True North Business Consulting

Disputes & Complaints- Deal with it!

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I am a fan of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO.  I find myself laughing frequently.  I also find the subject matter something that applies to businesses many times.  This last report on credit reporting was of a particular interest, not just because it was about credit reporting, but because it shed light on dispute resolution. You can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRrDsbUdY_k.

The credit reporting agencies have been mandated to create a dispute resolution process for consumers in case their credit reports are incorrect.   In fact all companies should create a dispute resolution process.

Today there are many ways for a consumer to complain— Twitter, Facebook and social media sites, then add in conventional methods of email, letters and phone calls.  With all the biggest issue is reputation.

Companies need to consider what their complaint process will be.  Is there a form to complete?  How many days will the process last? Is there one person or a few assigned to the task?  What does the negotiation look like and what guarantees do you want to live up to?

If direct negotiation does not work, then what?  Will you use an intermediary?  Is this process solely online with a chat?

As you can see you do need a methodology in place.  A form is a good place to start with name, contact information and nature of the issue and how the consumer would like a response.  A time period should be in place to resolve the issue- up to fourteen days may be needed if you need further information.   Negotiation training may be useful, too.

This also gives opportunity to make a list of the common complaints.  The one complaint for lawyers is their inability to get back to clients quickly. I am constantly working on methods to provide quick and efficient service.

At what point, and this may be a price point, do you want to involve mediation?  You may feel confident with issues below $10,000, but anything greater may bring too much pressure to resolve.

True North Business Consulting can help you create your organization dispute resolution police and help with negotiation training.

More Than A Trip

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My friend called me wanting my opinion. She had booked a trip with her family, and purchased insurance through the tour provider. They had been repeatedly told the insurance provided cancellation for any reason and could be used up until the flight.

 
The Paris Attacks happened, and they were worried so my friend confirmed again. Same answer, “You have cancellation coverage for any reason.”

 
Well, her sister had to cancel on the day of the trip. Guess what? The insurance was misrepresented. To cancel she would need a doctor’s letter and it would not be for the cost of the trip. The insurance would provide a voucher for the cost of the trip to be used in one year.

If you believed this is uncommon, then I can say it is the norm now.

I booked a trip, and purchased insurance. I was told the same that the insurance would cover the trip fully. I then made a change in regards to airlines, and this was where I was informed that the insurance only provides a voucher to be used in one year.

Is this misrepresentation?

“A practice may be deceptive if it reasonably could be found to have caused the plaintiff to act differently than he otherwise would have acted,” that is according to a Massachusetts case.

Would my friend have acted differently? Yes. She would have purchased the right type of insurance that provided a cash refund.

So now what?

Well, in Massachusetts there is ample consumer protection available. The first step is to write a demand letter that requires the company to reply within 30 days or face potential triple damages in court. This will usually lead to some sort of settlement. Other states have their own consumer protection laws, which can be found here: https://www.usa.gov/state-consumer

 
You may need to speak to a lawyer about a consumer issue to discover if your act was deceptive, but before that ask questions so you can make good decisions.

Why Can’t I Wash My Clothes?

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The third time was the charm when it came to purchasing a new washing machine and dryer after the appliance revolt of 2016. For two weeks since the washing machine died, and the dryer decided to follow, I have learned a lot. I want to share that knowledge.
1) High efficiency top loaders washing machines require you to be either a) above 5’7” or b) have a long arm span to be able to reach into the washer.
2) Items that you want to clean must be placed in a circular pattern where you can always see the middle.
3) You cannot wash water resistant jackets or sneakers.
4) If you have anything in the pocket you are doomed.
After two deliveries of top loaders, I went with the front loader BUT without the pedestals. Of course you ask, why not the pedestals?
Pedestals only come in one height, which was too tall. In addition, they cost as much as a dryer.
I was a client of big box nameless store who did not provide me with any of this information. It was the second big box store that provided me with more information that helped me make the decision. No one mentioned these issues to me prior to my purchase, and I thought I had done my homework.
Recently I got a call from a potential client about a restaurant idea. Without any definite plans, I decided to send him home to do some thinking.
1. He was in a partnership with no formalized agreement. A delineation of responsibility was needed, and the partner needed to be a part of discussions.
2. Unsure of investment amount which made it difficult to:
a. Find rental space.
b. Or decide to buy an already existing restaurant
c. Look into franchising
That potential client was ready to become a client. I thought I was ready to buy a washer and dryer, but I was not. I needed more information.
A prepared client is better than one who is not prepared. The client will also save money, which is always a benefit.

