2017

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Rapid Response

The right way to address customer complaints

by Janet Bautista Smith

Customer complaints are part of any business. A company’s responsiveness to complaints is crucial in maintaining a mutually beneficial business relationship.

These days, there is a misconception in the business world about the true meaning of customer responsiveness.

For example, if a customer demands a corrective action plan from a company, it means the customer is seeking an immediate response to a discrepancy involving the service level or supply chain performance regardless of the root cause or owner of the burden.

Have a plan

Using a corrective action plan or answering the customer doesn’t imply fault. Additionally, answering the customer doesn’t imply corporate commitment to an illogical corrective action plan. Corrective action plans are good tools for documenting the problem statement, root cause, and any containment and other actions needed to minimize or prevent recurrence.

If it is another supplier’s fault, then it should be diplomatically stated in the response. The supplier that is not at fault can use this experience as a lesson learned and reinforce its own error-proofing policies to help the entire supply chain’s performance.

Even if the discrepancy is isolated, non-repetitive or not the company’s fault, a company has to answer the customer. Likewise, if the customer demands a response—either through a corrective action program or the customer’s own corrective action format—a response is required, too.

On the other hand, it’s a different story if the customer is simply making an inquiry. At this stage, the situation can still be mitigated—perhaps by communicating with the customer—or reviewed through an escalation process. Once the customer requests that a written response is needed, however, then a formalized corrective action response must be given, regardless of the escalation policy.

In a timely fashion

If the investigation time is estimated to exceed the customer’s deadline, the company should issue an initial report indicating the status and the targeted completion date. Then, once the evaluation is completed, the company should issue a follow-up report. This is a better option than not responding to the customer because of incomplete information. It is important that the company’s efforts are visible so the customer does not feel the complaint is being ignored.

Understanding the customer’s expectation for a response to his or her expressed concern will minimize adding insult to injury. The customer is already irritated by the discrepancy—whether it is the company’s fault or not—so a delayed response gives the customer a negative perception of the company’s corrective action program.


Janet Bautista Smith is the corporate director of quality at ProTrans International in Indianapolis. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. She is a member of ASQ and a certified quality manager, quality auditor and quality engineer. Smith is a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, certified through a former employer. She presented the session "Lean Express" at ASQ’s 2010 Lean and Six Sigma Conference.


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