Confessions of a Customer Complaint Manager

Confessions of a Customer Complaint Manager

By: Martha Rollefson   |     September 17, 2015


Business Process Consulting ServicesAre Customers happy with the way you handle their complaints? Are you?

We all know that complaints handled well can open a portal to new opportunities. Back in 2008, customers were telling the company I worked for that we were not so good at handling customer complaints. None of us were surprised… we were frustrated ourselves with our mish-mash of process and tools and the impact of the poor quality of our Business Process Consulting Services. As a Logistics manager, I was not the classic choice for coming up with solutions; but the responsibility was offered and I accepted the job of “fixing it”. In 2009 we launched a universal system that was neither fancy nor expensive. Nevertheless, it helped us deliver results… reducing causes for complaints and associated costs while improving our credibility with customers. Looking back I can see what worked, and some of what didn’t.

  1. I didn’t really want the job (at first) Within seconds of the announcement that I’d been named the “new customer complaint system manager”, a friend sent an email saying, “Lucky you.” Right! Fortunately I grasped what a new process and system must do for us, and I was excited to shape it. Anyone taking on this role for you must have passion for it and patience for the struggles.
  2. I didn’t push hard enough to start “fresh” Under the gun to get something usable rolled out quickly, we merged concepts from several existing systems and did not address nuts and bolts that bedeviled us later:
    • We should have cleaned up our defect classification.
    • We made up for lack of integration with redundancies between our system (SharePoint), the order management system (SAP), and the local systems in the plants. Although we couldn’t claim a significant drag on productivity, it was galling in principle.
      You may not have the option to refresh and integrate; but clean up as much as you can before you launch with involvement from Customer Service, Plant QA, Technology, and Sales.
  3. I insisted on separating responsibility for “resolution” and “closure” Plant Quality Managers were often unable to close complaints because Sales would not collect feedback from customers about the solutions offered. When we launched the new system, “Operations” became responsible for “Resolution” (investigating, identifying causes, and defining corrective actions), and “Sales” was responsible for “Closure” (communicating with the customer). A specific time frame was allowed for each element. Routine reports showed where we were on target or behind the 8-ball, and issues were duly addressed by the appropriate management team.
  4. I insisted that we give ourselves valid options to “do nothing” Even when making no change is the most appropriate response, classic complaint systems discourage it. The inevitable result: some cases sit in limbo far too long. Articulating a “no further action (at least for now)” response can often be agreed on very quickly. Valuable time can therefore be directed at more critical complaints.
  5. I discovered a (sneaky) way to confirm that critical incidents were being captured in the system Measuring Cost of Poor Quality through analysis of credits made it evident that profit was being lost on issues never appearing in the complaint system. If the customer insisted on getting money back, a complaint had to be submitted so we could address the causes and seek prevention.
  6. On the other hand, I argued (unsuccessfully) that certain issues did not need to be captured there With good reason codes, credits paid to customers provide reliable performance indicators. I recommended we side-step the complaint system when these 3 criteria were met:
    • Cost was “small”
    • Investigating specific incidents was impractical (e.g., minor in-transit damage)
    • On-going reviews could recognize and address out-of-control conditions
      Unless you have unlimited resources, this approach is worth considering.
  7. I wasn’t satisfied with “we’re waiting to prove root cause before discussing potential corrective actions” Quality purists may gasp, but there are 2 reasons for being more aggressive:
    • Most serious complaints were not due to simple process breakdowns. More often there were multiple contributing factors requiring a suite of solutions. Get going with something that demonstrates commitment to satisfy the customer and improve future performance!
    • Where failure rates are very small, proving what the true root cause actually was may be impracticable at best.
      I encouraged a different mindset: instead of waiting to prove that X must have been the root cause, apply the quality tools to make the whole process more robust.
  8. I was picky about who could enter and “work” complaints Some people simply do not have the knack for it, especially if done rarely. Build a network of technically-skilled contacts to support the process, but establish local leaders who routinely use the system, who appreciate the cross-functional nature of good solutions, and who find enrichment through the process. Complaint management can be an excellent developmental assignment for supply chain operations roles.
  9. I didn’t deliver on some leadership expectations I couldn’t identify “silver bullets” that would eliminate a significant percentage of complaints. I couldn’t use system data to prove that reductions in complaint rate were specifically due to our corrective actions. Some “signals” of critical problems (perfectly visible in hindsight) got “lost in the noise”. And I couldn’t point to reliable benchmark data objectively showing how we compared to our competitors. In my opinion these expectations were somewhat misplaced, and sadly they contributed to confession #10.
  10. I could not get the focus on complaints converted to a focus on quality practices Changes in customer complaint activity only loosely reflect actual performance, and complaints provide a very narrow window into the customer experience. With the hope that we could shift senior management’s focus to investing in prevention rather than simply tracking customer complaint outcomes, our Global Quality Network developed a set of “20 Keys” to identify quality risks and systemic ways to address them. Our approach was similar to that taken by the Safety function, but I could not get traction for it.

We learned a lot from these experiences about how to build and manage a better customer complaint system. If you are looking for ways to make your customer complaint system more effective, or need support on establishing a clearer process, working with a Group50® Supply Chain Management Consultants will significantly reduce your learning curve. We offer experience, objectivity, assessments, checklists, and facilitation skills to help middle market firms tighten up on strategy, improve operational execution, and derive better performance through continuous improvement. Click here for more information, contact us at or call us at (909) 949-9083 or view and our wide range of services at:


About the author: Martha Rollefson is Group50’s Supply Chain Performance Improvement and Quality expert. She has multi-functional experience in the chemical and consumer product industries. Her expertise also includes Lean techniques, customer-focused performance metrics, and system-based solutions as well as the implementation of SAP. Martha and the Group50 team are all former executives from well-known manufacturing and distribution companies who understand what it takes to design and successfully implement a company’s strategic plan. Group50 has designed a series of continuous improvement assessments, workshops and strategic execution tools that will optimize business performance. Call us at (909) 949-9083 or email us at

This entry was posted in Continuous Improvement, Market Effectiveness, Weekend Thought, on September 17, 2015

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