Presented by Graham Clarke, P.Eng., RHI
Carson, Dunlop & Associates Limited
Other results of complaints
Complaints can wear you down. They are distracting and emotionally draining for home inspectors. In addition to consuming your money, they may:
The article is divided into four sections:
1. Avoiding complaints
2. Receiving complaints
3. Performing revisits
4. Resolving complaints
Our goal is to give you some suggestions for handling each of these steps of the process.
1. AVOIDING COMPLAINTS
Although the focus of this article is not risk management, we cant resist touching on a few critical areas:
1. Invite the client to the inspection.
We have found that clients who do not attend the inspection are more likely to complain. There are several advantages in having the client with you during the inspection. You can adjust any unreasonable expectations, explaining the scope of a professional home inspection. You have a chance to establish rapport with the client and earn their respect. Clients see how hard you work on their behalf. Many home inspectors say, Friends do not sue friends. While it may be a stretch to say that home inspectors become friends with their clients, there is a respect that can be earned over a 2½ to 3½ hour home inspection.
Another reason to invite the client is that verbal communication is better than written communication in many ways. While it is your report that will be relied on if a problem comes up, a face-to-face discussion provides for feedback and allows you to repeat or modify your comments to ensure good understanding. You may also customize your reports to reflect your conversations with the client.
2. Use a good contract
While we believe a good contract is important, we look at contracts differently than some. For example, we send our Authorization Form (We dont call it a contract!) to our clients ahead of time. This gives the client a chance to ask questions before the inspection. It also saves the inspector time at the beginning of the inspection explaining the scope, adjusting expectations and getting an agreement signed. We encourage clients to sign and return the agreement before the inspection. This is also an opportunity to take care of payment details before the inspection itself.
We include a copy of the Standards of Practice so that the client can understand the scope of the inspection and realize that the rules of the game are well established, and not something we made up.
Those crazy expectations
We have touched on this already, but it is worth emphasizing. You need to create realistic expectations. Clients should know that you are there to find big problems, the kind that would change their mind about buying the property. In looking for the big problems, you will trip across some small ones. Rather than ignore them, we report them, as a courtesy. The problem with this is that it creates the impression (and expectation) that we find every cracked pane of glass, loose tile, soft mortar joint, and so on.
Unless we explain this to the client, who could blame them for expecting more? It is our responsibility to clarify the scope. Some inspectors say the inspection is a sampling process rather than an all-inclusive exercise. Some say they will not respond to any complaints below $500. Others define major problems as life safety items or items over $1,000, and respond only to those issues. Find your own way to get the message across, but make it clear.
The contract itself
There are many contract wordings and we encourage you to check with your attorney before settling on any. However, remember that attorneys have a specific goal to minimize your liability. Their goal is not to build your business success, and an attorney typically has no role in your marketing or customer service activities. Your goals may include business growth as well as liability control.
Many contracts have clauses to minimize the inspectors exposure. These include the following:
Lets look at the purpose of the contract. Many say the purpose of a contract is to limit the inspectors liability. We believe the purpose of a contract is to clearly communicate to the client the scope of the home inspection. Clients should understand what we can and cant do. It is fair for them to hold our feet to the fire within that window of responsibility.
The goal of an agreement, in our opinion, is to have both the supplier and customer agree on the service to be delivered. It is the customers responsibility to pay for the service when it is delivered. It is the suppliers responsibility to deliver the service.
Our contract is short and attempts to explain in laymans terms the scope of the inspection. We refer to the ASHI®/CAHPI Standards of Practice because it is clear that the exclusions and restrictions are not specific to our company.
There is, however, a risk in rigidly defining the scope. If you clearly set out what you are going to do, and then perform services beyond this scope, your contract may be thrown out by a court. (I told you we dont do things like asbestos, but I thought you should know that there is asbestos on these pipes.) If you report on things outside of scope, it can be argued that you should have reported on other things outside the scope as well, since you were clearly not serious about defining your scope.
We believe that your promotional materials can be positive without over-promising. Offering complete peace of mind, a total solution etc. may expose you to liability.
