On 18 May 2021, Fixflo ran Handling Complaints: A Lettings Agent’s Lesson on Engaging with TPO, a webinar to explore the ways in which agents can protect their business reputation in case a client complaint escalates to The Property Ombudsman (TPO). Along with Siobhan Fennell, Interim Deputy Ombudsman at The Property Ombudsman, Zoe Bywater, Director of Lettings at Belvoir Bedford discussed how the agent recently resolved a complaint lodged with TPO by a client, providing plenty of tips for effective communication and conflict resolution.
👉 To see the discussion in full, watch the Handling Complaints: A Lettings Agent’s Lesson on Engaging with TPO webinar.
Siobhan Fennell is Interim Deputy Ombudsman with The Property Ombudsman. She works closely with Rebecca Marsh, Property Ombudsman, in directing the organisation’s approach to providing help and assistance in response to the circa 40,000 enquiries they receive a year and to resolving/deciding 5,500 complaints about Property Agents each year. Siobhan has over twenty years of experience in the regulatory and consumer complaints field and joined The Property Ombudsman from her previous role as a Head Ombudsman with the Legal Ombudsman.
Zoe Bywater is Director of Lettings for the Bedford office of Belvoir, an independently owned lettings and estate agency franchise with 170 offices across the UK. Zoe has worked in lettings for over 17 years, has run several successful and well-attended landlord events (Pre-COVID-19), is an ARLA Propertymark Board member and the author of the Bedford Property Blog where she regularly provides her thoughts on the property market in Bedford.
Rajeev Nayyar is the Managing Director of Fixflo, the UK’s leading repairs and maintenance software for residential and commercial property.
The views expressed do not necessarily represent the view of the organisation that the speaker works for.
What does TPO do?
The webinar began with Siobhan providing an overview of how The Property Ombudsman works. She explained that TPO is a non-profit, independent organisation that provides impartial, free advice for consumers and helps resolve complaints in the property sector. They deal with around 40,000 enquiries and 5,000 to 5,500 complaints annually. These are complaints that have been unable to be resolved through an agent’s standard complaints procedure. Around 50% of these complaints relate to lettings, 30% to sales and 20% to leasehold management.
The most common lettings complaints the Ombudsman encounters relate to:
- Issues with the management of lettings processes, such as delays
- Poor communications and record-keeping
- Issues with instructions and terms of business
- Poor complaints handling
A key observation here is that many of these can broadly be considered to be aspects of customer service. This means they should be relatively easy for agents to address and prevent in future.
How TPO handles complaints
When looking at a complaint, the Ombudsman seeks to consider whether the agent has complied with the obligations they have under the relevant legislation or code of practice, such as The Property Ombudsman’s Code of Practice for Residential Letting Agents. The Code is an essential document for agents to review when dealing with complaints or to evaluate their own complaints processes. Zoe also advised referring to it when determining your agency’s processes and staff training.
When TPO receives a complaint about an agency, they will inform the agent and let them know what information they will require from them. This will differ depending on the type of complaint but will generally relate to the communications between the agency and tenant or landlord regarding the issues being raised. For example, if the complaint is from a landlord in relation to rent arrears, the Ombudsman may ask for a rent schedule and relevant communications about these arrears.
They will always ask to see the agent’s final substantive complaint response as part of their internal complaints procedure. This helps them understand why the issue has escalated in the first place and decide if the complaint is something they can accept.
Once they have decided to accept the complaint, the Ombudsman will first and foremost seek to help the complainant and agent reach an informal resolution where possible. This could be something as simple as providing additional information or reassuring the complainant that the approach taken by the agent was reasonable and fair. Alternatively, they may reach a financial resolution.
The adjudication process
If the matter cannot be resolved informally, the Ombudsman will begin the adjudication process. This involves a member of their adjudication team looking into the case and gathering as much information as required in order to decide whether the agent’s actions have breached any of TPO’s Codes of Practice or their other obligations and whether this has impacted the complainant. This impact could be financial loss or stress and inconvenience.
If it is determined that there has been an impact on the complainant, the Ombudsman will decide what the appropriate remedy will be. Both parties will be sent this proposed decision and have the opportunity to accept it. Alternatively, either party can choose to represent against the decision if they can prove the Ombudsman has made a significant mistake or are able to introduce new evidence. Representations are considered by a different member of the adjudication team before a final decision is made. If the decision is accepted by the complainant, it becomes binding on the agent.
Bear in mind that even if an agent wins the Ombudsman case, the complainant still has the option of taking them to court.
Zoe recently dealt with a complaint lodged with TPO by a client and provided her perspective on the process. “You may be the best agent, but you cannot please everybody all of the time,” she said. Sometimes complaints can come from an individual’s perceptions of events rather than any particular fault on the agent’s part.
As a member of ARLA Propertymark, the professional body for letting agents, Zoe began by trying to resolve the situation using their complaints handling procedure and issuing a final viewpoint letter to the complainant, which set out her agency’s final view on the complaints raised. The case was escalated to the Ombudsman when this was not accepted.
