A standard process for managing customer complaints

At Vivaldi Software we hear the question almost daily: “What is the best way to manage customer complaints?” Do you have a standard, ready-made process?

The answer is not always clear-cut and depends partly on who is asking the question – a small SME with mainly regional B-to-B customers, a government agency or public service or a multinational company wanting to streamline complaints received from end users all over the world.

Throughout our 15 years of experience, we have however found and followed one golden rule: “Keep it simple.”

Where do we start?

When possible, start with a relatively simple but decisive process. The process can always be expanded and complexity added later. Transforming a maze of steps and lines of communication into a streamlined process, on the other hand, will be a bit more difficult.

We often catch organizations wanting to add all of the bells and whistles included in software products that they have or will purchase, to automate the process, regardless of whether they improve the process or not. It usually goes wrong right during the analysis phase when all of the interested parties are called together to determine the needs, issues and desires. There is always at least one dreamer in every department that has visions of artificial intelligence and nanobots. They see their desires – and yes, even their ridiculous dreams – as reality and transform them into absolute requirements.

Of course the project leader required to make the interpretation between the business and ICT has to have nerves of steel to fend off these idealists. But the project leader is not always successful and, as a result, we see a hideously complex and chaotic process that doesn’t stand a chance. As more rules and branches are added, more exceptions are created which, again, require more solutions to be found. And so you end up in a downward spiral of excessive complexity.

In this article, I want to offer my contribution toward helping to prevent such derailments. The step-by-step process indicated below can be easily implemented as an initial guideline. It is not comprehensive and is certainly not to be taken as gospel, but it is a process that has already served as a starting point for hundreds of organizations and companies in the successful implementation of complaint management in the Vivaldi software. Of course depending on the nature of the business, you can add a few steps or drop a few but it will essentially always come down to the core process shown below.

6 Tips and considerations when implementing complaint management based on the above process:

1. Registration

Do we allow the customer to register the complaint himself or would we rather have our own employee register it? No matter what you choose, always be sure there are not too many limitations on the inflow. Set the threshold low (enough). A complaint is an opportunity – an opportunity to improve in the future.

2. Acceptance

Do we pass all incoming complaints first through a dispatch point (e.g. QA Manager) or do we immediately send them to the head of the relevant department? The process could, for example, automatically send the complaint to the correct department based on the subject matter selected (from a fixed list of choices). The advantage of having a dispatch point is that irrelevant messages are not forwarded on; the disadvantage is that this buffer can become a bottleneck. What happens if the QA manager is sick for 3 days? Do we have a back-up plan?

3. Rectification

In some sectors or activities it is absolutely impossible to propose a correction or adjustment to the customer without completing an extensive (preliminary) investigation. For more simple products or services, this is often possible. In any case, it is critical that the customer is provided with fast and correct feedback regarding what happens with the complaint, its status and progress. To the customer making the complaint, no news is always bad news. It gives the impression that they are not being taken seriously.

4. Investigation and analysis

An analysis can be very limited or extremely comprehensive. Assigning the complaint to an error category is an absolute minimum and crucial when for later extracting the required statistical lessons. You can extend this as much as you like with a cause analysis, determination of resulting incurred costs, risk-analysis for reoccurrence, etc.

5. Corrective measures

Putting out fires is of course necessary, but it doesn’t end there. We also want to be able to prevent such fires in the future. Depending on the activity and the type of complaint, it may be necessary to determine a corrective measure for every complaint registered. Action is often only taken after a particular problem has occurred repeatedly. Yet it can be useful to at least provide the opportunity in the process to introduce a corrective measure. It increases the pro-activeness of all employees.

6. Closure

Formally closing a complaint provides a number of benefits. We reconsider what has happened, how it has been resolved, whether the customer was satisfied with the proposed (and implemented!) corrective action, how we can prevent this from happening again in the future, etc.

Every complaint is an opportunity – do not waste it. Good luck with your complaint management process!