by Russell T. Westcott
It is a common assumption that meeting customer requirements and needs and earning customers’ satisfaction is paramount for virtually any organization. Clause 7.2 of the ISO 9001:2008 addresses customer-related processes. Subclauses expand clause 7.2 by focusing on:
- Determination of requirements related to the product (7.2.1)
- Review of requirements related to the product (7.2.2)
- Customer communication (7.2.3)
Subclause 8.2.1 addresses customer satisfaction and relates to the monitoring and measuring of whether the organization meets customer requirements considering the customers’ perceptions and the methodology used.
On the surface, the standard appears to cover the key issues in building and sustaining a customer focus in the QMS―or does it? Some examples of where emphasis is missing or unclear are:
- When customers’ perceptions are acquired through marketing promotions or remarks from salespeople, they create false expectations between what is promised vs. what is delivered.
- When employees who are supposed to care about the customers behave as if they don’t.
- When the ethics of the organization’s management erode the confidence of customers.
- When an organization promises more product or service than it can deliver.
- When the organization’s competitive actions and policies dilute its duty to be fair.
- When internal cost management practices threaten the organization’s commitment to its customers.
- When an unprepared organization publicizes a guarantee then formalizes policies and practices that customers perceive as circumventing it.
- When an organization receives negative publicity on social networking media.
- When an organization is undergoing financial stress, potential buy-out or closing, or when employees are losing trust that their employer will continue to be a viable entity, employee behavior tends to shift from concern for the customer to personal survival mode.
- When an organization fails to implement adequate means to assess customer satisfaction and doesn’t realize the assessment process fails to provide sufficient, meaningful, and actionable information.
Auditing customer service processes: Historical perspective
Long before the advent of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, some organizations from their often humble beginnings embraced the concepts of customer care and service and placed emphasis on producing the best possible product and service. A few of these U.S. organizations were Proctor & Gamble, Merck, 3M, American Express, General Electric, Ford Motor Co., Johnson & Johnson, and IBM.
These and many smaller organizations, such as L.L. Bean, continue fair and timely service practices with focus on the customer as the primary goal. All these organizations are still noteworthy in their fields.
An integrated and effective customer service process (CSP) typically requires:
- An organizational strategy that strives to attain and sustain customer satisfaction, including vision and mission statements and actionable objectives leading toward customer service excellence, supported by: Tested and continually improved policies, processes, procedures, and practices focusing on customer service excellence; Validated and continually upgraded methodology for monitoring, measuring, evaluating, reporting, and responding to customer feedback, leading to improvement.
- A culture that engenders a customer focus throughout all internal and external processes in which the organization participates.
- A hiring and human development process that builds and sustains a dedicated and customer-focused work force.
- Attention to community, supplier, and other stakeholders’ needs and satisfaction, including care for the physical environment in which it operates.
- A periodic and frequent assessment of customer satisfaction with processes that directly interact with external customers, e.g.,: Customer inquiries about products or services; Overall customer complaint response and resolution time; Customer complaints about products/services (delivery time, incomplete or damaged products, unusable item, wrong item or service, etc.); Customer observations and/or complaints about the organization’s employees, management, policies, procedures, practices, courtesy, etc.; Warranty returns/claims; Guarantee returns/claims; Complaints about advertising/promotional media, e.g., misleading, ambiguous, untrue, insulting, offensive, childish, not for children, overpowering (too loud, too bright, too confusing, too shocking)
Key issues to address when auditing the customer service practices include:
- Has the linkage between excellent products/service and internal providers and receivers been identified and communicated throughout the organization? Have service/quality-level agreements been formalized between internal providers and internal receivers (next operation as customer concept)?
- Has a positive customer focus permeated the organization at all levels?
- Are a limited number of critical metrics established and used for measuring customer satisfaction? Are the metrics indicative of the strategy and objectives set for the organization’s customer service and product satisfaction? Are positive metrics worthy of translating into marketing programs and media (perceptions for addressing market competition, sales points, etc.)?
- What methods, programs, initiatives, etc., does the organization use to engage with its customers and how effective are they in establishing and sustaining a customer focus? For example: Contests, sweepstakes, games, name-a-new-product campaign; Visits to customers; Open house days; Celebration events; Coupons; Special sale days, Customer profiles used as a basis for proactively suggesting renewal, replenishment, or associated products; Compiling special buying lists based on previous purchases and like-buyers interests to more efficiently market to purchasers of similar interests and needs; Are the customers effectively segmented to balance meeting the needs of specific segments with the production and financial objectives of the organization?