My Way

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“That’s the way I’ve always done it!”

My usual response is an internal groan.

An example is a small condo association with three units that does not keep official meeting minutes, and does not do proper voting. Problems arise when there are new unit owners with questions in regards to past events. There is no record and this can result in a liability issue.

There is a reason why there are condominium bylaws. They need to be followed, and if they are too difficult to follow then either a) hire a management company or b) change the bylaws.

What about sending out contracts, and starting the work before they are signed. This is very common, but it becomes an issue when the work being done is questioned. A signature is very important.

An easy fix is to use Hello Sign or DocuSign. These are valid ways to have signatures signed, and courts recognize them per state and federal law.

There always needs to be follow through so make that follow through easier.

Just because a contract is “standard” does not mean that it cannot be changed. Most contracts are the result of a negotiation. You want the contract to reflect the discussions, and to understand what is being stated because you will be signing it along with the other party.

The adage does not just extend to legal matters. Marketing and networking may also require some change.

Happy New Year in September

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Sure, most people think of January as the beginning of the new year, but I always see September as a time to make new business plans and look at some disturbing legal trends that will be effecting small businesses. There are ethical issues, then there is privacy and regulations that have an uneven impact on small businesses.

The ethical issues that have arisen are in regards to equality based on gender and sexual orientation. The implication does trickle into business. What do to when there are allegations of employee discrimination? How can you protect your business and your clients? Even the smallest of companies should consider an employee handbook that should include the ethical standards your business wishes to emulate. These ideals should permeate the whole business- website, retail level and statements. I had a great experience at my local Lens Crafters where they fixed my sunglasses for free and suggested I make a donation to Gifts of Sight, a charity they support.

Privacy and protection of information is paramount. This is a topic that should be addressed in an employee handbook. Some thoughts are –what type of security do you have on your computers? Are doors locked? Are passwords changed from time to time? Is there a list of who has access to what? What happens if there is a breach? It is important to have a plan in case the worst happens. Something to consider is an application like Last Pass https://lastpass.com/enterprise_overview.php which provides password management with encryption software.

Being the LITTLE GUY is difficult with federal regulations and with legal matters. If you have a business that has connections with federal oversight- like the EPA for example, then you want to make sure you are aware of upcoming regulations that can affect you. Watch the Federal Register: https://www.federalregister.gov/. Since I do some landlord/tenant work, I am keenly watching a state bill that may have an impact on my clients. It is easy to join association or have online membership to different groups that can provide information that will help or hurt your business. Following on social media can also be a great source.

Lastly, law suits are expensive, and the cost only increasing. Think about conflict management and less expensive ways to handle your disputes. Using mediation and referencing it in your contracts and employee handbook can be an easy way to avoid costly litigation. Contact True North Business Consulting about employee handbooks and mediation today.

Duly Licensed

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It seems as though every year I get a slew of questions that lead back to licensure. Certain professions require a license. Licensing is important because there are requirements in order to get the license and standards in order to keep the license.

In order to keep a license there is usually a continuing education requirement and a scope of practice. Recently body workers have come under fire. Body works are not licensed massage therapists. Many cities and towns are not allowing for body workers to open businesses.

There is next the scope of practice issue. Licensed professionals have a scope of practice they must adhere to and not go beyond that scope. For example a physical therapy assistant cannot bill their services to an insurance company and they have to be under the direct supervision of a physical therapist.

What if the consumer has an issue? Frequently consumers hire unlicensed contractors to work on their homes and businesses. Also frequently are the issues that arise due to poor workmanship and incomplete work. If the contractor is licensed then there is actually some recourse through the state. If the contractor is not licensed then that ability is lost.

It is important to use licensed individuals as there is some protection provided. It is also important for those licensed to stay within their scope of practice to limit legal issues.

Less Conflict Better Ethics

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My friend called me on a Saturday to ask for advice. She was at the gym and the person sitting next to her felt she was too close and threw a weight at her. He had threatened her in the past. She had decided to go to the police after talking to the gym with no results except for, ‘You need to work this out amongst yourself.’ Wrong answer.

She had a bruise, a minor injury and although there was a video recording, the police did not want to get involved.

