You can avoid costly lawsuits by talking to your customers and owning up to mistakes.

There was nothing particularly scary about Linda's trip to the hospital. She was in for relatively mundane ankle surgery. When she awoke after the surgery, she was astonished to learn that she was recovering from an open heart operation. The anesthesiologist had injected pain killer in the wrong place. As a result, Linda's heart stopped and she had to have her chest opened and ribs cut in order for the doctor to restart it.

Linda's husband was preparing to exact vengeance on the anesthesiologist and had already begun discussions with an attorney. Then Linda received a stunning letter from the anesthesiologist which led to a face-to-face meeting that changed the whole landscape of the conflict. Linda dropped the lawsuit.

What brought about the sudden change of disposition? The letter and meeting were all about apologizing. In a break with the norms of the medical profession, the anesthesiologist was truly apologetic for his mistake and told her so. Linda realized that this was a real person who had made a human mistake so she forgave her fellow human being. Candid communication trumped the lawyers.

This scenario is counter to conventional wisdom in our sue-happy society. To begin with, an apology is tantamount to admitting wrongdoing, negligence or perhaps even malfeasance. In other words, especially in the medical profession, an apology is like raw meat for trial lawyers. The lawyers have nothing to gain if one party forgives the other so they foment a war of papers, filings and exaggerations in search of jackpot damages.

Because of stories like Linda's, there's a growing trend toward apologies among medical professionals and it is being encouraged by their financial guardians, the malpractice insurers. Although compensation and damages are still awarded for malpractice, the payouts are much lower because apologies help neutralize the "vengeance factor." An apology gives both parties an opportunity to do the right thing.

Even though the PHC industries don't usually face such dramatic life-and-death situations, we do have plenty of opportunities to make costly boo-boos. Whether or not these boo-boos end up hurting us and our reputation often depends upon how well we communicate.

Trust Is The Foundation

To keep little boo-boos from becoming huge headaches, you need to build a foundation of trust. Whether he or she has been referred to you or responded to your advertising campaign, your customer has made a conscious decision to trust you. Once you're on-site, you can build upon that seedling of trust by demonstrating that you're genuinely interested in what is good for your customer. Listen to your customer to learn what's important to him or her.

Be upfront from the beginning. If a customer expresses an unrealistic expectation about the repairs needed, or the cost or time required to get the job done, don't reinforce the confusion. This is more difficult than it sounds. Your "people pleaser" nature doesn't want to contradict a customer. This results in allowing him to reach conclusions based upon an erroneous assumption. If, for example, you're looking at a half-day job that your customer thinks will only take a few minutes, politely but candidly let him know he's overly optimistic.

Once you make a diagnosis, don't offer it as the only possible solution. There's always a way to include an option or two. When you involve your customer in the decision-making process, you're reinforcing trust with two-way communication.

Good Communication Breaks Down Barriers

If you believe that customers are a nuisance, preventing you from fixing things, then you don't need to be in the service business. Period. This is not a character flaw, but it is an observation that you are no more suited for customer service than I am for ballet (now there's a word picture for you!). From the time you ring the doorbell to the time you pull away from the jobsite, you should be willing to converse with your customers. Answer their questions as well as ask questions, which may help you do a better job of serving your customers. If you don't communicate with your customers, you're sowing seeds of mistrust. If something goes wrong on the job, it's much easier to sort out the problem when the lines of communication are already open.

One particular concept that needs to be communicated is your commitment to a clean and safe work area. Most PHC "malpractice" incidents involve property damage more than code or workmanship violations. "Safe and clean" is a message delivered more by your actions than by your words. Make sure your customer is aware of your drop cloths, work mats and shoe covers. If a problem occurs, your customer knows that you were trying to be careful and may even be supportive of you for your valiant efforts to take care of her home.

Another "malpractice" event occurs when you leave out an important line item in your flat rate pricing. Obviously, you want to be thorough in your initial proposal, but what if you write up a new faucet, disposer, hot water dispenser and a drain cleaning job yet completely forget the kitchen sink? If you have kept the lines of communication open, apologizing for your oversight may mean the difference between a profitable job and an accusation of "bait-and-switch" tactics.

What if you're the owner of the shop? How do you imbue this concept of trust and communication to your crews? To begin with, don't expect to get the message across in a meeting or a memo. Watching a video won't help either. As the captain of the ship, you have to be the model of what you expect from your people. If you foul up, admit it. If your misstep affects an employee, apologize.

Keep lines of communication open by communicating regularly. Meet weekly, on a specific day if possible, to discuss technical or sales performance figures rather than waiting until something blows up to call a gripe session. Take the time to ride along in service trucks. Occasionally buy lunch for each employee or each department with no other agenda than to show a bit of appreciation.

You don't have to be pals with everybody on the payroll, but if you're too important to spend time communicating with your fellow human beings, particularly your employees, then you have no business being in business. Consider selling out and investing in the stock market where you don't have to actually talk to anyone. You may be fortunate enough to hire people who will treat your customers better than you treat your employees, but you'll just be making them miserable. You may be able to assuage their discontent with higher wages, but just as the anesthesiologist learned, communicating pays off better.

Better communication, including an occasional apology when needed, will result in happier customers and happier employees. The best part is that most of it doesn't cost you a dime. Commit to communicate.

Attention plumbers! Want a free business tip delivered weekly to your inbox? Join Randall's fun and informative Plumb-Biz list. Each week we include a tip for your plumbing business, share a tirade or two and give members a chance to sound off as well. Don't worry, you won't be hammered by advertisements and your e-mail address won't be added to a spam list. To join, simply point your browser to