Professional Liability Insurance
While people have different opinions about whether you should carry Errors & Omissions insurance, we encourage you not to advertise the fact, if you do carry the insurance.
When Things Go Wrong
One of the best ways to handle complaints is to anticipate them. We include a document called When Things Go Wrong in our reports. We remind clients of this document when complaints come in. It is very nice to be able to say, We told you this would happen.
Booking the inspection a risk management opportunity
There is an opportunity to ask some risk management questions when an inspection is ordered. This is a great time to ask about and document specific concerns. Concerns outside the scope of the inspection can be identified at this stage and clients can be advised as to where to get answers to these questions. We prefer to avoid telling clients, We dont inspect for that. We try to tell them where they can get answers to their specific issue. We also make it clear that when clients ask for things outside our scope, this is not part of a professional home inspection. We dont want to leave the impression that other home inspectors may perform those services and that they have chosen a poor firm.
A conversation might go something like this:
In this example, we have made it clear to the client that what they are asking for is outside of what any home inspector does, but we have offered to respond on their behalf. There are several variations on this theme, but we encourage you to give some thought to this.
Good home inspectors dont get complaints!
We thought we might catch your attention with this heading. Actually, we believe that all home inspectors get complaints eventually. Why is this? There are several reasons, but part of the answer may lie in our definition of a home inspection, which goes like this: Home inspection is a high-liability, in-depth, multi-disciplined technical analysis of the home conducted under adverse circumstances in front of a demanding audience, requiring the generation of an incredibly detailed written report prepared in an unrealistically short time frame for an inconceivably low fee.
Does anyone understand how tough our life is?
What to do at the inspection
The risk management process carries through the inspection itself. A good inspection is fundamental, of course, but it is also important to document special limitations, such as no access to a bedroom or roof space.
It is important to be consistent between your verbal comments and your written report. Many home inspectors have a tendency to understate problems face-to-face and describe them more harshly in the written report. This frustrates clients, and if there are witnesses, the written report may be dismissed as not representative of the inspection.
Dont guess, bluff or ignore
Dont guess about things you are not sure of. If you come across something you are not familiar with, say you will do some research and get back to them. You dont want to bluff your way through a discussion. If you are caught, this will undermine your credibility on all issues. You cant afford to ignore things you dont understand because they may have a significant effect on the property.
Dont show off
We encourage you not to show off. Clients are not well served by home inspectors who use technical language to prove their knowledge. Home inspectors are in the communication business and the best inspection is one that helps your client understand the condition of the home. You will be appreciated for your ability to make things understandable.
We recommend that you avoid being argumentative. We are sometimes challenged about technical issues by one or more of the parties at the inspection. We think its best to avoid a confrontation. Simply provide authoritative backup for your position in the report. You should allow others their right to their own opinions. There is nothing to be gained from making one of the parties at the inspection look foolish. You can clarify your position for your client in private after the inspection if necessary.
Where does your loyalty belong?
We believe impartiality is a key to avoiding complaints. We are often asked to whom we are responsible or loyal during our inspection. Some say we are responsible to the client who pays our fee. Others say our responsibility is to the agent who brought us together with the client. Still others say that we are responsible to the seller whose home we are in. In our opinion, our loyalty lies with none of these. We believe our loyalty is to the home, we should represent its condition as accurately as possible to anyone who ever reads our report
Some tools to avoid and resolve complaints
Some inspectors offer a home warranty to clients. The warranty itself may address a problem. Some inspectors offer a home warranty to help in responding to complaints. The conversation might go something like this: It is too bad you didnt take advantage of the home warranty that we offered you during the inspection. The warranty would have addressed this issue. The offer of a home warranty in itself is an indication to clients that the home inspection cannot predict future problems. This helps to adjust unrealistic expectations and again reinforces the scope of the home inspection.
Some inspectors give clients a checklist to complete before taking possession of the home. This puts some responsibility on the client to identify visible defects. If a client later calls to complain about a stain, crack or bulge, for example, the inspector points out to the client that they did not note it on their pre-possession checklist, so clearly it was not visible at the time of the inspection.
2. RECEIVING COMPLAINTS
Respond immediately if not sooner!
