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How to Successfully Address Customer Complaints

Building stronger relationships by listening and adapting

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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All labs have key stakeholders that drive the financial stability of the organization. These people may be external customers, internal clients, or key stakeholders in funding organizations. Whatever the formal relationship, these people provide the funds that enable the lab to build its budgets, pay the staff, and invest in the tools and equipment required to conduct the science.

Each of these stakeholders has specific needs that must be met for them to continue providing the money that enables the lab to deliver its mission. Understanding those needs and building systems and processes to effectively deliver them is critical for every lab. One important system to help labs deliver for their key stakeholders is the quality management system (QMS). The QMS is designed to clearly understand the stakeholder’s needs, ensure the lab has the people, training, procedures, and equipment to consistently deliver on those needs, and has processes in place to correct issues and learn from them. The key benefit of the QMS is building trust with the stakeholders.

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It is important to approach a customer complaint with humility.

However, despite the best planning, active listening, and a track record of delivery, labs will have issues that impact their ability to provide for the needs of their key stakeholders. While disappointing a key stakeholder is never desired and rarely a pleasant experience, it happens to every lab eventually. Understanding that no lab is perfect and preparing for how to address customer complaints is essential to retain their support of the lab and to maintain and repair the business relationships.

Responding to a complaint

It is important to approach a customer complaint with humility. Even before it is understood if the lab did anything wrong or made any mistakes, the lab staff and the lab manager need to recognize the issues experienced by the customer. When a customer communicates a complaint, a good place to start is to say, “I’m sorry,” and thank them for bringing the issue to your attention. Clearly expressing sympathy to the customer positions the lab as their ally in understanding and fixing the situation. Unfortunately, many people’s initial response to a complaint is to feel threatened and to respond defensively. This approach only increases the separation between the customer and the lab and creates more tension and frustration for the customer.

Once a sympathetic and supportive response has been made, it is important to collect as many details as possible from the customer. To do an effective investigation of the customer’s problem requires a clear understanding of what they initially wanted, their perspective on what went wrong, and the impact on them arising from this issue. The details obtained from the customer can then be matched with the lab’s data from the laboratory information management system to get a fuller picture of the project and its details. 

Most customer complaints arise from a difference between what they wanted and what they received from the lab. It is very important to understand if there was any issue in the lab understanding the customer’s goals and needs. Some complaints originate from the lab solving the wrong problem or doing the wrong sets of experiments. The lab might have done the science perfectly, but if they solved the wrong problem, the customer’s needs won’t be met. 

Investigating a complaint

If the issue is not around the problem and needs, then it is important to dive into the details of the scientific work executed and delivered. Gather the key staff, review the documentation of the lab work, and investigate the outcomes and deliverables. It is important for the lab manager to be skeptical during this investigation. Under most situations, no one tried to do anything wrong. Expect staff to do their best to execute the science. The lab manager will need to represent the customer inside the lab’s investigation by asking questions, requiring proof of statements, and reviewing the data.

To do an effective investigation of the customer’s problem requires a clear understanding of what they initially wanted, their perspective on what went wrong, and the impact on them arising from this issue.

Asking the customer about the impact of the problem on them and their work is important to motivate the lab staff to effectively investigate the complaint. The impact will provide the “whys” that will enable staff to engage with the questions, investigations, doubt, and uncertainty of these kinds of issues.

Resolving a complaint

These lab investigations generally result in a binary outcome: either the lab made a mistake, or the lab did the work requested properly. If the lab made a mistake, it is time to be open and honest about the issue. The problem is documented in a corrective action/preventative action process, or the equivalent. Actions are assigned. Everyone learns from the issue and relevant internal processes are updated. The lab now has the opportunity to make the situation right for the customer. While redoing the work will put pressure on the time and budget of the lab, there really isn’t much choice. The lab owes the customer the proper outcome to their project.

Sometimes, the lab did everything properly, but the customer still experienced a problem. This is an opportunity to help the customer understand this specific outcome and work with them to develop a subsequent project to address the issues that led to the complaint. Sometimes this is about educating customers about the reality of their situation and what can be accomplished with lab work, and sometimes it is about helping them understand that there is another dimension to the problem that wasn’t considered in the initial project.

Building stronger business relationships

In either case, the lab can use its knowledge, skills, and expertise to help the customer resolve the issue that led to the complaint. Being open, honest, and humble enables the business relationship to be maintained and even strengthened. Sometimes when a customer sees us at our worst, understands the commitment to make things right, and the willingness to adapt and learn actually strengthens the relationship to something better than it was before the complaint.

Thinking of customers and other key stakeholders as partners committed to the well-being of the lab helps us address complaints and disputes openly and positively. This approach is far superior to losing the support of key customers by behaving defensively or inflexibly when issues are communicated.