Genuine customer disputes are an unfortunate possibility in the world of independent retailers. But what do you do when both you and your customers can’t resolve the issue by yourselves? To find out, we asked Ciaran Harkin, managing director of Dispute Assist.
Q: So, what role does Dispute Assist play in working with retailers and consumers?
A: In the home improvement world, sometimes buyer and seller get into a dispute. My job is to come in and help resolve their differences, ideally to prevent them from having to go to court. We do a bit of mediation to start off with. Normally just by asking both sides a couple of questions, they’ll come up with a resolution by themselves. If that doesn’t quite work, we’ll move onto conciliation, which is where we recommend what seems to be a fair outcome for both parties.
Q: At what point do you come in? Who appoints you, the customer or the retailer?
A: Honestly, it can be either. Normally, our service users are businesses contracted directly with us, but we also provide resolution to trade associations. Retailers in those associations – as well as their customers – have access to our service too. Businesses that are signed up to our service can contact us directly for help. Businesses usually have our details on their website or in the paperwork they give to consumers after a sale, so consumers can contact us directly through that channel too.
Q: How does it actually work? Do you bring both parties together in the same room?
A: In today’s world, it’s all online. We can do face-to-face meetings – and sometimes that works well – but most often we’ll use an online platform to speak to all parties involved. Along with speaking to related parties, there is also a thorough evidence-gathering process, so people will email or write to us with some of their evidence or paperwork.
Q: Would you say that these issues a common problem in the home improvement arena?
A: Unfortunately, the home improvement industry has a bit of a mixed reputation. Every year, Citizens Advice release their annual report on industries with the most consumer detriment, and unfortunately, home improvement often comes out second, right behind used car sales. We commissioned a report earlier this year talking to managing directors of home improvement businesses. Forty-three per cent said they were spending up to five hours a month on complaints, and for 11% were spending upwards of 10 hours a month. This averages at about £4.25 billion in unresolved complaints each year in the KBB industry, which sounds awful, but it’s a complex sector. We’re not just buying things off a shelf – so it’s not surprising that it’s a lot higher than other industries.
Q: What are typical examples of disputes that you’re helping to resolve right now?
A: A lot of people automatically think the independent retailer’s done something wrong, but that’s not always the case. We’re seeing more frivolous claims than ever before, so the whole point of our service is for small independents to have a resource that can listen to both sides of the dispute and then help them decide upon what looks like a reasonable outcome for both parties. The world seems to be much more eager to complain now. Retailers have to be prepared for today’s consumer, who generally is comfortable to not only complain, but will sometimes claim for the smallest of things. It’s not just huge disputes about things that have gone entirely wrong, but even the small disputes that people are willing to go all the way to court for. That’s something that feels like it’s quite new, and it’s been on the rise in the past couple of years.
Q: For situations where something has broken or gone wrong and the customer is out of pocket, is that the kind of issue where they usually look to get compensation?
A: I think that’s something we come across an awful lot now. My advice for businesses is to be a little bit guarded against that, but compensation is becoming such a common word now. Everybody naturally expects compensation, but the advice I always give businesses is to allow the customer to meet their original financial objectives. For example, if the original financial objective is that they wanted to pay you to have a really nice bathroom installed in their property, as long as you can still make that happen, there’s not always a need for compensation. It’s about finding what’s fair and reasonable.
Q: What happens if a retailer makes a sale to a customer, but a third-party installer actually fits it, and then the consumer has a problem with the installation?
A: That one’s quite common. It’s all about whose name is on the contract. Part of our job is to figure out whether it’s the product, the workmanship, or a pre-existing condition. If it turns out that to be a workmanship issue, part of our job is to take the retailer out of the dispute entirely. We then work with the homeowner to help them realise the dispute is now with the subcontractor. A big part of our job is identifying and eliminating all the parties who don’t have responsibility for something that’s gone wrong.
Q: What can retailers do to help prevent these disputes from arising in the first place?
A: Our recommendation is staff training. For something to become a dispute, it’s normally because the complaint actually hasn’t been handled particularly well. Small and independent retailers are busy trying to run all the areas of their the business, so when they get a complaint come in, they’re not exactly set up brilliantly to deal with that complaint or to figure it all out. We try to work with retailers and train them on the right things to say, steps to take, and how often they should communicate when a complaint inevitably comes in.