Handling Customer and Consumer Complaints

Departments - QA

Practical Solutions

October 11, 2013

Our days are not 100% perfect. If you do an Internet search of “99.9% is good enough,” you may be surprised at what you see, including a factoid that 107 incorrect medical procedures will be performed by the end of the day. While we can only hope that our mistakes are not a large as that of an incorrect medical procedure, mistakes do happen, and they lead to complaints. But the proper handling of customer (those receiving products) and consumer (those eating or drinking products) complaints can minimize the consequences. Complaints may start a process leading to product returns, recalls, lawsuits, or other costly activities that affect a company’s reputation. The company with an established capability to deliver a favorable customer experience will be one that customers use repeatedly and one that outperforms its competition.

Additionally, customer and consumer complaints should be differentiated and addressed separately. Customers have different problems than consumers and have different response urgencies. If the two are simply grouped together, it is a great deal more difficult to provide timely resolutions and determine trends for which long-term solutions can then be provided. Each complaint, whether consumer or customer, is a test of a company’s management system ranging from public relations to continuous improvement. The goal for all is to turn complainants into loyal, satisfied users. So, what are some practical solutions?

Auditor's Soapbox

Having a legitimate complaint resolved quickly seems to be a thing of the past. Just sending a form letter with a coupon is not sufficient. Is this lack of timely resolution due to potential liability of admitting guilt and/or due to internet publicity? Companies standing behind their product or service by providing timely resolution are the companies to do business with, especially with your supply chain.

A first step is making it easy for consumers and customers to notify you of a problem; by phone (through a toll-free number) or the Internet, adequately staffed 24/7 by employees who have the authority to rectify a problem. These people must be trained to gather key information and determine appropriate follow-up action, while also identifying scammers, product misuse, and/or abuse. Suppressing negativity with instant, sincere, and positive visibility will minimize most complaint escalation. This activity should not be viewed as an expense without an understanding of the impact toward customer/consumer loyalty.

Another practical solution is to test the complaint-handling process periodically. Having an internal or third-party individual test the system with a fabricated customer and/or consumer problem common to each category will help to assure the overall integrity of the program. Another solution is to empower key customer and consumer front-line employees with a compensation level intended to resolve complaints immediately; rectifying obvious problems while not admitting fault.

Beyond the handling of complaints is the analysis of complaints—which is a critical part of any continuous improvement and food safety risk assessment. Analyzing customer problems likely will lead to direct solutions associated with making a better product. Timely follow-up on a consumer-related complaint will provide proper due diligence in the eyes of most FDA Investigators. Keep in mind that many FDA inspections are initiated as a result of consumers contacting them. Analysis trending also should be ongoing to warn of any repeated food safety issues. The failure to properly close an illness-related complaint may lead to unnecessary regulatory action while increasing liability risk by providing incriminating evidence.

Stephen Wawrzyniak, executive director of the Strategic Alliance of Food Experts (S.A.F.E.), developed a list of 10 consumer predictions for 2013 that impacting the proper handling of customer and consumer complaints. The 10 trends are:

  1. Customer expectations are rising.
  2. Social media is an early warning system.
  3. Companies are outsourcing consumer relations.
  4. Speed of service is more important now than ever.
  5. Customer power shift with use of the Internet.
  6. Customer service videos – answering frequently asked questions.
  7. Mobile customer service with use of smartphone technology.
  8. Increasing use of video conferencing with use of smart phone/tablet technology.
  9. Increasing consumer FDA contact for illness concerns.
  10. Increasing complaint investigation and follow-up – due to broader FDA power.

The impact of handling complaints is more amplified than ever. Customers and consumers are more connected, more knowledgeable, more immediate, and there is a shifting power in their favor. It is now common practice for consumers to look at online reviews before buying a product or service.

It has been said that attracting a new customer can cost five to 10 times as much as keeping an existing one. In addition, customers who have an issue resolved will tell three to five people about their positive experience. The speed and effectiveness of complaint handling can be a differentiator between competitors, not only from a customer and consumer perspective but from a QA perspective. Correcting problematic trends in an ongoing manner will make a better company.