Complaints from hell, Pt. 1: Prevent them or else

By Steven McCarty

The National Ethics Association


Thanks to the Internet, even minor complaints have the potential to become complaints from you know where.

Ah, complaints. Years ago, clients might file complaints with a state or federal regulator. You'd be called to account, but if you weren't at fault, hopefully the regulator would dismiss it. If you were, you'd either make good or enter mediation (or court).

Now, I'm not minimizing the significance of old-fashioned complaints. In fact, a complaint left to fester can easily turn into an errors and omissions claim, potentially costing you tens of thousands of dollars in indemnity costs and legal fees. And that doesn't count the time and aggravation involved.

But boy, today's complaint landscape is so Web 2.0. Thanks to the Internet, even minor complaints have the potential to become complaints from you know where. That's because social media complaint sites are all the rage.

The problem is once your name gets published on such a site, your reputation takes a big hit, permanently. And even if you publish a rebuttal, people will assume you're just lying to protect yourself.

Think I'm exaggerating? Check out these sites: www.complaints.com, www.planetfeedback.com, www.ripoffreport.com, and www.thesqueakywheel.com. Some of the complainants seem like reasonable people. They state their problems rationally, provide evidence and only want a fair outcome. Others seem a bit unhinged, inflammatory and out for blood (yours).

It gets worse. One site allows people to post complaints with your photo. Then the site automatically forwards the complaint to Google and sends email copies to friends and family. How's that for viral marketing?

Scary? You bet. But don't let fear paralyze you. Act now to prevent complaints before they occur. Here are some guidelines to get you started:
    1. Do everything by the book. Make sure your marketing (especially seminar) practices are locked down tight. Know your administrative procedures cold, especially regarding filling out forms and dealing with client funds.

    2. Do business with professionalism. Part of this depends on you knowing your stuff. The other part depends on you acting with integrity. If you're not sure what that means, review the National Ethics Bureau Ethics Pledge (www.ethicscheck.com).

    3. Meet, and hopefully exceed, client expectations. You can do a great job for your clients, but if they're expecting something more, watch out. So always be sure to set -- and reset -- client expectations as needed.

    4. Become "the great communicator." Reach out to your clients frequently. Ask them how they're feeling about their product or plan -- and about you. If they're not happy, find out why and fix the problem immediately.

    5. Always do what's best for your clients. Never forget that it's about them, not you. Whatever your license type, adopt the mindset of a true fiduciary.
Unfortunately, even if you take all these steps, client complaints can still spiral out of control. In part two of this column, I'll discuss how to handle them.