The single biggest mistake you can make when you learn of a complaint is delaying your response. Catching things early is great. Letting them fester is a serious problem. Non-response makes you look guilty, rude and evasive. You dont calm an angry bull by poking him with a stick. If you take nothing else from this article, take away the thought that complaints are priority issues. Now, if we have convinced you that you must respond, lets look at how.
Its not about you!
How can it not be about you? Well, because it is about your client. And it is about their home. And it is about your business, not about you. It is unfortunate that in the home inspection profession it easy to confuse business and personal issues. Our emotional reactions are understandable personal responses. But they are not useful to us in dealing with complaints and can contribute to poor business decisions.
Lets look at an example. If you owned a store that sold toasters, and someone called to say their toaster didnt 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 wouldnt ruin your day. You didnt make the toaster. You just sold it.
Its not a personal attack, really!
Unfortunately, in our business, you 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.
Complaints commonly come in by telephone or letter. 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.
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.
When we are sure that they have told us the whole story, the first thing we do is thank them for calling! We tell them this must have been a difficult call to make and that we appreciate the fact that they cared enough to call us and give us a chance to help them out. This lowers the energy level of the conversation and usually takes the client aback. They are expecting a fight. Dont fight with them.
Resolve the problem
We move quickly into a mode of helping them resolve their problem. We approach complaints by assuming the client just wants to get a problem resolved, rather than worrying about who is responsible for it. Something in their home is not working and needs to be corrected. The issue of responsibility is secondary.
After we have let the client describe their problem and thanked them for the call, we ask a number of questions. We typically say something like, Let me ask you a few questions to make sure I understand. You may want to have a standard list of questions that include such things as:
Is it in the Report?
Complaints are often about problems that are documented in the report. Many clients do not look at the report before calling to complain.
Dont believe anything you are told
You should record all the responses, but not consider any of them as factual. We are always surprised at the amount of misinformation we receive from emotional clients telling us about their problems.
We thank the client again for calling and tell them we will pull our files and call them back in 60 minutes. We always look at our report before responding to any complaint. If it was another inspector who performed the inspection, we also encourage you to speak to that inspector before responding to the client. Resist the temptation to defend yourself even if you are reasonably sure that you have no liability.
Call back soon!
Call the client back before you said you would. If you tell them you will call them back in 60 minutes, then call them back in 30 minutes. If you need more time, tell them youll call them back in 3 hours, 24 hours or whatever, but always call them back before you said you would. There is little to be gained and much to be lost in further aggravating a client by keeping them waiting. This requires no additional effort on your part and is simply good customer relations.
The problem is covered in the report!
You may find the problem is documented in the report. In this case, call the client back promptly and be positive and helpful. Remember, the client is looking for a solution and not a scapegoat. Offer to send them the appropriate section of the report and accept some of the responsibility for the miscommunication. Offer to go over the issue to make sure they understand what action is needed. Once again, thank them for calling and ensure that they are comfortable with your response.
The problem is out of scope
Sometimes the problem is clearly outside of the scope of the inspection. When you call back, explain this but more importantly, show them that you told them earlier it was outside of the scope. You may refer them to the contract, to the Limitations section of your report, to the Standards of Practice, to When Things go Wrong , etc. Be positive and proactive. Ask if there is anything you can do to help. You may offer to help them find a specialist, for example. Before ending the conversation, ensure that they understand this was not something that any home inspector would identify. Thank them again for calling and encourage them to call back if they have any other issues.
You may have made a mistake
If the problem is not included in your report and it seems to be within the scope of an inspection, schedule a revisit to the property. There are several reasons for this.
In some cases, a contractor has discovered the problem. The contractor may have said, Your home inspector should have seen this and told you about it! If this is the case, ask to have the contractor to attend the revisit.
Before we go any further with responses to complaints, lets go back and look at what happens if you get a written complaint. This may be 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 for you to re-establish your relationship with the client. It is also a chance to keep the problem from escalating.