Zoe explained that the Ombudsman begins by asking for all documentation pertaining to a complaint, revealing the importance of keeping a record of all your activities and encouraging all staff to update file notes where necessary. Embed processes through training that determine how staff should be making file notes and what they should do when they receive a phone call or email. Filing notes under clear headings depending on issue type, such as ’maintenance’ for maintenance issues, will save time when it comes to finding records in your property management software system to send to the Ombudsman. Make sure it’s as easy as possible for them to find the relevant information by explaining the documents and pointing out where the details can be found if you need to.
For Zoe and her staff, the complaint escalating to the Ombudsman provided an excellent demonstration of the importance of rigorous record-keeping for dealing with complaints.
The Ombudsman’s view
Siobhan explained that under The Property Ombudsman Code of Practice, agents are required to keep full written records of their communications with their landlords and tenants for six years. The Ombudsman reaches a decision on the balance of probabilities, meaning it is much easier for them to decide their response if they have the correct information from the agent. “It’s in the agent’s interest to be able to provide a full record,” she explained. “If the complainant is able to put forward information that the agent is not, then on balance, we may be persuaded by their evidence.”
Having plenty of information available will also increase the likelihood of being able to resolve a complaint using your own internal processes before it can reach the Ombudsman. Studious record-keeping will make internal issues like staff absence or staff handover more manageable, ensuring issues do not get lost or overlooked when moving from the care of one staff member to another.
Evaluating your processes
Raj suggested that a way to evaluate your own record-keeping processes is to consider what would happen if a complaint was raised to the Ombudsman. How easily would you be able to find the sort of information they would require? Good record-keeping relies on three elements: well-trained staff, efficient business processes, and the use of technology that enables efficient and accurate data capture and a full, searchable audit trail. “I’ve had to go back over six years on Fixflo and find answers to questions,” said Zoe. “The sense of achievement when you manage to do that is awesome!”
Zoe suggested refreshing your staff regularly on what the correct processes are and ensuring that these stay in their minds. You could also test your processes by creating a ‘mock’ complaint and seeing how easy it is for your staff to find the correct information. It is much better to discover what can be improved now than to discover deficiencies while dealing with a real complaint.
Ideally, it is best for agents for complaints to be resolved through their internal processes before they can be escalated to the Ombudsman. Zoe emphasised the importance of consistently communicating with clients, and not just when something goes wrong. If a client does want to go through your complaints procedure, be transparent. Sometimes a complainant will reflect and change their mind once they have seen what the process is. The important thing is to not shy away from complaints – even the best agent will find it difficult to please everybody, all the time.
Making your complaints procedure visible
“Have a think about how visible your complaints procedure is to your clients,” advised Siobhan. It should be accessible on your website, and your staff should be trained on how to share this information if a client requests it. Having the procedure clearly visible will show clients that you take complaints seriously. They may be more likely to tell you they are dissatisfied, allowing you to resolve the complaint at an early stage. The more quickly you can get a complainant on the phone to understand their situation, the greater the chances of an early resolution because knowing they are being heard can make a big difference to their experience.
Once again, good record-keeping is key to helping explain how you have considered the issues raised by the complainant and why you have reached the decision you have. Bear in mind that clients will not have the same understanding of your processes as you do. Consider any areas that may need further explanation; for example, Siobhan said that much of the advice the Ombudsman gives relates to the limits of a letting agent’s role and how these relate to the responsibilities of the landlord.
Dealing with emotions
Emotions are a common part of dealing with complaints. It’s important to be able to recognise and acknowledge what complainants may be feeling; this can help deescalate the situation. Agents should also consider their own emotions when responding to a complaint. It’s common to feel quite defensive when first receiving a complaint email because it can feel like an attack. So take a step back if necessary and think carefully about your response and tone. Ask a colleague what they think about what you want to say. The right response can help to build up a complainant’s trust and confidence and, once again, increase the likelihood of reaching an early resolution.
If the complainant does identify a genuine shortcoming in your service or that you have fallen below the service standards you aim to provide, ensure you acknowledge this and apologise. After this, you can identify whether any loss or inconvenience has been caused – if there has, have an open conversation with them to find out what type of resolution they seek.
TPO has ample resources on their website for creating an effective complaints procedure and template letters for how to respond to complaints. Siobhan explained the criteria they look for:
- A process in which the complaint is resolved within eight weeks
- Two stages: a complaint and initial response from the agency, followed by an opportunity for the complainant to provide their response
- Information on how the complaint can be escalated to an ombudsman if a satisfactory resolution cannot be reached
More than anything, this webinar emphasised the importance of record-keeping and audit trails for resolving complaints amicably, whether through The Property Ombudsman or an agency’s own complaints service. Technology can play a big part in this, and Fixflo’s repairs and maintenance solution makes collecting information easy through automatic time-stamped logging of data, providing a clear, auditable record of who did what and when. Ultimately, complaints are something every agent will have to handle no matter how excellent their service is, and it’s better for agents to prepare now and ensure their complaint handling mechanisms are up to scratch than to wait later and be caught out by a request for information by a client or the Ombudsman.