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Arun Hariharan

Customer Care

Are You Losing Opportunities for Improvement?

Customer complaints: Get over the unpleasantness and do something

Published: Wednesday, March 16, 2016 - 12:54

The other day, I visited a retail outlet of a wireless services provider to get information about its international roaming packages. The company has a few thousand outlets nationwide; they’re called “relationship centers” staffed with half a dozen employees who try to up-sell products and services to walk-in customers.

Strangely, when I asked the employees to tell me about international roaming packages, none of them could answer my query. Not only was this poor customer service, the untrained personnel were a root cause for lost revenue.

However, that turned out to be just the first in a series of surprises. When I asked the workers to find the information I needed, two of them suggested that I—the customer—call the customer service call center.

“I could have phoned customer service from home,” I said flatly, somewhat irritated. “When I’ve taken the trouble to walk in here, I expect you to provide the information I need. If you don’t know it yourself, why don't you call customer service and find out?"

A third surprise was in store: The employee asked for my mobile phone to call his own company’s customer service center. After several minutes of recorded scripts and music that call centers inflict on customers, he managed to get a live person on the line. At this point, he passed the phone back to me and asked me to speak to her.

Surprise No. 4: The representative on the phone couldn’t answer my query about the company’s international roaming packages. She put me on hold several times (leaving me to listen to irritating music) while she dug around for the information. Finally, after a lengthy wait, she gave me the information I needed.

In all, I had spent more than 30 minutes at the relationship center for what should have taken a couple of minutes. Nevertheless, having obtained the information from the call center, I decided to share it with the other employees, thinking that they would find it useful. They politely nodded their heads, and then came the fifth surprise: None of them bothered to write down the information. It was obvious these employees weren’t interested in learning about the products they were supposed to be selling.

A mutual fund customer experience

Let me tell you another story. A couple of months ago my father received an account statement for the mutual fund in which he has invested. The statement showed a dividend paid to my father about a month before. This was a surprise because my father hadn’t received the dividend. We sent a message to the mutual fund’s customer care email address, which set off a string of surprises.

A reply to our email informed us that our complaint could not be processed because our email address was not “registered” with the mutual fund firm (surprise No. 2). We wrote back saying there was no need for our email address to be registered because we weren’t asking for anything to be sent to us by email. All we wanted was for the dividend to be paid. Another reply arrived saying the same thing, but this time, we were advised to call the company’s customer service number (surprise No. 3).

When I telephoned customer service, surprise No. 4 unfolded. The customer service representative had absolutely no information about the dividend; he couldn’t tell us anything. Despite being clueless, he repeatedly assured us we would receive the dividend shortly, even though he couldn’t say if it would take a week, a month, or longer.

Fed up with this shoddy service, I contacted a friend who happens to be part of the senior management of this mutual fund company. Following his intervention, the company paid the dividend.

And a couple of weeks later surprise No. 5 arrived in the mail with a second dividend check for the same amount, obviously a duplicate payment. I destroyed the second check and informed the company.

Lessons learned

These experiences were unpleasant, but by no means are they uncommon. Unpleasant customer experiences can be great opportunities for improvement. In fact, in both of these cases there are multiple opportunities for permanent improvement, if only senior managers genuinely wanted continuous improvement.

Opportunities for improvement for the wireless service provider

For customer experiences like those I had at the relationship center, it’s commonplace to be asked: “Which employee was this? If we can get the employee’s name, we can fix this.” What this really means is they’ll fix some poor employee (who in all likelihood was put on the job with no training) and lose the opportunity to make any improvement in their processes. This is the first mistake, and it can be the biggest hurdle in making systemic and permanent improvements.

It’s highly unlikely the problem I faced during a random visit to a random relationship center was an isolated issue concerning one or two employees at one location. It’s plausible the problem is systemic and prevalent in a number of relationship centers; hence, the solution must be systemic.

I’ve listed several opportunities for improvement along with possible permanent improvement actions for each opportunity.

Wireless service provider’s opportunities for improvement

Possible improvement action
(These action suggestions are generic; more specific actions are realized with proper root cause analysis of each opportunity.)

1. Relationship center employees lack knowledge about products they are supposed to sell.

Process: product knowledge training for all employees
Process: regular updates about products to all relationship centers

2. Relationship center employee suggests that the customer telephone the customer care call center. When customer refuses, the employee calls the center using the customer’s phone.

