How important is complaint resolution to the long-term success of your home inspection business? Alan Carson, Carson Dunlop & Associates, considers it to be a significant factor for achieving success, yet he found little authoritative material when he searched for information on the topic. Therefore, he decided to share with others what has worked for him.
In the December ASHI Reporter, Carson cited flexibility as key to handling complaints —no one approach fits every situation, issue or personality. In the following months, he covered the first two parts of a four-part process he recommends for addressing complaints: Avoiding complaints and Receiving complaints.
As the series concludes with parts three and four, the last two steps, consider how this approach might help you deliver the level of customer service exemplified by The ASHI Experience.
Last month we suggested as part of the process for receiving complaints you ask to revisit the inspection site rather than accepting the information provided by the client. One reason we like revisits is because they help put people in the right place on the mean scale, our in-house term that takes into account the following factors:
- It is easiest for people to be mean in writing.
- It is harder for people to be mean on the phone.
- It is hardest for people to be mean face to face.
- Corollary: it is easy to be mean in writing, on the phone and face to face, when speaking about someone else.
Even more important than the mean scale is the information gathering opportunity a revisit offers. To help gather the information required to resolve the complaint, we recommend the following:
• Take your report
Have your inspection report with you, although you may not want to refer to it directly. This is a strategic decision. Do not, however, rely on your memory of what is in your report. There may be an opportunity for you to present the report, resolve the issue and create a happy ending. You also may want to refer to your report privately to refresh your memory, clarify details, etc.
• Take another inspector
If someone else in your company performed the inspection, take him or her with you.
- Only the inspector who did the inspection knows what the site conditions were at the time. For example, he or she may recall a crowded bookshelf along a wall that is now exposed. It would not have been documented in the report as a limitation because he or she assumed it was staying with the home.
- Clients find it more difficult to accuse an inspector of inappropriate behavior if he or she is standing there. It helps keep people honest and at the right end of the mean scale.
• Focus on fact finding
Do not act defensively or aggressively. Your role is to help solve a problem, not assess blame – at least at this stage. Ask lots of questions. Consider repeating the standard list of questions you asked on the telephone. The answers are often surprisingly different. This can be helpful later on in the resolution process. Also consider creating more questions based on the initial answers you received. It’s okay to offer steps to solve the problem at this state, but don’t discuss responsibility for it.
• Take photos
Take photographs to document the situation. Some courts do not accept digital photos because they are easy to alter.
• Leave the fancy tools at home
When you revisit the site of the complaint, use only the tools you normally use. If you use fancy devices at the revisit, you may be asked why you didn’t use them during the inspection.
• Contractors should attend
If it was a contractor who found the problem, it is wise to have the contractor attend the revisit. You might ask when he discovered the problem. If it was after work began, ask why it wasn’t included in the original quote. If it should have been apparent to an inspector, who is a generalist, it should have been apparent to a contractor, who is a specialist. Try to have the contractor admit the uncertainty and unpredictability of identifying this type of problem rather than directly challenging his responses.
Thinking on your feet
As evidence unfolds, ask follow-up questions. This requires mental agility and focus. Emotions get in the way. But again, having a second person present helps. Two heads are better than one, especially since the inspector who did the inspection will tend to justify or rationalize his original position. It is simply human nature.
Close the revisit by advising the client what the next steps will be. Give the client the date and time you’ll get back to him, and then do so even sooner.
The last step - resolution
You’ve taken steps to avoid complaints, you have the process in place for receiving complaints, and you’ve made it a practice to revisit the site of the inspection when you receive a complaint. The next step is to apply the responsibility yardstick.
The responsibility yardstick
Use the information you gathered on the revisit to determine where you stand on that yardstick.
1. Is there, in fact, a problem?
a. If No, explain to your client why what looks like a problem is really a normal condition.
b. If Yes, go to Point 2.
2. If there is a problem, was it documented in the report?
a. If Yes, show the client that your report addresses the situation.
b. If No, go to Point 3.
3. If there is a problem and it is not documented in the report, is it within the scope of the inspection?
a. If No, help the client understand why a home inspection would not reveal this problem.
b. If Yes, go to Point 4.
4. If there is a problem it is not documented in your report and it is within the scope of the home inspection, ask yourself, “Would a competent inspector identify this problem?”
a. If No, help the client understand that no home inspector would have discovered this.
b. If Yes, go to Point 5
5. Did it exist at the time of the inspection? (May be difficult or impossible to determine.)
a. If No, explain this to your client.
b. If Yes, go to Point 6.
