Handling customer complaints without breaking a sweat

July 21, 2005
How an engineer handles a complaint could be the beginning of a long and profitable relationship.

Herb Flink
Parker Fluid Control Div.
New Britain, Conn.

Engineers are often brought into the client-customer relationship at the "point of no return," when a customer starts complaining about something he bought. The only reason an engineer should contact a customer at this sensitive time is to fix the immediate issue quickly. However, this scenario also presents an opportunity for the company's true capabilities to shine through and create one of the most valuable assets, a loyal customer.

Whether the equipment was installed and working but has broken down, or is not yet out of the box, the customer is wasting time and productivity because of a problem he cannot solve alone. As you can imagine, this can lead to frustration, defensiveness, and anger. The customer may feel your company is not trustworthy or doubt its expertise. That's often what's going through his mind when he calls an engineer for help.

If possible, figure out what the customer wants from you. For instance, he may want you to:

  • Let him "vent."
  • Put him at ease.
  • Determine the proper specs, settings, and possible failure modes of the equipment.
  • Pinpoint the problem's root cause.
  • Solve the problem, keeping the customer updated along the way.
  • Supply samples of failed and working equipment for comparison.
  • Issue a corrective action report to the customer and internal contacts.
  • Follow up to ensure the problem stays fixed by working with the customer and others in your company.

Any of these options requires polite and professional phone manners. First, give the customer your full name and title. You might also say, "I'm in charge of..." or "I normally handle..." to reinforce qualifications and experience. Then, invite the customer to explain his problem as fully as possible.

At this point, the customer's first instinct may be to "vent." Remember, this customer is probably losing money due to down machinery and some higher-up at his company is probably breathing down his neck, so be patient. The worst possible situation is when both parties become angry or defensive.

The engineer's first priority in this case is to bring the customer's mood back in line. You can do this by remaining perfectly calm and empathizing with whatever inconvenience and frustration has led to the call. Occasionally, venting includes unprofessional behavior such as yelling, swearing, and even personal insults. Although this is upsetting, it is best not to respond in kind. Instead, disarm the situation by listening and paying attention, be confident of your expertise, and respect the client. After getting some information about the problem, do not immediately forward the caller to someone else in your company, even if it seems the issue at hand is not within your purview. The problem may not be completely diagnosed, and you could pass the call to the wrong person. This would likely just further frustrate the customer. Instead, the engineer who takes the call should be the one who helps solve the problem.

If the engineer is 100% positive of the problem's cause, as well as the right person in the company to handle it, he should call that person while the customer is still on the line. If that person is available, the engineer should stay on the call until the problem is fully explained and a solution is being discussed. If the person is not available, the engineer should take the customer's contact information as well as the best time to follow up. Then the engineer should continue trying to get in touch with the correct internal person(s) until the customer has been contacted and the problem solved.

One of an engineer's skills is determining the root cause of failures. So when customers complain, it gives company's engineers an opportunity to really shine. Ideally, the company will have a list of troubleshooting questions that should be asked. They should start at the beginning to get general information, including:

  • Product specifications, including date of order and shipment, model, and product numbers. And is all the equipment causing problems, or just a component-or two?
  • System requirements when purchased and those at present. A change may be causing problems.
  • Failure modes. Gather information on where the failures are, when they happen, and what the equipment is doing before and during failures.
  • Environmental conditions. They may be different than previously thought.

If details are unavailable, give the customer a complete list of the information you need. And if the call ends at this point, ensure he has your complete name and contact information, as well as a date and time for follow-up.

Once you get all the details, the problem and its source should become clearer. But regardless of the source — whether you feel the problem lies with the customer or your company — the customer is always right. This old adage still applies, at least until facts completely prove otherwise.

Remember, the customer perceives his situation a certain way and that becomes his reality. Never accuse him of mistakes or misuse. Pointing fingers does not help the problem. If the customer realizes his misunderstanding or mistake and admits it is the source of the problem, don't dwell on it. Concentrate on finding a solution.

Customer complaints fall into several categories, two of which are product failure and improper specifications. In case of a failure, engineers must rebuild customer confidence in the company. Here is what most customers want:

  • Honest disclosure about the source of the problem.
  • Fact-driven explanation of the problem's scope.
  • Follow-ups and milestones stating what will be done and when.
  • A competent, speedy solution.

Sometimes the most effective way to determine what needs to be done is to visit the customer. No lab ever completely mimics the customer's factory floor. A visit gives an engineer a firsthand look at the issues and demonstrates your company's commitment to customer service. The engineer can show his expertise by taking a hands-on approach to problem solving right on the customer's home turf. If in doubt about whether to take the trip, ask the customer and let him decide. Even if the customer declines, asking the question earns respect.

After securing all the details from the customer, and ideally receiving samples of both working and failed equipment, the engineer can tap into his company's resources to determine the problem. (Engineers must know their own company and its internal channels to quickly solve the customer's problem.)

