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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Take customer complaints seriously

Published: Monday, May 15, 2006 - 22:00

Last year I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are by far the biggest employer in Hopeulikit. B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Here’s another good one: Take customer complaints seriously. The following scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—Kim Kimber , customer service supervisor

“I hate to say it, but we get quite a few nuisance complaints. In other words, the customer says there’s a problem, but there’s nothing we can actually address in a constructive way. The customer is venting—nothing more. Complaints like these are just part of our day, and we take them in stride. The complaints we get are usually triggered by one of two things: business slowdowns and/or price increases. If it’s not one, it’s almost always the other.

“Business slowdowns breed complaints because customers have more time on their hands. Heck, they’re bored! Since they’re not busy doing real business, they spend their time nitpicking our products. We hear about all kinds of crazy things: crooked labels, smudged packaging, dust on box tops, hairline scratches, you name it. These are issues that we hear about only when our customers get bored. They’re not complaining about our products directly, but about peripheral issues. In fact, I’ll often ask, ‘Well, did the products perform okay?’ The answer is usually, ’Yes, but …’ When I hear that ‘but,’ I know the insane nitpicks are coming up.

“Price increases trigger complaints because customers are angry at having to pay more. Who can blame them? Nobody wants to pay a penny more for anything. We always explain the rationale for price increases, but it’s hard to combat human nature. No matter what we do to prepare them, customers still moan and complain. Of course they don’t explicitly mention the price increase, but I know what’s on their minds. Every now and then, when a customer is complaining about something frivolous, I’ll interrupt them and say, ‘It’s the price increase, isn’t it?’ That usually stops them right in their tracks.

“I tell my reps not to get too bogged down in dealing with nuisance complaints. If we tried to address every one, it would be the only thing we would do all day. We address the big issues, of course. Exactly what we do depends on the nature of the complaint and how significant the customer is. Sometimes we’ll give a rebate, accept a return or post a credit to the customer’s account. We’ll also get managers together and discuss corrective actions when the situation warrants it. As I said before, most of the things that customers complain about don’t really have anything to do with the performance of our products, so it’s really hard to take action.

“The best thing we can do with customers is to listen to them. Lend them an ear. You’ve got to be a part-time psychologist in our business. Let them lay on the couch and say what’s on their minds, then their time is up. This is exactly like a psychologist, wouldn’t you say? As long as we can keep the mental illnesses at bay, we’re winning the battle.”

—Brynn Vickey, customer service representative

“The best thing about my job is customer interaction. It’s also the worst thing. On the whole, I really love my job and enjoy dealing with customers. Taking orders, answering questions, checking on shipments—all those things are great. The thing I really don’t like is taking complaints. I used to enjoy taking on a complaint. After all, it was an opportunity for us to serve our customers better,, a chance for us to shine. We do such a bad job of addressing complaints now, though, that I’ve given up trying. My stomach just feels sick anytime I realize a customer is complaining.

“We’re supposed to let our customers vent—and I do—but sometimes I find myself zoning out. Some of these guys can really talk, especially if they’re upset. Most of the time, I don’t even know what to say, so I just let me them talk themselves out and try to slip in a ’Sorry to hear that,’ every now and then.

“The really frustrating thing about these complaints is that many of them are repeats. Customers are complaining about the same things over and over. To tell you the truth, I wish we’d fix some of the issues. Management’s policy is that we take action on the big issues, but when 10 different customers complain about the same little thing, I’d say it has become a big issue. But that’s not the way we treat it.

“I used to keep records of the things customers were complaining about, but I stopped. Nobody was interested in the information, so why bother? I even kept a bar chart showing the biggest categories of customer complaints. I showed the chart to Kim Kimber, my supervisor, and she just shook her head. ‘You’re going to drive yourself crazy trying to keep up with these nuisance complaints,’ she said. That was the extent of her interest. Oh well. Now I just try to listen to customers, smooth things out and offer to credit their accounts. I feel kind of stupid, though, because I know the customer knows that we’re not doing anything to actually fix the problems. It’s like an open secret. The complaints are dead on arrival.”

—Leo Corley, president of Corley Corp. (B&C’s largest customer)

“We’ve been customers of B&C for more than a dozen years. In fact, you may say that we grew up together. We started doing business with them when both of us had less than 10 employees. I consider many of the employees of B&C to be my personal friends. I even went to J.T.’s daughter’s wedding. I got skunked on J.T.’s cheap champagne. Friendships like this are why we remain good customers. Unfortunately, their service certainly isn’t as good anymore.

“We’ve had a lot of problems from B&C in the last few months. They may seem like little things, but for us they amount to large problems. I believe strongly in being a responsible customer. That means reporting problems we have, so our supplier can get them fixed. It’s not crying, picking, sniping or anything else. It’s just being responsible. After all, when I help my supplier improve, I’m helping myself. Reporting problems and encouraging action is just self-preservation.

“Lately, our complaints aren’t being addressed quickly or effectively. To add insult to injury, my people tell me that they sense a general disinterest from B&C in fixing our problems. Their people just mumble, ‘Sorry about your trouble,’ and the same thing happens a few days later. I don’t want apologies. I want corrective action! I don’t want rebates or discounts, either. If I wanted dirt-cheap products, I would go to China for our parts. The sad truth is that I’m exploring China as an alternative. I don’t want to do it, but the situation with B&C may force us to do so. The people at B&C are dear to my heart, but there’s only so much pain I can bear.”

When you’re taking on a customer complaint, remember:

  • Cultivating genuine friendships with your customers is good business
  • Customers who complain are committed to helping you improve
  • Complaints rarely represent customers being nitpicky or vindictive
  • What may seem like a small issue to you may be huge for your customer
  • Seize every complaint as an opportunity to salvage and strengthen a relationship
  • Empathizing with customers is important, but nobody wants to hear mindless platitudes
  • Even the best friendships won’t protect you from your customers abandoning you if you don’t address their problems


About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.