Today I had an insight – nobody in business really *likes* customer feedback- unless of course it is glowingly complimentary and grateful. But let’s face it, that sort of feedback just makes us complacent – it’s unlikely to help us with anything like continual improvement.

What I’m talking about is the feedback that used to be called ‘complaints’ and for which businesses had a Complaints Department – now it’s called ‘Customer Service’. Because they don’t like complaints, no doubt. But how else are you going to find out what’s not working?

How did my revelation come about? While I was out picking up the mail from the post office, I went into a supermarket, part of a big chain, at the local shopping centre, to buy some licorice. I have a lot of writing to do today and licorice helps me concentrate – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it :).

The licorice was underneath some soft drinks, a can of which was leaking.Several bags of licorice were damaged but I finally reefed one out which was ok. I’d noticed an older lady about to get something from the same rack and thought someone’s attention should be drawn. So at the checkout, I mentioned to the young man on the till that a can was leaking, goods were being damaged etc. Oh, ok, he said. You’re not going to do anything about this are you? I said. What was that? he said. So I explained again and it was clear he had no way of dealing with this. About to leave, but a bit annoyed, I went and spoke to someone older at the information counter and basically got a smiling brushoff from her too.

As I drove away I thought: I can be annoyed about this or I can blog it. OK, I’ll blog it. But before I do that, I’ll phone the company and see what they have to say. So I phoned the supermarket’s headquarters interstate, a long distance call, was put on hold and then put through to – you guessed it, Customer Service. The woman in Customer Service who answered listened to me. I explained I have a website (blog was likely to be too hard to explain), said I was about to write up this experience and was doing them the courtesy of commenting. I told her what had happened (and not happened) as above.

She thanked me for letting them know. When I asked what would happen, she said they would contact the local store manager. And what was the number of the checkout till? she asked. I did not know and indicated my beef was not with the young man on the checkout but with their system, or lack of it, for dealing with feedback like this courteously and effectively from the point of view of customer service. It was clear I was getting nowhere with this line of conversation.

I tried to get her to understand that I was endeavouring to point out a systems problem. Would they consider amending their training materials so that the people on the checkout were taught a simple phrase in a situation like this, such as: “Thank you madam/sir. We really appreciate your bringing this to our attention and it will be dealt with immediately.” then making it clear that someone was being contacted to deal with it? No clear response. I said I had done training, I had been into organisations to help them with systems, I was making a gift to help them.

The ‘customer service’ lady stuck to her script. They would talk to the manager at the local store, who would talk to the staff.

I thought about kaizen (continuous improvement), about principles of quality control and self-managing teams, ideas that had been around for years. I realised I was not going to make a dent in the ‘Customer Service’ spiel. And the call was ‘on my dime’ as my American friends say. So I farewelled the customer service lady. The local manager will no doubt be irritated, the checkout kids will be irritated, the person at the ‘customer service’ counter will be irritated. And an opportunity for the huge supermarket enterprise to learn from a customer will be lost.

This is not the first time I have tried to give constructive feedback to company when I see something going wrong that could hurt their business. I have to say I am fascinated that these big bureaucratic enterprises, which spend huge amounts on premises and advertising and I probably a lot of money on training, seem to have no procedure in place to *catch* honest feedback from customers and then put it into the system for review and possible action. In some ways, they can be quite  narrowly defensive and fundamentally hostile to feedback.

So how have I been able to benefit from this experience?

First, I asked myself the question, So what about my business? Do I invite customer feedback – i.e. the serious, potentially embarrassing, potentially irritating stuff. Well yes. I did this quite recently, just before Christmas.  I am blessed that I got some serious, honest feedback and did not score universally well. I did some homework and have looked closely at the services I offer and how I can improve them.

I don’t have to *enjoy* the process of getting honest feedback. But I do enjoy the idea of being able to improve what I offer and deliver. So I’m glad I invited the feedback and I’m glad it was given honestly and I’m glad I’ve taken action to lift my game.

Second, I decided to put the experience to hopefully good use, post it here and be pleased if someone else picks it up, as was done with a recent blog I posted about a run in with my (former) barber.

Part of my motivation for getting into the implications of this  experience with the leaking can of soft drink was that over the weekend I was watching a television program about people in manufacturing industry seeking to improve their processes and being helped by a top engineer from Toyota, who are great exponents of the Japanese system of kaizen. Brilliant stuff. The Toyota people on the program were so impressive – down to earth, articulate, clearly committed to doing a great job today and a better one tomorrow, it inspired me.

There’s a good, brief explanation of kaizen, continuous improvement, and the impact it has had in the Toyota corporation at the Human Resources (Australia) magazine website in the item Toyota staff provide 75,000 reasons for using kaizen

Will I be shopping at that store again? Well, I am interested in checking out alternatives. And I don’t think I’ll be interested in buying shares in them.

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