.

Acknowledge stress or inconvenience caused. For many, the decision to make a complaint is not taken lightly. Complaining is seen as a negative activity and people lack confidence in the process and fear jeopardising their relationship with the service provider.

Demonstrate to the customer that you appreciate their feedback and the opportunity to improve your service. Irrespective of the merits of the customer’s complaint, they feel that their experience has fallen short of the service that they had hoped to receive, and indeed the service that you had hoped to deliver.

Be clear. When responding to a complaint, detail the customer’s concerns one by one. It is useful to use bold headings to structure the response around the details of the complaint.

Finally, you must ensure that your signposting information to the Legal Ombudsman is accurate, clear and easy to find as this acts to reassure complainants.

The full research report can be found on the Legal Ombudsman website.

James Chapman, LeO Ombudsman


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