Monday, April 5, 2010

When is a Complaint a Complaint?

Complaints are one of the more controversial topics to deal with in Quality. In many organizations that I have been a part of, much effort and energy was spent not only answering complaints, but fretting over what a complaint is and is not, when should a complaint be logged, who should log it, how will it make us look, etc... Suffice it to say that complaints cause angst, and understandably so. Complaints are bad news, they cause urgent work to be done, attract alot of attention, and are nto easy to solve in many cases.

One of my favorite business books from several years ago introduced me to a new way of thinking about complaints. The Customer Driven Company by Richard Whitely introduced me to the idea that complaints are like little nuggets of gold.

While the book is a bit dated today, I still find it relevant in my work. Many organizations struggle with complaints and service levels in addition to the quality of their product and that was Mr. Whitely's message; quality of service must improve as well as the quality of product. One of the best ways to udnerstand how customers feel about both is to analyze complaints. This is difficult to do if the organization culture is reinforcing negative behaviors about complaints. Many organizations do this simply by placing a goal around the reduction in the number of complaints. Of course, the intent is to reduce complaints by solving issues. What can happen instead is underreporting out of fear of what happens to the metric and "airing dirty laundry". This is not the intended outcome but it happens nonetheless. One way that this happens is by having the people responsible for the metric entering complaints into the business system. The obvious answer is that those who interface with the customer should be trained, enabled, and empowered to enter complaints based on their interactions with customers, rather than having to appeal to someone elses judgement on what to enter and what to leave out. The easiest way to do this is to establish some simple criteria to judge when something is a complaint vs some other kind of customer transaction. The simplest criteria: Is the customer experiencing something unexpected about our product or service. If they are experiencing a breakdown in the product or service and have called to get it fixed, that's a complaint. We failed to deliver something to the customers expectations. Enter the complaint, then solve the problem and spread the learning around.

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