Effective communication is essential. Assemble key members from the necessary departments to reinforce to the customer that a cross-functional team is working on his problem. Let the situation and customer's needs dictate how many and which people are on the team.

Upon reaching a solution, determine the most effective way of presenting it, whether in person, through a corrective action report, or over a conference call with your team. Once the customer agrees to the solution, have the team quickly put it in motion. And don't forget to regularly send status reports to the customer. Stay in contact with the customer until the problem is solved and hasn't reoccurred for a while.

Engineering and customer service functions are not linked, nor should they be. But they always go hand-in-hand in technical service, whether ensuring a proper specification is met in the first place or responding to customer concerns. All engineers need to stay in touch with their company's customer-service gurus to preserve the company's reputation, as well as company/ customer relationships.

Discovering the source of the problem and a fix is fine, but encouraging customer loyalty should be a goal as well. And one of the most important factors in swaying customers back to the company's side is how they are treated when problems arise.

Do's and don'ts for dealing with customers


  • Listen, ask questions, and treat customers-with respect.
  • Contact the customer and internal team frequently before, during, and after the solution.
  • Work with the necessary departments to handle returns efficiently for the customer.


  • Lie or make false-promises,ever.
  • Tell the customer about your busy schedule or lack of internal resources.
  • Pass the customer on unless you are sure the problem is in the correct hands and being properly cared for.
  • Say no to the customer,unless based on solid facts the customer already accepts.

Diary of an Engineer: Find the cause

A customer wanted to use our company's valve operators in a plastic-molded manifold that controlled water. The operator was attached to the manifold at the customer's facility and was designed specifically for the task by an outside vendor. We learned the system was leaking and suspected our operators. Luckily, the problem was caught before any left the factory, but this was still a high priority. And the customer's production line would be shut down until the problem was solved.

I first tested several of the operators on our valve bodies under simulated conditions. No leakage. This led me to believe the problem was with the manifold. But I needed to see this for myself.

I went to the customer's site with several of our valve bodies. I showed them that operators on our valve bodies have working plunger seals and the orifice interfaces were bubbletight. Then I examined their manifolds. Through testing, I determined that knit lines on the manifold orifices prevented proper sealing. I offered to work with the customer's vendor to reconfigure the valve bodies to prevent cracking, but the customer said he had enough information to properly ensure an internal fix. I followed up with the customer until I was sure their line was up and running trouble-free.

This case forced me to make several choices. First, I chose to go to the plant and confirm the problem before laying blame on the customer's vendor. Without firsthand knowledge, I could have never entirely been sure I was right. Next, I showed several valve bodies to different customer contacts, so that all of them could see the problem and understand it. This made it easier to move on my suggestions and they immediately accepted my assessment of the situation. Finally, I did not offer to sell them our valve bodies. Customers must make their own sourcing decisions.

Diary of an Engineer: Face-to-face pays

An overseas customer was having trouble with some equipment it bought from us and was dissatisfied with the service received to date. The customer needed reliable solenoid valves to control hazardous liquid flow and prevent spillage. According to the customer, our valve was not maintaining enough of a pressure drop, causing a downstream check valve to close prematurely.

At this point, the customer was dealing with an inoperable valve, as well as language and time barriers that were slowing down the solution. The answer was clear: Go to the customer's factory and see the malfunctioning valve for myself. This was the only way to clearly assess the problem, as well as earn a chance of repairing the customer's lost confidence in our company.

Upon arrival, the general manager was angry and openly critical. It was hard to listen quietly, but I understood the frustration behind his remarks.

I stayed attentive and empathetic. Then I outlined how my company would fix the problem. I explained experiments I intended to do on-site, and how I was going to take samples back to the lab for additional testing.

From this point on, the general manager supported my work. When I got back to him quickly with a solution, he was even happier. But what made the difference was probably the face-to-face contact that could never have been replaced by a phone call.

Troubleshooting advice

There are always new techniques and best practices for troubleshooting. Consider these tricks for more-efficient and effective root-cause analysis:

  • Master several problem-solving techniques.
  • Get to know customers well before asking application and other projectrelated questions.
  • Ask detailed application-related questions.
  • Look for common threads, such as: dates of failed items, location of failures, repeat failures on the same units, out of specification parameters, etc.
  • Ask if anything about the application has changed since the product was first ordered.
  • Ask for maintenance records for the failed and several good units.
  • Visiting the customer's site can sometimes uncover much more than a phone call.

Tips for listening

Do you have good listening skills? Being a good listener doesn't just help in the field, but in the office as well. Consider these tips:

  • Echo your customers' words back to him or her.
  • Don't let too much time pass without responding to the customer.
  • Add to the customers' thoughts, where appropriate.
  • Offer the customer your support.
  • Take notes as he or she talks, making special note of action items.
  • End the meeting with a summary of action items, including the responsible person's name and completion and call-back dates.

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