Avoiding Customer Lawsuits

How to deescalate customer disputes to stay out of court

avoiding customer lawsuitsCustomer disputes are a fact of life for a pest control operator. Sometimes pests return, damage is done or honest mistakes happen. But a customer dispute does not have to mean costly, time-consuming and potentially reputation-damaging lawsuits.

Instead, pest control operators must make dispute resolution and management a central part of their customer service training and mindset, said Michael Johnson, assistant general counsel—litigation and compliance for Rollins Inc., the global pest control business that generated over $2 billion in revenues and employed about 15,000 workers in 2020.

Avoiding mistakes, following all rules and regulations, adequately training technicians and providing top-notch customer service can go a long way in avoiding customer dissatisfaction, but even with the best operating practices and intentions, disputes happen. “It’s important to know this, and to have a plan and training in place to keep disputes from escalating to the point of litigation,” Johnson stated.

Johnson knows. He was a litigator and partner in a law firm for over 20 years before going in-house at Rollins in 2017. “By the time a case came to me when I was a litigator at a law firm, the best opportunity for a friendly resolution had come and gone. At that point, the sides were often dug in and resigned to a prolonged court battle.”

Why is important to avoid litigation? First, litigation often results in significant costs. “Anyone who has lived through a lawsuit, and particularly a big lawsuit, knows that it can be astronomically expensive,” he said. “Just to have a lawyer analyze and investigate the case and prepare an answer or motion can run into the many thousands of dollars. If the dispute goes further into the discovery process and to trial, we are talking really big numbers.”

Johnson explained that civil litigation, by its nature, is costly. “Just the discovery process alone—where lawyers request information, exchange documents and conduct depositions under oath—routinely lasts months or over a year,” he noted. And with an increasing focus on discovery of electronically stored information— from stored documents to emails to even the meta-data behind these documents— the attorney time spent on discovery, racking up billable hours, can easily outrun the amount in dispute between the parties, he said.

Beyond the costs, though, is the risk. “Most cases present some level of unpredictability because decisions are in the hands of judges, juries or arbitrators,” Johnson said, noting that uncertainty is never a good thing for a business’ bottom line.

Some of the less quantifiable problems with litigation can also be the greatest. Lawsuits will distract at least some personnel and drain resources from core functions such as sales, training, hiring and customer service. “Any time you have a lawsuit, it’s a distraction. It’s taking you away from what you do best, and what you need to do to generate revenue,” Johnson stated.

Another major threat is reputational risk. “One thing you have to understand about litigation is that it’s a public process, sometimes as required by law,” he said. “And these days, you don’t just have to worry about a newspaper article or a customer voicing his dissatisfaction to friends and neighbors. Social media and internet platforms can amplify the reputation risk brought by litigation.”

These threats are something pest control operators need to keep in mind every day. can’t always avoid lawsuits, but the downsides to litigation should remind us to do everything reasonably possible to keep customer disputes out of court,” Johnson stated.

To do that, it is imperative that pest control managers respond quickly and comprehensively to customer complaints. “The pest control industry is built around customer service,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to see an unhappy customer, especially one that we can’t make happy after we’ve made accommodations,” he said. “But it’s imperative to recognize that going out of your way to make things right for the customer is far less costly than litigation. I don’t mean that the operator should accede to every customer request. But early on—right from the start of the dispute—we should be flexible and look for creative ways to deescalate the situation and find ways to keep the customer happy.”

Still, responding quickly cannot always resolve an issue. While every dispute is different and every customer has unique concerns and motivations, there are several approaches that have worked well to lower the temperature and reduce the chance of the dispute intensifying, Johnson said.

Probably the single most important, but often ignored, tool to deescalate a dispute is to view customer conflict resolution through a different lens. “It’s important to recognize that many disputes call out for compromise,” Johnson said. “I think there is often the misconception that the best negotiators play hardball—that we need to show our strength through aggressive negotiations. This seems to be an instinct that many lawyers have.”

But this approach can prove determinantal, especially before the dispute has moved to legal action. “In most cases, the best approach is not to be too aggressive, but to offer a fair and reasonable resolution of customer concerns— immediately and upfront,” Johnson offered. “That goes against some people’s instincts, but experience teaches that this pays off in the long run. You need to establish trust and take responsibility. As pest control operators, we always want to provide best customer service, even in a dispute.”

Another thing to consider, Johnson said, is how to bring a dispute to a close. In many cases it is important to end a dispute with a signed release or settlement agreement and to retain it in your files, Johnson said. However, not all disputes end that way. Sometimes a customer is unwilling to sign. “Even if the customer won’t sign a release, sometimes the wisest thing to do is just provide a fair and reasonable resolution, even if the customer will not agree to a release,” he said.

Johnson will speak on managing customer disputes to avoid litigation at the PestWorld conference in Las Vegas November 2-5. Be sure to join us for his session, where he will outline strategies to increase customer satisfaction and effectively manage disputes.