My thought went to how poorly the gym handled the situation. It did rise to negligence- the gym owes a duty to its members to provide a safe work out environment, and that duty was breached. However, the gym was as, Jessica Nagle of Nagle Law called it, ‘ethically challenged.’

Conflict is a growth industry. Because of that business need to have systems in place on how to deal conflict whether that is among employees, vendors or customers.

My suggestion is to have a written policy about how you will deal with conflict. Amongst employees, for example, this may be an anonymous hotline to report issues or for customers there may be a formal complaint process.

These small ideas would create an ethical business and also one less likely to have negligence claims.

Small Business Advocacy

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I had the opportunity to learn about the Office of Advocacy recently and wanted to share my experience. The Office of Advocacy is part of the Small Business Administration, a federal agency. From their website: https://www.sba.gov/advocacy

Advocacy is an independent voice for small business within the federal government, the watchdog for the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) and the source of small business statistics. Advocacy advances the views and concerns of small business before Congress, the White House, the federal agencies, the federal courts and state policy makers.

What this means is that on a daily basis the federal government changes regulations, before those regulations are changed there is a time when the government asks for input. Unfortunately, most small businesses are not aware of changing regulations and their impact.

Let me give you an example:

What if there is a change to manufacturing regulations that if you are a jewelry manufacturer, a federal regulation requires lead testing. This means that if you sell jewelry on a site such as Etsy that you would have to get your necklaces, rings and bracelets to a lab.

The Office of the Advocacy would reach out to small business and ask for the law’s impact. But, what if it is too late, and you, a small time jewelry maker get a fine from the federal government?

In this case, with fines, then within the Office of the Advocacy is an Ombudsman office. The ombudsman, although an employee of the federal government is an official appointed to investigate individuals’ complaints against maladministration. The ombudsman can intervene in regards to the fine that is issues.

This is a little known office with a big impact! I suggest signing up for their email newsletter to stay informed. If you have time http://www.regulations.gov lists all of the changes in regulations- you can see if there will be an impact to your business

Joyful Mediations

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I enjoy being a mediator. Mediation is when a third party neutral helps the disputing parties by facilitating their dispute. It is the last opportunity the parties will have to be a party in the decision making process, because if mediation fails then there will be litigation or arbitration. This means a judge, jury or arbitrator will be making the decision.

Being a mediator allows me to be a guide and organizer to attempt to bring a resolution to the disagreement. What I believe is the most important though is that mediation allows people to make agreement that are legal, but that a court could never create.

For example, partners want to split the business, but it is not a simple 50/50 division. There were debts neither party wanted, client agreements for future events and the name of business. With mediation each issue could be dealt with, rather than a costly trial which leaves most people feeling the results were unsatisfactory, let alone the antagonistic behavior.

If you have a small claims court action in Massachusetts, and most other states, then expect that you will be mediating that dispute first. If you entering a contractual agreement with another party consider a dispute resolution clause with mediation as a choice before court proceedings.

Snow Weary

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I am snow weary. Usually this condition does not hit me until the end of February, but with two storms the feeling started early.

“The snow brings out the worse in people,” said a plow driver.

This is true- patience is lost.   Here are some other issues that the snow brings:

  1. Timing. If you have contracts or due dates on projects then be advised to make sure you have an understanding about date flexibility. The postal services are not running on time, in fact a form I sent to the court was delayed. I called until I was told it was received and recorded. If date and time is important, then you may want to consider a courier service.

 

  1. Liability. Yes, sidewalks, parking lots and common areas should be clean, but please recognize that in many locations there are 30+ inches of snow with no place for the snow. Think about using technology to avoid driving or at least to be understanding.

 

  1. Prepare. I do have the ability to work from home, but this means in order to do so I must back up my computer files. This is important for not only security reasons, but so that you can complete your work as seamlessly as possible, especially if due dates are immovable.  As an adjust professor, I have noticed that my students have not kept up with the reading on missed classes, but the classes will continue and with online classes they will be made up with many students behind.  No need to get behind if you keep up with the work and remain prepared.

 

Most importantly, it is a time to be able to use collaborative negotiation in order to solve issues, looking past positions to find out what truly are the issues, keeping in mind it is usually timing, liability and preparedness. Do not be stuck in your way (in ice or snow), but collaborate to find a solution. It will not melt the snow faster, but it will make it bearable.

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