- Are appropriate tools and techniques identified and used to collect customer feedback? Is the feedback from those tools and techniques effectively analyzed and correlated to present a reasonably reliable view of customer satisfaction? Are at least three different methods used? Are the tools and techniques used continually reviewed for improvement or replacement?
- Is there a proactive process for capturing customer complaint information and determining if further action is needed?
- Is there a process to catch positive impressions, actions, and compliments from external customers? Is the compliment appropriately acknowledged? Is the compliment forwarded to an appropriate in-house person tracking customer satisfaction? If not intended for immediate receiver, is the compliment forwarded to the person who deserves it? Are multiple compliments for an individual’s good deeds or a work units’ good work collected, recorded, and formally recognized periodically by the employer?
- Are the providers and receivers of internal product and services given appropriate ways of expressing dissatisfaction or satisfaction with the quality of product and service used internally with the expectation that it will be heard and that appropriate action will be taken? (Dissatisfaction with internal products and services often affects external customers’ satisfaction.)
- Is available technology effectively employed wherever feasible to ensure the speediest response to customers and the fastest solution to problems affecting customers, e.g., the use of: Electronic data interchange (EDI) for speedy and more accurate order processing; Data mining to expose patterns within large customer data bases that aren’t visible to the human eye; Scanning of social networking data to glean customer impressions, opinions, disappointment, or pleasure with the organization’s products and services (Thousands may see a negative comment about your organization—and your timely positive response. A powerful medium when used appropriately); Programmed, periodic surveys (very short) of different customer segments to solicit feedback (and compliment customers on recent purchases); Occasional, targeted “e-blasts” to inform customers of improvements in products or services that may affect them?
- Are tools such as quality function deployment (QFD) used, where appropriate, to effectively cascade the voice of the customer throughout the organization?
Auditing customer service processes: Conclusion
Aside from “fitness for use,” “compliance with standards or regulations,” “cost of poor quality and/or service,” and “I’ll know it when I see it,” the quality of product and of service is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. Early in my career, I was manager of a computer center where I was proud of our 98.5-percent up-time—that is, until I received a call from my boss who had received a call from the CEO. The CEO’s wife—and a number of other shoppers—was left standing in a store while the sales clerk attempted to process her purchase and learned there would be a delay because the computer was down. The wait was over 30 minutes. The CEO’s wife was furious when she called her husband. Obviously, her view of the store’s service was unacceptable. The store’s view of my company’s service was deplorable, and down it came to me. One hundred percent availability was the expectation of the store and its customers; 98.5 percent was unacceptable.
Even the very best of organizations cannot always meet the quality and service expectations of their customers. When they fail, it becomes the quality of their responses and assurance of the situation’s resolution that will affect customers’ satisfaction and ultimate loyalty. Studies indicate that when a customer that has experienced a seller’s failure to satisfy, but the seller has responded quickly and taken acceptable corrective action, the customer is likely to buy again from the same seller, more so than even customers who have had no complaints.
How well does your organization know the multiple customers’ needs, wants, and perceptions, and how often is the information updated? It seems as if every consumer has a collection of poor quality, poor service, and dissatisfaction stories to tell, and they do to everyone who is willing to listen. How is your organization working on changing “poor” to “great”?
About the author
Russell T. Westcott is an ASQ Fellow, certified quality auditor, and certified manager of quality/organizational excellence. He edited The ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence Handbook, Third edition (ASQ Quality Press, 2005), and was a co-editor of the ASQ Quality Improvement Handbook. Westcott authored Simplified Project Management for the Quality Professional (ASQ Quality Press, 2005), and Stepping Up to ISO 9004:2000 (Paton Professional, 2003). He is active in ASQ’s quality management division and the Thames Valley, Connecticut section management.
Westcott instructs the ASQ certified manager of quality/organizational excellence refresher course nationwide. He writes for Quality Progress, Quality Digest, The Quality Management Forum, The Auditor, and other publications.
Westcott is president of R.T. Westcott & Associates, founded in 1979 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. He guides clients in implementing quality management systems, applying the Baldrige criteria, strategic planning, and project management practices.
Tags: customer service.