Keep calm, but don't carry on (when there's a dispute)

I’m often asked by business owners for my advice when they are in dispute with a customer or supplier, writes Gary Cousins, founder of legal firm Cousins Business Law.

Unlike the current message we get on everything from t-shirts to mugs to Keep Calm and Carry on! my advice, invariably, is Keep Calm, but don’t Carry On.

If you’re in dispute with a client, for example, who refuses to pay, or who disputes an invoice claiming what you’ve delivered was not what they were expecting; didn’t meet quality standards or wasn’t delivered on time, failing to discuss those concerns could be storing up a whole heap of trouble for the future. Who’s to say they’ll pay you for future work you do for them?

From the client-side, if a supplier has let you down, sent shoddy goods or continually failed to meet the terms of your contract with them, continuing as though there’s nothing wrong could be seen as acceptance that you are happy with what they’ve supplied. When it comes to settling the bill, you might find that this apparent acceptance is used against you.

Even if a substitute or sub-contractor to your contracting business is failing to perform but you refuse, as their engager, to take the bull by the horns and tackle them on where they are deficient, you are again storing up future difficulties and potentially costly disputes.

So, my rule of thumb is to stop, think and take action quickly, and preferably with the aid of legal advice. It’s a fact of life that conflicts will always occur in business, indeed in a relationship of any kind where people are involved.

Stop and deal with the conflict before it escalates. Stay calm certainly; in fact I find the sooner you stop and say, “This is unacceptable”, the calmer you are able to be. If you allow a problem to linger over weeks or months, you can stew on it, getting more and more annoyed and perhaps have less ability to see things in perspective.

Once you stop accepting the problem and raise your concerns, you can start moving towards a solution. Depending on how serious the dispute is, you might follow the approach we suggest in Steps to Handling Business Disputes. But in many instances you will be able to resolve the problems just by airing them, explaining your dissatisfaction and asking for a remedy. If that doesn’t work of course, I’m only on the end of the phone.

Monday 16th Jul 2012
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