6. Was it visible at the time of the inspection? (May be difficult or impossible to determine. Check for limitations in your report. Check for changes or demolition that could have exposed the problem.)
a. If No, explain this to your client.
b. If Yes, you probably have some responsibility.
Additional issues to consider if you arrive at 5 or 6
• Did it exist or was it visible?
Circumstances may have prevented you from identifying the problem, e.g., a badly damaged floor covered with broadloom; or ceiling tiles concealing rotted joists.
Sometimes, roofs only leak when conditions are right – ice damming or wind-driven rains from the southeast, for example. Basements may only leak when thawing snow is combined with heavy spring rains on frozen ground.
It is near impossible to recreate the circumstances of an inspection. This is an argument for a statute of limitations on home inspectors’ responsibility. So many things can change in a home and inspectors cannot remember the conditions from previous inspections.
• Consider whether or not there is any shared responsibility.
- Did a seller, tenant or other third party conceal or misrepresent the problem?
- Did a contractor, installer or homebuilder perform poor work?
- Did a contractor conceal the problem?
- Is the product under a manufacturer’s warranty?
- Is the problem covered under a homeowner’s insurance policy?
- Is the problem covered under a home warranty?
- Is there a manufacturer’s recall on the product?
Now that you have the information from the revisit in hand and you’ve used the yardstick, it’s time to assess your situation before negotiating.
1. You conclude you have no responsibility, which means you have a communications task to move the client to the point of understanding why you have no responsibility.
2. You may or may not have responsibility. There is a problem that was not documented that is within the scope of the home inspection, but you don’t know whether you or your inspector should have identified it.
3. There is clearly a problem with respect to the inspection.
The three philosophies
At the outset of this series, we talked about three common philosophies. How you approach the negotiations depends to a large degree on whether you consider yourself as one who denies all claims (hardliner), one who accepts valid claims (validator) or one who tends to settle all claims (conciliator). Sometimes your position is based on the way your client has been acting and reacting. It may not be logical, but we tend to react more favorably to people we deem as behaving rationally, professionally and with courtesy.
What does the client think is fair?
Whatever your approach, we suggest you find out what the client thinks is fair. You’ll notice we didn’t ask you to find out what would make the client happy. We much prefer asking the client what he or she thinks is fair. We are sometimes surprised clients are looking for so little. Sometimes an apology is what is required. In other cases, helpful advice in resolving the problem satisfies the client. In many cases, a refund of the inspection fee restores the relationship. We try to look at the issue from the client’s perspective, but avoid being drawn into the client’s situation.
Be careful with offers
Where responsibility is unclear, you may decide to make an offer as a business decision whether or not you believe you made an error. Touch base with your attorney and your insurance company before doing so to ensure you will be able to defend yourself if the offer is not accepted.
And get an attorney’s advice on what kind of release you need in exchange for a settlement. A release is a form signed by the client that frees you completely or partially from any further liability claims on that property.
Only settle for business reasons if it helps your business!
Consider settling with a client only if the client is satisfied with the offer. It may not be a great investment to pay money and still have an unhappy client.
You don’t want to pay to replace a 5-year-old roof with a new one that might last 15 or 20 years. It’s fair to pay for part of a new roof to put the client back to the point the report said he was at the time of the inspection.
Other responsible parties?
We’ve seen it suggested that if there are others who may share responsibility, the home inspector should advise the client of this and encourage him or her to seek compensation in those areas. It sounds wrong to me for a home inspector to advise the client to approach others while settling with him or her. This would apply if it was a big issue AND you have deemed that you will wait for the client to sue you. If things go that far, your attorney and insurer should know about this approach. Other responsible parties might include the seller, the real estate agent, contractors, builders, manufacturers, homeowners’ insurance policies and home warranties.
Turning it over to the insurance company
You may choose to have your insurance company handle the complaint. This can be an emotional relief, but it may be expensive. It also probably eliminates the possibility of having a satisfied client. The insurance company’s world is typically adversarial. The exception may be if the insurance company offers to settle quickly for the amount of your deductible. Talk to your insurance company before you are in this situation so you know its claim settling policies.
Handling complaints is no fun. Having a strategy developed in advance for handling them makes it less painful and less likely that you will make a serious mistake. We hope the explanation of our process is useful to others, and we encourage others to use the parts that fit their business model.<
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 .