Employee training includes maintaining a customer-friendly attitude, and employee must own the customer’s problem. Implement a mandatory rule that customers choose the medium they want to use to communicate with company representatives (e.g., phone, email, walk-in)

3. After a lengthy wait listening to recorded scripts, a live customer care representative is on the line, and the employee hands back the phone to the customer.

Make it easy and quick for the customer to reach a live customer service representative without having to listen to recorded messages or music.

4. Customer care representative also lacked product knowledge, and put the customer on hold several times while she dug up the information.

Process: product knowledge training for all employees
Process: regular updates about products to all relationship centers

5. Relationship center employees aren’t interested in learning the product information, even when customer offers to share it with them.

Motivate and train employees.


Mutual fund’s opportunity for improvement

Possible improvement action
(These action suggestions are generic; more specific actions are realized with proper root cause analysis of each opportunity.)

1. Mutual fund dividend not received even a month after the payment date that’s listed on the account statement.

Improve dividend payment process to ensure that investors receive their dividends—on time.

2. Customer’s complaint can’t be processed because customer’s email address isn’t registered with the mutual fund company.

Improve the complaint-resolution process, as well as the attitude of employees processing complaints. Make a list of complaints that can be resolved and actions that can be taken, even if the customer complaint comes from an unregistered email address.

3. In reply to customer’s email complaint, MF advises customer to phone the company’s customer service number.

Employee training includes maintaining a customer-friendly attitude, and employee must own the customer’s problem. Implement a mandatory rule that customers choose the medium they want to use to communicate with company representatives (e.g., phone, email, walk-in)

4. Customer service representative has no information about whether the dividend had actually been dispatched and if so, on what date. Despite being clueless, he kept assuring that the customer would receive the dividend, though he couldn't say how long it would take.

Ensure that employees responding to customers have access to the information required to resolve customers’ issues.

5. A couple of weeks later, customer received a second dividend check in the mail—a duplicate payment.

Implement controls in all payment processes to prevent duplicate payments. (If the mutual fund company improves only its dividend payment process, it’s still missing several opportunities for improvement. Other duplicate payments may be happening, e.g., redemptions, brokerage or commission to agents, payments to vendors, payments to employees and shareholders).

Every (unpleasant) surprise for the customer can be an opportunity for permanent improvement for the company, if only its leaders want to improve. A genuine desire for improvement enables seeing not zero or one, but multiple opportunities for improvement. If I missed any for these two stories, I welcome readers pointing them out.

In my book, Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ Quality Press, 2014), another story “Is a complaining customer doing you a favor?” talks about how customer complaints can be opportunities for improvement and also the consequences of not using complaints as opportunities for improvement.


About The Author

Arun Hariharan’s picture

Arun Hariharan

Arun Hariharan, author of Continuous Permanent Improvement (ASQ 2014), and The Strategic Knowledge Management Handbook (ASQ 2015) is a strategic quality, knowledge management (KM), and performance management practitioner with nearly three decades of experience in these fields. He has worked with several large companies and helped them achieve substantial and sustained results through quality and customer focus. He is the founder and CEO of The CPi Coach, a company that provides partnership, consulting, and training in business excellence and related areas. Former roles held by Hariharan include president of quality and knowledge management at Reliance Capital Ltd, and senior vice-president of quality and knowledge management at Bharti Airtel Ltd, India. He is a frequent speaker at quality and KM events around the world. He is also the author of more than 50 published papers on quality and KM.


Did you actually complain to anyone?

Every point that you made, every suprise that you came across needs or needed to be addressed.

But apart from actually hearing you grinding your teeth between the lines

I didn't hear you complain to anyone.

Both systems were faulty

and should have been verified and validated when they were set up

and then checked/audited to see whether they were working as they should.

And you are correct that it is not enough for a worker to be polite in a "relationship center"

There is a need to be efficient.

To make sure that the customer (that is you) is satisfied.

But maybe next time if you write down and send the complaint to the correct person

Something might happen apart from you grinding your teeth.




Davo, Fyi, I did inform both


Fyi, I did inform both the companies, and hopefully, they will make sure they don't miss these opportunities for improvement.

However, the 2 examples in the article are provided to make a larger point - the point of the article is "do NOT miss ANY opportunity for improvement".

While customer complaints - as you rightly point out - are an important source of continuous improvement, not every customer may take the trouble to complain. In a competitive environment where customers have plenty of choices, many customers will just take their business elsewhere. Hence, companies need to have their "antennas always up" to look for opportunities for improvement, rather than only wait for customers to complain.