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4 key strategies for discussing a quality failure with customers

by Matthew Barsalou and Robert Perkin

There are four key strategies for communication with customers when discussing a potential quality failure. Using these strategies will help you successfully cooperate with customers and help reassure them that you have the issue under control.

These strategies apply regardless of whether you know who actually caused the issue: you, the customer, the end user or unknown factors. Applying these strategies may give you the breathing room needed to build a conclusive case to show the customer that you have correctly identified the root cause of the issue. The strategies are:

1. Always express a sense of urgency about containing and solving the problem. Never, however, show chaos or panic. The first impression of a serious, somber commitment to resolve the problem is vital. This is not the time to be jocular or defensive.

The right feeling to express is almost mourning. This conveys to the customer that you understand the seriousness of the issue. It also helps you avoid having the customer suggest that alternatives—such as executive-level escalation or the customer leading the technical investigation—are required. The customer’s well-intended assistance will often complicate and may actually compromise the investigation.

2. Always assure the customer that they have full access to the required technical expertise—either internal or external. If you fail to do this, they will readily assume that you don’t consider them important and that your experts aren’t engaged in the matter. You must have the right people on the issue when and where they are needed, while obviously trying to minimize involvement where it’s not needed.

3. Don’t speculate or provide nondata-driven theories about the root cause. Speculation could inadvertently expand the scope of the investigation with the customer by the casual implication of additional or unrelated issues. You don’t want the customer calling your executives to complain, "You didn’t tell me that in addition to problem X, now it looks like I have problems with Y and Z." Open and honest communication with the customer is important, but unfounded speculation often can lead to confusion and distract from the real issues.

4. Show your customer your plan and status for the issue resolution with the timing of the key steps. Always be able to explain what step you are on and what actions you are taking to complete that step. Remind the customer (and yourself) that this is sometimes a nonlinear process that may require technical intervention. In many cases, you may have to start with a plan to develop a plan. If it appears that you don’t have a plan, your customer will give you one, and you probably won’t like it.

Show the customer that there is a sense of urgency, make it clear that you are using the appropriate experts, avoid making unfounded assumptions and keep the customer updated on the status of the issue.

Applying the four key strategies for communicating with a customer can help to minimize the impact of the failure and facilitate a smoother investigation.

Matthew Barsalou is a statistical problem resolution Master Black Belt in the problem resolution and statistical methods department at BorgWarner Turbo Systems Engineering GmbH in Kirchheimbolanden, Germany. He has a master’s degree in business administration and engineering from Wilhem Büchner Hoschschule in Darmstadt, Germany, and a master’s degree in liberal studies from Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS. An ASQ senior member, Barsalou is an ASQ-certified quality technician and engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and manager of quality/organizational excellence. He is a Smarter Solutions-certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, a technical reviewer for QP, editor of the Statistics Division’s Statistics Digest and the ASQ country counselor for Germany.

Robert Perkin is the senior manager for engineering problem resolution and statistical methods for BorgWarner Turbo Systems. He has 30 years of product development and engineering quality experience between McDonnell Douglas Corp. (now Boeing), Ford Motor Co., and BorgWarner, including experience as the quality manager for the Lincoln Motor Co. Robert has master’s degrees in management of technology and engineering management from Washington University in St. Louis. He is a Smarter Solutions-certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and was named the 2014 ASQ Quality Professional of the Year by the ASQ Automotive Division.

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