Customer complaints – not so nice, are they?

If you had to ask any food safety manager, “what part of your job do you dislike the most?” most will say “customer complaints”. Here’s some great advice from Entecom on how best to handle and manage these in your food business.

Fraught with negative emotion, a customer complaint is the feedback loop that tell us that something is wrong – it is a red flag, it requires pausing, listening, understanding empathising, investigating and fixing.

Analysing and trending complaints provides us with the overall health profile status of our food safety management system, and like most things, nothing is ever perfect; if you have customers, complaints are a reality.

Like facing Mondays, you can’t run away and hide from them, you have to take them in your stride. It requires a level-headed positive attitude, empathetic heart and a robust, well documented process to manage them well.

Why you need to document your Customer Complaints Procedure?

Your business depends on keeping your customers happy. The manner in which you deal with your customers when they give you feedback, positive or negative, is a reflection of your food safety culture and brand values and will impact your company’s reputation.

Customers need to feel cared for and documenting the best way to handle customer complaints will ensure that this is approached with consistent professionalism, aligned with food safety standards, best practices, and your company brand values.

Customer complaints may even trigger an emergency such as a product recall or withdrawal, so recording the required complaint details, investigating the cause and taking speedy action may also save lives in the event of a food safety incident.

Four steps to help implement a Customer Complaints Procedure that works

1. Appoint a staff member to handle customer complaints

Select the right person for this job. You need a Customer Liaison Office who:

  • Is a good listener
  • Is patient, polite and friendly
  • Has empathy
  • Enjoys spending time on the phone
  • Is calm and level-headed
  • Has a soothing voice
  • Knows how to diffuse a tense situation
  • Is meticulous at recording information

Define the responsibility for handling customer complaints in the relevant person’s job description.

Have a deputy for this person in the event of absence of the Customer Liaison Officer. Train the person responsible for customer complaints in your team on customer care and telephone etiquette.

2. Compile a customer complaint form

This should include the following information:

  • Date of complaint
  • Time complaint received
  • Name of person receiving complaint
  • Name and surname of customer
  • Cell number and email address
  • Address
  • Description of the complaint
  • Description of affected product
  • Is there a batch number or Best Before Date?
  • Where was it purchased?
  • When was it purchased?
  • How did the customer store it?
  • When was the packaging opened?
  • How did the customer prepare or use the product?
  • Is the packaging still available?
  • Is there any left-over product available for testing?
  • Categorise the complaint as MINOR, MAJOR or CRITICAL based on risk

3. Document your Customer Complaint Procedure

Include the following information in your Complaint Procedure:

  • Include the customer care contact details on the product label where possible.
  • Consider including the customer care contact details on your company’s website.
  • Have a specified centralised location for capturing all customer complaints.
  • Ensure that all the required info is captured on a complaint form
  • Identify seriousness of the complaint.
  • Action the complaint in accordance with the seriousness of the complaint.
  • Allocate time-frames for actioning of the complaints appropriate to the significance and severity of the complaint.
  • Analyse the complaint date to determine any trends
  • Investigate emerging trends or serious complaints to determine the root cause
  • Identify opportunities for improvement and preventing recurrence
  • Follow-up by providing feedback to the complainant.
  • Make the customer complaint trend analysis available for relevant staff and display trends via graphs on staff notice boards e.g number of customer complaints.
  • Discuss the data as an agenda item at monthly food safety meetings.
  • Provide a summary of the trends and status of close-out of the customer complaints at management review meetings.
  • Set the reduction of customer complaints as an annual objective and define the targets to ensure that these can be measured.
  • Review performance against the above objective during monthly meetings and at annual management reviews.

4. Train staff on the customer complaint process

Now that you have documented the process and have the required record for recording customer complaints, make sure that all relevant staff have been trained on the process and understand the importance of following the documented process.