In this individual exercise, students documented and assessed the entire customer feedback process based on a personal product or service experience. Students were given instructions (as shown in Appendix A) within their syllabus and were asked to choose a quality success or quality problem they experienced during the semester and to initiate a contact with the organization. Students thus began a timeline after their first contact (either in person, by phone, fax, e-mail, comment card, or through the company's website) and recorded the time between responses. At the end of the iterative process, students wrote a final letter to the company CEO explaining the project along with their accolades and/or recommendations for changes in the customer commendation/complaint process. Students sent their letters via certified mail which included a return delivery receipt confirmation from the US Post Office.
The course, Quality Management Systems, is required for management majors in the undergraduate Bachelor of Business Administration Program and an elective course for other business majors. Course prerequisites are principles of management, operations management, and fundamentals of computer applications. The course examines the continuous improvement philosophy, quality tools, and lean Six Sigma.
The Presentation and Examples
Presentations of the Conscientious Consumerism project were scheduled for the last class of the semester. Students were allowed 5 minutes for their Power point presentation and given another 5 minutes for class questions and comments from the professor. The board was used to record examples and ratings on the speed and efficacy of the corporate response. Students were polled as to whether they thought the response was appropriate and if not, what changes should be made. Sample board notes often included issues on the promptness (recording the number of days or hours between responses), whether the solution to the problem placed more burdens on the customer such as additional correspondence, store visits, or the need to supply official bank documents or additional receipts, or whether the complaint was effectively noted and disseminated within the organization.
Students handed in their written reports along with copies of all correspondence. The reports summarized the entire complaint/compliment process and the student's satisfaction with the resolution, the quality of communications, and the student's future repurchase intentions. A rubric (see Appendix B) was used to score the project. This assignment was used in the author(s) small classes (with enrollment of 20 students or less) and may not be best suited to large classes.
Project topics varied widely with electronics a common theme—problems with laptops, faulty hard drives, network adaptors, car stereos, video game systems and portable DVD players along with appliances. Interestingly, most of the electronics manufacturing companies had a good online process for handling returns and replacing defective products. Fast-food and dinner-house dining was the focus of a number of service complaints and included problems with the order, food preparation, bills, or missing items. The examples that follow highlight the diversity of responses to problems.
A student's online order for a new smart phone arrived promptly, but was missing the vehicle charger. He completed the firm's online comment about the order and received an almost instant electronic communication. The following day he received a second e-mail from the firm apologizing for the missing portion of the order and noting the charger cord would arrive in 7–10 days. The charger arrived in 5 days and the student was extremely satisfied with the process.
A student's fast-food drive-through breakfast order was a biscuit and pepper gravy. When she opened her order, she had been given sausage gravy. She immediately called the restaurant. They apologized and asked for her mailing address. The store manager wrote to her and included two coupons for free hamburgers on her next visit. While this could be a plausible and acceptable recovery for a wrong order, but when the student presented her findings she shared her letter to the CEO where she mentioned her Indian heritage and vegetarian lifestyle. She recommended future “form” letters to customers include a coupon for a set dollar amount, $5 for example, rather than specifying a product. The class discussion that followed reminded students that companies should not create another complaint or more ill-will when trying to correct an initial problem.
In another example, a student drank the last serving from a gallon of a private labeled milk only to notice a contact lens stuck to her glass. Since no one in her family wore contacts, she knew it had been in the milk. She called the big-box retailer and they gave her the name of the supplier, a well-known regional dairy. She called the dairy and was given instructions for returning the container and the lens. Within 3 days, she received a personalized letter of apology from the company stating they were investigating their production process and would be in touch soon. The second letter arrived 11 days later and included three coupons for free gallons of their premium ice cream. The company apologized, explained that quality was their top priority, and discussed ways they were assessing their packaging and filling production lines to ensure similar problems did not arise for her or other valued customers in the future. They included three more coupons for their premium ice cream.
When the student wrote the summary letter, the CEO wrote back and invited the class to tour his manufacturing plant and to meet with him. He mentioned he was pleased the college class was studying quality and appreciated the student's letter. He emphasized the importance of quality and how it was indeed his top priority. The class discussion noted the fast timeline of the CEO's response and how the free ice cream coupons shifted the customer focus away from the problem with the milk. The letters from the company and later from the CEO who stressed the production process would be assessed, served to assuage the customer the problem was being taken care of and that future customers would not experience similar issues. While the problem was not a pleasant one, the company maintained their positive reputation and goodwill with this student and the class. Finally, the positive letter from the CEO stressing quality's importance was seen as the best response of that semester.
Customers will seldom complain about a wrong fast-food order or similar low-level/low severity failure. But after the project presentations and in-class discussions, students better understood their role as a conscientious consumer and their obligation to provide feedback to organizations. Such feedback, in the spirit of continuous quality improvement, can influence a product, service, or even the entire organization's longevity and success. Students previously not comfortable with providing complaints/compliments now had less fear of the process.
Most complaints are handled quickly and effectively in the initial contact with company customer service employees and would not necessitate the customer following through to the CEO. This step was part of the project to illustrate the range of possible actions by the customer. The instructor should remind the class, however, that this extreme step would depend on the nature and severity of a product or service failure. The instructor can have student rank the various projects from least to most severe and reflect on which quality issues would need the final letter to the company CEO.
At the end of the presentations, students commented that a quick apology to a problem was best but they did not like nor appreciate the generic, computer-generated responses, even though they often arrived instantaneously. CEOs who acknowledged a problem, offered an apology, and suggested steps they would take to prevent future problems were rated highest by the class. Spelling and grammar was noted as important in all correspondence to customers, particularly ensuring the customer's name and salutation was correct.
Compliments too often are not received by the CEO and are a good way to ensure practices and processes that are favorable are not changed. One student wrote his new dentist to compliment the helpful staff and customer service received on his initial visit, the ease of scheduling future visits, and the helpful e-mail appointment reminders. The dentist responded to his certified letter and noted his surprise in receiving the compliment as he typically only received complaints.