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Denise Robitaille


Who Ya Gonna Call?

Good question

Published: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - 14:36

Isn’t it annoying when you call a company to complain about a problem and they won’t even give you the chance to describe what’s wrong? They take down the information that they think is important or whatever the generic form directs them to record. You hang up thinking, “They couldn’t even give me the time of day.”

Contrast that scenario with the one where you have a receptive individual who really listens to what you have to say. Consumers have indicated repeatedly that a positive experience when dealing with a problem will incline them to return to that company.

So, why is it that we treat requests for corrective action from customers with such exasperation and thinly veiled contempt? “Here we go again. Another pencil-pushing exercise!” Individuals responsible for dealing with the ubiquitous requests are so frustrated that they don’t even bother to do what is the most obvious and natural. They don’t pick up the phone and call the customer.

There are several good reasons for contacting the customer before embarking on the time-consuming root cause analysis and ensuing plan development and implementation that are the requirements of effective corrective action. Consider: ISO 9001 states in subclause 8.5.2 “Corrective actions shall be appropriate to the effects of the nonconformities encountered.” That includes the effects at your customer’s location. Sometimes a defect that doesn’t seem to be particularly serious from your perspective may have critical consequences when the product is used by the customer. Without that insight you go through the motions, fuming over what, to you, seems like a waste of your time. Your resentment influences your response and the output is neither effective nor productive for either party.

Several years ago one of my clients had a customer who requested corrective action for some defective packaging materials. From my client’s point of view this was a nonissue. They would gladly replace the defective product and send extra materials at no charge. The raw material to make the packaging wasn’t particularly expensive. The real cost was in labor and equipment production time. Conducting a corrective action would involve significant time during a rather busy season. But the customer persisted with their request. When my client called they discovered that the defective packaging had contaminated their customer’s product and ruined more than $5,000 worth of goods that were urgently needed by their customer. The effect of the nonconformance wasn’t just the negligible cost of the replacement product; it was the $5,000 to replace the end user’s ruined goods, not to mention a tarnished reputation.

Calling the customer sometimes redirects a skewed perspective. In this case, what seemed like “make-work” turned out to be very important.

Contacting the customer also helps you to get more information about what went wrong. Questions about application, environmental conditions, description of failure and previous occurrence can all be asked. This provides an opportunity to get a more complete picture of the problem as you begin your root cause analysis.

You may also be fortunate to discover that there really isn’t anything wrong. The customer may have a methodology for testing that yields results different from your final test outputs, but that eventually denotes product acceptability. You may have varying acceptance criteria or be using different sampling plans. They may have sent you a marked up print with authorized signatures, but failed to give a copy to the incoming quality control inspector. Answers to a few well directed questions can save you hours of nonproductive work.

Sometimes a situation just doesn’t warrant corrective action. In some cases, organizations have software that spits out a corrective action request every time there’s any kind of deviation from the defined acceptance criteria, regardless of quantity or criticality. At times, it’s appropriate to contact a customer and explain the results of your preliminary evaluation and present a counter-offer. It might sound like this. “We’ve evaluated your returned goods. We sorted the lot and found 2 percent defective parts. While they’re definitely out of spec, this is not a critical dimension, and we don’t believe it affects the fit or function of the product. There is no record of previous occurrence. We have replaced the materials, checked our inventory, and introduced a monitoring program to track the process. We’d like to ask you to accept this correction for the time being.” Unless that 2-percent defect rate caused them loss or additional problems, there’s a good chance they’ll accept your offer.

If you have a strong partnership or a joint venture, it’s sometimes a good idea to invite customers to participate in the corrective-action process. The results will benefit both organizations.

When contacting the customer, ensure you’re speaking to the right person. You need to talk to the person who can give you the correct information—someone who has knowledge about the situation, the appropriate expertise, and the requisite authorization.

Is that person in the engineering department, quality control lab, incoming inspection, or the purchasing department? Talking to someone who isn’t qualified or who has limited input can lead you down the wrong path. At best, they’ll just end up wasting precious time. In other cases, they could provide inaccurate information that would end up perpetuating or exacerbating the situation you’re trying to resolve.

The other consideration when you’re not familiar with the culture of an organization is to make sure that you don’t accidentally meander into a political turf war. This is probably the most compelling argument for ensuring that your salespeople or customer service reps are included in this process. Their frequent visits and continual contact with the customer make them the most apt individuals to determine the best candidates at the customer’s facility to help you with the corrective action.

So when next you receive a corrective action request from your customer:

  • Conduct a preliminary evaluation
  • Contact the salesperson who handles the account
  • Get the name of the best individuals at the customer’s location to talk to
  • Pick up the phone and call.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.