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We have not had any customer complaints!
By David Powley DNV Certification Ltd.

An important mandatory element of a management system is the regime for processing customer complaints. “We have not had any customer complaints” is a claim that is occasionally heard during a third-party audit.

Traditionally (i.e. pre-ISO 9001:2000) this elicited one of two counter reactions from the auditor. One reaction is unconditional acceptance of this apparently grand state where customers are content followed by congratulation of the company and then a move swiftly on to audit another part of the management system. Alternatively the auditor may be skeptical and consider that the company may not be able to recognise a customer complaint if it was staring one in the face. The latter reaction could in the mind of the auditor be expressed in a question like “Is the management system capable of detecting customer dissatisfaction?” However it seemed that the third-party auditor had to accept that the absence of dissent meant assent.

A complaint is an ‘utterance of grievance’ and to complain is to ‘express dissatisfaction’. Should the organisation (and those who audit it) be concerned only with complaints or should more be done such as pay attention to customer opinion? There is a difference. Whenever a customer complains he/she has come to an extreme state of mind and is inclined toward action. That action is to take the trouble to write (usually) and express dissatisfaction regarding poor quality of product or service. Thus a condition has been reached where the relationship between the organisation and its customer has already deteriorated. That is if the organisation is fortunate – many customers may not even bother to complain and quietly ‘vote with their feet’. It is therefore in the interests of any organisation to continually manage relationships with customers to a point where complaints can be forestalled or at least anticipated so that the circumstances leading to complaints do not arise or at least controlled. Being forewarned is forearmed – this is basic quality risk management. So the opinion of customers is important, even if they have not complained.

The 1994 version of standard ISO 9001/2 gave the impression that the only necessary dialogue with the customer relating to performance was that arising from a complaint and auditors were not able to estimate the true opinion possessed by the customer with regard to the performance of the organisation. This situation has changed considerably for organisations and auditors with the publication of ISO 9001:2000. We are now in the era of taking cognizance of customer opinion and using that opinion for the direction of quality management systems. With this revision of the standard an organisation must actually solicit the opinion of its customer base and react to that opinion. Irrespective of what standards say is it not prudent for an organisation to know what its strengths and weaknesses are in the eyes of the people who keep in business? Considering customer opinion obviously gives the opportunity to improve on weak aspects and exploit the strong characteristics with a view to gaining competitive advantage.

How is that ISO 9001:2000 demands such deference to customer opinion? Well there are some important linkages in ISO 9001:2000 which support this.

Clause 8.5.1 (Continual improvement) requires the organisation to ‘… continually improve the effectiveness of the quality management system through the use of…. analysis of data…..’

Clause 8.4 (Analysis of data) says that ‘The organisation shall determine, collect and analyse appropriate data …to evaluate where continual improvement of the effectiveness of the quality management system can be made’. Later in the same clause ‘customer satisfaction (see 8.2.1)’ is given as an item for inclusion in the analysis of data.

Clause 8.2.1 (Customer satisfaction) states ‘As one of the measurements of the performance of the quality management system, the organisation shall monitor information relating to customer perception as to whether the organisation has met customer requirements. The methods for obtaining and using this information shall be determined’.

A simple depiction of this is:

Customer Satisfaction Measurement Cycle

The methods used to estimate customer satisfaction are very much the preference of the organisation. The certification bodies would not expect organisations to develop skills in survey science overnight. On the other hand it is expected that more be done than to merely send out a few questionnaires containing meaningless questions only to have the fewer that are returned to sit in a file without having gone through some analysis and reacted to.

Surveying is an acquired skill and if a thorough job were required the services of a professional and capable organisation should be sought. For those not requiring such expertise the exercising of a little common sense and thoughtful effort in estimating the representative opinion of the customer base could prove to be successful.

In an article such as this the following can only serve as simple helpful advice and to stimulate discussion on gaining and using customer feedback. Fuller and more learned discussions on the subject are available.

The gathering of customer satisfaction feedback can be considered in the following framework:
What should be asked?
How should the questions be asked?
Who should ask and be asked?
What should be done with the answers?

1. What should be asked?
The first action is to develop a question set or a basis for gauging opinion. This will vary depending on the product, service, industry sector and type of organisation. Above all the basis should be on quality critical aspects. These are the performance issues relating to the product / service that affect the relationship (good or bad) with the customer base. Some examples are:

Punctuality and comfort in a passenger transport service or delivery times for a courier or haulage service.
Response times to enquiries or queries for a computer hardware company.
Value for money from local authority services.
Courtesy, appearance and professionalism of visiting service staff of a facilities management company.
Manner and attitude of call handlers in a call centre.
Waiting times and comfort at a hospital outpatients unit.
Consistency of quality and safety of packaging of a chemicals distributor.
Clarity and timeliness of invoicing from any company.

