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

Engineers are often critical when it comes to solving customer problems. But even after fixing the problem, the engineer's job is only half done. He must still make sure the customer respects his company and will likely do business with it again. He should also make sure the case is reviewed inside his company to prevent future mistakes.

A two-pronged customer-service approach to this situation includes a follow-up program and a lessons-learned review. Follow-up programs get companies back on track with customers, make sure there are no additional problems, and even open the door to new business. Back inside the company, lessonslearned reviews keep employees at all levels up to date on best practices and potential problems. Companies of any size can effectively use these two programs.

THE CUSTOMER SERVICE MYTH
Customer service means different things to different people, but it is generally agreed that it revolves around keeping customers 100% satisfied during and after a sale. The myth is that the customer-service department is solely responsible for it.

Yes, the idea and department share a name. But responsibility for action does not end with customer-service personnel. Everyone who comes in contact with customers, from executive assistant to engineer to order processor, plays a role in delivering customer service.

Because customer service is not confined to a single department, it is essential to instruct employees on how to work with customers. This training can be formal, in the form of prescribed procedures and requirements to which employees are trained upon first entering the company. And informal training can take the form of educational memos, e-mails, or brown-bag lunches with a team to brainstorm best practices. And although engineers may have the technical knowledge customers will desperately need, this training is just as important for engineers as building their technical skills.

Diary of an Engineer: A Dubious Inheritance

Our company redesigned a valve that was giving us constant manufacturing problems. Having inherited the project from an engineer that was leaving, The first priority became redesigning a valve that would operate reliably at all times. After completing the drawing, the valve was built and tested. I was told the only work still needed was a-single drawing. But shortly after receiving the new valve, an overseas customer complained it did not shift reliably.

After reviewing all the project information, it became clear the valve did not meet customer specifications. The first priority became redesigning a valve that would operate reliably at all times. This involved spending a week with the customer.

After the redesign, I thought about my actions that had let this happen. My major error was taking the project without doing a review of my own. Instead, I took the project further down the-wrong path. In particular, I did not double-check with the marketing department for all known critical specifications, and this project certainly had some.

Upon closing out this project, I issued a memo to all departments regarding mistakes and out-lined steps I felt necessary to prevent similar problems. I also made sure everyone in my department was briefed on this informaton. Although laying out one's own errors for public consumption is scary, often it is the only way to let the lessons shine through.

KEEPING IN TOUCH
After an engineer helps resolve a customer complaint, it's customary to move right on to the next. So if an engineer doesn't hear from the customer, he assumes no news is good news. Why look for problems? But follow-up calls can be critical. They let companies:

  • Maintain a positive, professional image.
  • Reinforce customer confidence in its customer-service commitment, technical abilities, and ethics.
  • Demonstrate that its products are high quality.
  • Cement relationships with the customer to increase the likelihood of future sales.
  • Get feedback on what the customer thought of the process used to solve his initial problem, making note of areas that can be improved.
  • Intervene early to prevent new problems for the customer.
  • Gather information to improve employee training in best customer-service practices.
  • Uncover new sales opportunities.

Follow-up calls should follow a script to ensure all necessary information is gathered. It should go something like this:

  • Establish human contact with your customer. Depending on your relationship with the customer, ask about family or hobbies. Be sure to ask how business is going and take note of new projects in the works.
  • Ask about the past problem. See if it has returned. If so, go back into "fix mode." Follow through by getting details, then work with your team to thoroughly solve the problem. If everything is fine, ask about the status of other equipment your company supplies that he uses.
  • Ask if your company can help on any new or ongoing projects.
  • Ask if there is anything else your company can do.
  • Confirm that it's acceptable for you to call back and check in again. If not, ask the customer to initiate the call, stating that their feedback is important to your company.
  • Always end the call by thanking the customer sincerely for their time and business.