Call, dont write
Writing a defensive letter to a client or attorney may resolve the issue, but it more often 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 attorneys disadvantage
Understand that the attorney has a problem. Attorneys are inevitably told one side of the story. Clients almost always frame the story so they dont appear foolish, and often leave out key pieces of information, or add details. Attorneys letters always take strong positions based on hearing one side of the story.
The attorney is doing their job but does not have 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 some key pieces of information.
Responding in writing
We suggested that you call when you get a complaint letter. But we are betting you wont follow all of our advice, so here are some suggestions if you are responding by letter. Choose your words carefully; you cant take them back. Do not reply via email; its just too easy to widely distribute emails. 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. Some inspectors avoid reporting claims to their insurance company for fear of the impact it will have on premiums. Others worry about insurance companies settling quickly in the amount of the deductible. We will avoid this discussion in the interests of keeping the article length within reasonable limits.
We believe that if you choose to respond to an attorneys letter with a letter, you increase your risk. Your insurance company may feel that you have prejudiced their opportunity to defend, and if so, you may find that coverage is not available or is restricted. Again, we dont want to get too far into this discussion but you should discuss these strategies with your insurance broker or carrier ahead of time.
Complaints through the real estate agent
Sometimes the real estate agent will make the complaint on behalf of their client. It is important to deal directly with the client so that the communication is good. But keep the real estate 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. Perhaps more importantly, you need to let the agent know that you are handling the issue promptly and professionally. This is an opportunity to educate the realtor and create a positive impression of your firm. Do not assume that the client will pass any message on to the agent.
3. PERFORMING REVISITS
The mean scale We like revisits because they help to put people in the right place on the mean scale.
The mean scale is our in-house term that means:
It is easiest for people to be mean in writing.
It is harder for people to be mean on the phone.
It is hardest 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.
When you go out on a revisit, there are a number of things we recommend:
If you did the inspection, take another inspector from your firm or a colleague from your association chapter, for example. Again, there are several benefits to having someone else with you, but the biggest is that they are not emotionally involved.
You are fact finding
Do not act defensively or aggressively. Your role is to help solve a problem. Your focus is not on the blame, at least not at this stage. Ask lots of questions. You may even repeat the standard list of questions that you asked on the telephone. The answers are often surprisingly different. This can be helpful later on in the resolution process.
You may also want to create more questions based on the initial answers you received.
You may offer steps to solve the problem. But dont discuss responsibility for the problem.
Take photographs to document the situation. Some courts will not accept digital photos because they are so easy to alter. A 35mm camera may be better.
No fancy tools
Do not use tools that you dont use during a home inspection. If you use fancy devices at the revisit, you may be asked why you didnt use them during the home inspection.
Contractors should attend
We mentioned earlier that if it was a contractor who found the problem, it is wise to have the contractor attend the revisit. You might ask when they discovered the problem. If it was after work began, ask why their original quote did not mention this problem. 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.
In most cases, the problem will have been discovered part way through the project. Try to have the contractor admit the uncertainty and unpredictability rather than challenging the contractors responses directly.
Thinking on your feet
As evidence unfolds, you will need to ask follow-up questions. This requires mental agility and focus. Emotions get in the way. This is another reason that two people should attend the revisit. Two heads are better than one, especially since the inspector who did the inspection will tend to justify or rationalize their original position. It is simply human nature.
When you have collected information on site, advise the client what the next steps will be. Give them a date and time you will get back to them, and then get back to them sooner.
4. RESOLVING COMPLAINTS
The responsibility yardstick After the revisit, pull out the responsibility yardstick, and see how you measure up.
There are six points on the yardstick.
1. Is there in fact a problem?
a. If No, explain to your client why the thing that 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? (This 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? (This too, may be difficult or impossible to determine. Check for limitations in your report. Check for changes or demolition that expose the problem.)
a. If No, explain this to your client.
b. If Yes, you probably have some responsibility.
Lets assume we are at 6 b.
Issues to consider:
Circumstances in which the problem is apparent
What were the circumstances? There are lots of things that may have prevented you from identifying the problem. A badly damaged floor may have been covered with broadloom. Ceiling tiles may have concealed rotted joists. Roofs may 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.
Consider whether there is any shared responsibility.
Recreating the inspection situation
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