The General Optical Council’s Standards of Practice for Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians includes standards on complaints handling and resolution. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 also has requirements for practice owners and managers. In this briefing, you can also learn about dealing with best practice in some of the most common areas of conflict.
Solicitor Jennie Jones heads the Optical Consumer Complaints Service (OCCS). Commenting on the Consumer Rights Act 2015 she says, “This act puts on an official footing that a refund should be done within 14 days of agreement, and in the way it was paid – that is, a cash refund for a cash payment or a refund onto the card that was used to pay. More often than not, however, this will make little difference to optical practices. If you agree a refund in the practice it is made there and then.”
There is one area of change that may affect you, according to Jones: “The only other significant change is the repair issue. Under old consumer rights, once a customer had accepted a repair they had to continue down that route and had no claim to a refund. Now if a pair of spectacles breaks and the practice tries to fix it, and the problems happen again, at any point the consumer can say, ‘I would now like a refund’.” This change strengthens the consumer’s rights.
Looking at the broader issue of complaints, there are some challenges for the world of optics. Jones continues, “Consumers are not always clear about the difference between a bespoke product and one that is off-the-peg. There are challenges in assessing if something is defective or not fit for purpose. If a frame falls apart, it is clear that there is a defect, but there’s a subjective element to what the consumer perceives as a good level of vision, for example. With a new pair of specs, there may need to be a degree of adjustment, and you need to have good communication skills and a level of patient-practitioner trust when faced with a patient who says, ‘My vision is no good, I want my money back’.”
The OCCS often finds that it has to explain to consumers about the need to work together to improve things to reach a suitable product. Jones says, “Practices may feel a consumer has a very black and white response to a problem: the media has led to more consumers quoting the law, saying, ‘This is what I’m entitled to’. As a practitioner, you need develop a dialogue, and generally we find that practitioners are very good about this.
“Most practitioners agree that its best to sit down, adjust the frame, retest, and change the prescription or type of lenses. Situations escalate when trust breaks down, and the consumer can end up not listening to what the practitioners say. Despite that, we find that practices usually know their responsibilities. Occasionally, it may be a good commercial decision to limit the time spent dealing with a complaint and simply offer a refund.”One common query that comes up time after time is what is best practice when presented with a prescription from another optical practice. Jennie Jones says, “This is one of the most common causes of issues that we see at the OCCS. Consumers have a clear right to take their prescription elsewhere, but there is always more of a risk of something going wrong. In terms of best practice, however busy you are, when presented with an external prescription take a moment to envisage potential difficulties. Push aside the thought that your practice has not been paid for the sight test: if the consumer is spending a significant amount of money it can be worth rechecking the refraction and level of vision right at the start. In that way, you can head off difficulties at the pass.”
Despite checking the prescription, people can still return unhappy with their specs, and in this situation Jones advises, “Don’t suggest straight away that it is the other practice’s fault, as that erodes trust. You need to protect the relationship with that individual, and you need to protect the profession’s reputation. Act in the way that you would if the prescription originated from your practice. Put the patient in the chair, check their vision. Do they need time to get used to the specs, an adjustment? Explain all the way through that, ‘We will work together to fix this’. This will improve the relationship that you have with the patient and they will sing your praises if you can resolve the issue.”
Jones has a further recommendation for this thorny area: “Where you possibly can, speak to the practice that issued the prescription and get them on board. OCCS can help with communication between two practices, and we would advise anyone in this situation to ask for help early on. This will minimise the impact on your time and bottom line. OCCS is happy to speak with practitioners and offer guidance.”
The other top issue faced by the OCCS is consumers who have issues with progressive tolerance. Jones explains, “Ultimately that is about the relationship between the practice and the consumer: you need a degree of trust to convince someone to allow time to adjust, whether it is their first time in a progressive or they are moving from one type to another. People may come to us at the OCCS having just put their specs on for the first time. We know that the practice will encourage the consumer to persevere, but issues can arise if the relationship is strained in any way. This could be that the consumer has spent more than they expected and is already slightly on their guard, or perhaps they were hesitant about opting for progressives in the first place. Resolving this is all about communication, about how you deal with the concern.”
Jones advises, “Be positive. Understand and acknowledge the problem. Use phrases like, ‘Come and sit down, let’s talk it through, we can fix this’. If the consumer feels their concerns are seen as unreasonable or are being ignored, that is when things flare up. The scenarios we see take place in hundreds of practices every day and most of the time will be resolved without ever reaching us. When there is an issue, we can help rebuild trust and keep communication flowing.”
With the current GOC practice standards addressing complaint handling and resolution for the first time, Jones says, “As a society, we know that people will raise concerns more than they ever did. Read the new standards and take time reflect on what you do to handle complaints.
This is an excellent opportunity to think about how your practice procedures are working for you, and for the public. We know that most practices are doing a good job, and it is heartening to see what is being down within the sector, offering great customer service as well as excellent clinical care.”
Find out more about complaints handling for opticians on the OCCS website, www.opticalcomplaints.co.uk
or call 0844 800 5071
There are some useful links on Gov.UK about consumer rights: www.gov.uk/consumer-protection-rights