By Bridget McCrea
Trying to keep customers happy can seem like a never-ending task in today’s business environment where expectations are high, job schedules are tight, and negative reviews spread like wildfire both online and offline. A complaint can happen at any time and – no matter how big or small it is – it must be addressed quickly and effectively to avoid any long-term repercussions.
“Precasters should have a process in place for dealing with all levels of complaints,” said Sam Lines, a sales engineer at Concrete Sealants Inc., in Tipp City, Ohio. Manufacturers should also strive for a universal, replicable process when doing work, said Lines, to avoid unexpected twists and turns that can quickly morph into customer complaints. “Every process should be like dropping a marble down a board with a maze on it,” Lines explains, “and then having that marble land in the same spot on the bottom of the board every time, without fail.”
One way precasters can ensure a predictable outcome is by developing documented processes for all work that is performed. That way, when an employee or manager needs guidance on how to complete a specific task or portion of the project, it’s right there in front of him or her – and in writing. “If you don’t have a documented process in place,” said Lines, “you can’t possibly predict what’s going to happen and/or manage any customer complaints that may surface.”
Stepping up to the plate
At Bartow Precast in Cartersville, Geogia, Operations Manager Josh Gaines said the company approaches customer issues on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t have a written policy,” said Gaines, “but when any complaint comes in we take care of it immediately.” The precaster’s standard procedure is to remain flexible throughout the job process and to continually interact with the customer to get feedback and address any issues as they surface. When a problem does crop up, Bartow Precast works with any contractors involved to try to fix the issue and handles any re-work as needed.
“We do whatever the customer needs us to do,” said Gaines. The process doesn’t end there. Once the problem has been handled, the situation is discussed in-house to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Those discussions typically take place at weekly company meetings where all managers gather to talk about job progress and related issues. “We talk about what happened, document the complaints and how they were handled, and then keep track of them over time,” said Gaines, “with the goal of preventing future problems.”
As part of its ongoing commitment to customer service, the precaster also treats every client equally – no matter how big or small that customer and/or job may be. So, when a complaint is filed and managed, for example, Bartow Precast puts an “extra set of eyes” on the job in question to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “We definitely don’t want to have the same customer complaining repeatedly,” he explained.
The hardest part of handling customer complaints, according to Gaines, is managing the internal communications that go along with such issues. In some cases, for example, he said complaints could be avoided altogether if the precaster improved its own approach to internal communications. For example, in some cases a simple explanation, such as the truck was late to the jobsite due to a flat tire or mechanical problems) is enough to make customers happy instead of trying to make excuses.
“We work on this continually and have yet to determine the ‘perfect’ approach,” said Gaines. “It’s something that we’re always continuing to try to get better at.”
Keys to success
Knowing that every customer has a unique set of wants, needs and expectations, the team at Hanson Pipe & Precast’s West Region tackles client complaints individually and as swiftly as possible. In fact, John Dutschmann, technical resource manager for the Lorena, Texas-based operation, said developing a formal process around customer complaints is nearly impossible due to the fact that no two issues are the same.
When those situations cross Dutschmann’s desk, one of the first stances he takes involves an age-old adage: the customer is always right. “I’m not necessarily a believer in ‘the customer’s always right,’” he pointed out. “However, the customer is always right until you can prove him or her wrong.” To get to the bottom of the situation, Dutschmann lets the customer do the talking. He asks them to explain the situation and listens for any indication that the problem may have originated on their end versus Hanson’s. “In some cases they simply may have installed the product incorrectly,” said Dutschmann. “Once that’s been determined, the problem pretty much works itself out.”
In some instances, the product itself is the culprit. When those types of complaints surface, Dutschmann starts posing the following questions to his own internal team: Did the item get built incorrectly? Were you working off the wrong set of plans? And if so, then who was responsible for the errors?
“Sometimes we wind up building from a set of plans that should have never been in our hands, other than for the bid’s sake,” said Dutschmann.
Once the problem has been rectified, Hanson uses the experience to further hone its customer service approach. “Even if it costs us some money to resolve the issue, we know the value of future business and want to make sure we retain and cultivate that pipeline,” said Dutschmann, who urges other precasters to investigate the facts before reacting, and to always involve the contractor in the mitigation process. “Listen to the contractor and the customer,” he said, “and then come up with a workable way to handle the situation at hand and prevent it from occurring again.”
Warding off future problems
Because customer complaints are often unpredictable and have the uncanny knack for surfacing at the most inopportune times, having some type of process in place for dealing with them is just smart business. Add in the fact that more people use platforms like the Internet to spread negative comments about companies and/or products, and the need for a solid customer complaint mitigation process becomes even more critical.
“The power and impact of a dissatisfied customer can be significant,” Lines pointed out. “On the other hand, a problem handled very well can actually lead to improved customer satisfaction and a client who will tell more people about how well the issue was handled. That, in turn, will lead to improved sales.”
One way precasters can handle customer complaints is through a process known as Root Cause Analysis. On the customer-facing side of the equation, RCA involves listening to the customer complaint, allowing him or her to vent offering a solution, and then orchestrating that solution. “Then you thank the customer for bringing the issue to your attention,” says Lines, “in a way that lets the client know that you’ve listened to him or her and that the concern is important and legitimate.” See the sidebar for a detailed explanation of RCA.
The RCA process goes a step further by helping companies thoroughly investigate the cause of the problem, eradicate that source and then ensure that such issues don’t repeat themselves in the future. “Once you’ve taken care of the complaint, you also have to handle the problem internally. That’s where RCA comes into play,” said Lines. “Oftentimes, we’re quick to put a Band-Aid on to stem the bleeding, but we never really look at exactly why we’re bleeding in the first place. When you drill down deep enough, you can find out the real problem and mitigate it.”
Once that cause is identified, precasters should formulate a plan of action, be it formal, informal, or somewhere in between the two. Concrete Sealants, for example, uses a documentation process that includes both short-term actions, that solve immediate problems, and more in-depth actions such as going back to the plant to drill down into why the problem happened in the first place. At a later date, the company uses an audit process to figure out if the solution worked and/or if anything should be done differently in the future.
“The bottom line is that just solving the problems on a case-by-case basis doesn’t necessarily fix the underlying cause of the issues,” Lines points out. “It’s not corrective action, and that’s where a lot of companies miss the boat. By using procedures like RCA and by carefully documenting processes, precasters can not only keep their customers satisfied but they can also ward off future issues of the same nature.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.