Be your own critic

It is always appropriate to ask yourself, "How am I doing?" Are my skills everythigs they should be?" These questions are not just for annual reviews, nor are they only relevant when broached by supervisors. A keen interest in self-improvement, both honing existing skills and learning new ones, helps keep up an engineer's level of interest and motivation, as well as increase overall job statisfaction. To that end, institute yor own personal lessons-learned program to critique yor customer service skills. This analysis might include reviewing a recent project from start to finish, including:

  • Conversations with those inside and outside your company. Were they friendly and successful? Did ou have trouble getting what you wanted or needed?
  • E-mail and other nonverbal communications. Were they perceived as clear, understandable, and complete by the reader? Or did you have to follow-up with clarifications?
  • Technical skills, Are they advanced enough to devise and implement solutions correctly and quickly?
  • Company knowledge Did your knowledge of channels within your company contribute to a quick fix?

Assess weak points in the chain of events. Determine what resources could be used to bolster specific skills. A refresher course, for example, might be useful for polishign technical skills, A continuing education course through your industry's trade association might give you some customer-service tips or best practices. Or, a question-and-answer session with your supervisor could shed light on the best people to talk to within the company when problems arise.

New engineers, generally speaking, should observe customer relations before taking on a customer's problem alone. Several skills that indicate an engineer is ready for fieldwork include:

  • Effective communication with people inside and outside the company.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Patience.
  • Empathy.
  • Problem-solving and analytical skills.
  • Self-motivation.
  • Self-supervision.
  • Even temer.
  • Clear and complete understanding of products and applications.
  • Strong project management.

THE FIVE-STEP FOLLOW-UP
Unofficial follow-up programs, in which engineers arbitrarily decide whether or not to call customers, are just not as effective as formal ones. There will always be customers who do not get a call or times when the call doesn't follow the script. So company management should administer formal programs.

The person who led the solution team should take charge of follow-up with that customer because he or she thoroughly knows the problem, as well as the customer's needs and attitudes. The customer should also be more likely to take that person's call. And the lead person will call at regular intervals, including:

First call: No later than one week after a corrective-action report has been issued and your company considers the problem solved.

Second call: A month after last call. Third call: A month after last call. Fourth call: A month after last call. Fifth call: Four months after last call. This builds in regular follow-ups over six months. After the half-year mark, the engineer can check in again with the customer every six months. Follow-ups can also coincide with contact by other team members working with the customer.

LEARNED YOUR LESSON?
During the follow-up process, the engineer has a chance to digest what the customer has told him and determine where his company needs improvement. Perhaps the customer would have liked a more cross-functional team to create and implement the solution, or maybe the customer found the corrective action report more confusing than enlightening. No matter where the issue lies, this feedback can help the company move in the right direction.

Lessons-learned programs translate customer feedback into best practices and disseminate them across every layer of the organization. Again, formal programs are preferable. Vital information often slips through the cracks of informal setups.

This initiative garners many benefits for companies including:

  • Fixing problems without fixing blame.
  • Serves as an informal training tool for employees at all levels and departments.
  • Helping employees better understand their jobs and their colleagues' jobs.
  • Preventing future mistakes.

The program should be easy to carry out and generate a lessons-learned report for every project. Keep the report concise and easy to read for busy colleagues. The report and any other findings should be distributed immediately. Waiting for formal newsletters or other company communications wastes time.

Once the engineer or team leader completes an agreed-upon cycle of follow-up calls to the customer, the leader must analyze the project, looking for problem areas. These should be written in a short, bullet-point format, with each point accompanied by at least one proposed solution. Send the suggestions to department heads, as well as company leaders, such as general managers and marketing and sales teams, for review. This lets department heads decide how best to share the information with their teams. They may choose e-mail, or passing along a memo. Or, if suggestions focus on a particular department, a departmental meeting might be best.

Delving into customer complaints may seem like overkill, but consider all that can be gained from a more-efficient and effective workforce and fewer customer complaints.

Customers can offer valuable perspectives on your company. After all, they are the company's lifeblood and their perceptions are reality.

So an engineer's communications with customers — from the first phone call about a problem to the last follow-up conversation — are all opportunities to better understand customer needs and perceptions. Take lessons from them and share that knowledge with the rest of the team. It may not be possible to completely get rid of customer complaints, but perhaps the real goal should be to help each other be as perfect as we can be.