The list is almost endless. The important thing is to decide on the quality critical aspects and then develop the question set around them. In some cases it may be appropriate for the questions to be as open as possible in order to allow for freedom of comment rather than restriction to a particular agenda. In other instances specific feedback may be required tending to need more specific questions that demand a narrow range of possible answers.

A rating system may be used to help the answers but here again make the scale on this almost non-restrictive so that all shades of opinion are catered for. This can include scales such as excellent to very poor, 20% of the time to 80% of the time or 1 to 10 and so on. The questions may be such that a numerical answer only is possible followed by a sounding of opinion such as ‘what is the average time from call-up to delivery of our product to your site?’ This can be followed by a question seeking an opinion or the level of acceptance of this time. In general questions should be such that their answers can allow some sort of classification which makes it easier to see strengths and weaknesses.

2. How should the questions be asked?

Putting the questions on a questionnaire may seem a fair, independent and easy option. The trouble is that returns from questionnaires are usually low even when there is constant follow up. The people who return the questionnaires are those who want to yet there may be valuable opinion possessed by those who do not return them. Therefore if not handled properly the use of questionnaires will present a self-selection survey and its results are likely to be misleading.

In order to get meaningful results a representative sample must be used and this sample must respond with independence to the same question set. This is best done by way of a ‘captive audience’ such as by visits or the telephone. If the company uses a field or sales force this may be the best vehicle to communicate the questions and answers. However caution may be required as this group of personnel may not be totally independent with regard to some or all of the quality critical aspects.
The questions should be put over in as short a time as possible. More than 10 minutes is too long so whoever (see below) is putting the questions should be efficient in not only in delivery but also deft and accurate in noting the answers.

3. Who should ask and be asked?
For gathering feedback and answers it is good idea to use personnel within the organisation who are independent of the activities creating the quality critical aspects. For telephone canvassing a good articulate and even voice that does not sound like it is reading from a question sheet will give more relaxed and possibly fruitful dialogue.

Who or which companies to sample is important. The sampling can be on the basis of revenue – there are many situations where the majority of revenue comes from a few customers. There are many other bases for selection such as geographical, by industry sector and others. The survey scientists conduct their work on the basis of classifications such as age, sex, socio-economic group etc and this has value in particular for the retail sector.

It is important to put the questions to the right person within that company. The customer’s main procurement person may be the first port of call but it may be worthwhile to ensure that the end user’s voice is heard.

4. What should be done with the answers?
The feedback took some effort to obtain so good use should be made of it. As mentioned earlier it is not a good idea to have completed questionnaires collecting dust. The data should be used to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the organisation and of course to forestall any developing adverse situations as well as seeing an opportunity for competitive advantage. Thus there will always be the need to invoke improvements. A third-party auditor has no particular agenda as to what should be done with the data except that it is used to continually improve the performance of the management system. The true indicator of performance of the management system is the meeting of customer requirements. So as the graphic above depicts the re-measurement of customer satisfaction is necessary to check the success of any applied improvements – thus the cycle repeats.

The above framework is not particularly sophisticated or difficult to understand or work to and as mentioned earlier, there are appropriate reference works available on this subject. The third-party auditor has no particular pre-conception other than to expect that some logical and rational methodology be employed and that the results of the exercise are put to use.
Finally it is worth putting into context the importance of including the gauging of customer opinion within a management system standard.

Certification bodies obviously value their clients but there are other interested parties. These are the customers of those clients who place reliance on the fact that they are dealing with organisations that hold a certification to a management system standard and that the management system concerned has customers in mind. In this sense the certification bodies self-assume a great responsibility. The customers would like to feel that their opinions and experiences are being noted. When this opinion is being processed and responded to with continual improvement within the management system then this can only be good. Continual improvement is in fact what quality management by management system was meant to achieve. It will now be even less likely for poor performing organisations to achieve ISO 9000 certification, if that were ever possible. This is likely to associate ISO 9000 certification with even more credibility within industry and the general public.


David Powley is a Principal Lead Integrated Management Systems Auditor for DNV Certification Ltd. He is a Chartered Chemist and Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, a Principal Environmental Auditor with the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment, a registered Lead Auditor with the International Register for Certificated Auditors scheme for quality management systems and Lead Verifier for EMAS. David has produced many published articles on management systems for quality, environment and health & safety and their integration, being regarded as a pioneer on the subject of integration. He is currently finalising an experienced-based book on the subject of integrated management systems. David can be contacted on dave.powley@dnv.com







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