Awkward Customers and Service Quality: two sides of the same coin

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The following blog gives the notes from a one hour workshop run by TimelessTime on dealing with awkward customers and improving service quality. This was part of an ongoing programme of sessions sponsored by the Haywards Heath & District Business Association ( held at the Orange Square Bar ( ).

  • Initially the group of HHDBA participants read an example letter of complaint from a customer to the CEO of a car dealership developed for the session. This letter is shown below.

  • The group then discussed what caused awkward customers, agreeing that for the most part awkward customers were caused by poor service quality from the supplying firm. The group discussed the idea that poor quality caused performance to fall below customer expectation.

  • Whilst the session was initially titled ‘awkward customers’ the group quickly re-described it to be how poor quality impacts on organisation performance and that customers are only awkward as a result of experiencing this poor performance.
  • The group discussed two models to help understand poor quality and to effect corrective action. These are shown opposite and below.
  • The decision pyramid illustrates a method of analysing a problem to determine the root cause before any corrective action is taken. The DMAIC model below illustrates a process that anyone seeking to tackle a quality problem might follow.

  • The group then discussed how one would deal with a truly awkward customer and concluded that in the first instance staff behaviours and competences and system policies and processes must be in good shape to give staff and management the confidence that the firm does not have poor quality and that the customer complaint is therefore unjustified. In the absence of this confidence management must therefore look to the organisation’s people and systems and give the customer the benefit of the doubt.

  • The group then read the second example letter shown below and identified the quality issues that were evident from both letters. The group used the problem/people/systems model to analyse the causes of the issues and used the DMAIC model to suggest how they might achieve solutions.
  • The session ended with the group identifying the five primary issues that they felt came from the letters. These points centred around:

  1. Addressing problems quickly but empowering staff to put in place solutions. This demands confidence in the firm’s own quality and training of staff in that quality and the processes necessary to determine when a customer complaint is justified.
  2. Having a clear view of customer expectations, knowing your own organisation performance and therefore knowing the difference between the two so that corrective action can be effected.
  3. Engender a quality culture so that everyone understands that poor quality is a cost to the organisation.
  4. Manage customer expectations and communicating with customers so that the customer is involved in any decisions or trade-offs that have to be made.
  5. Be consistent in how all customers are treated and remember that staff have an expectation of justice: they must be supported particularly when they are not in the wrong the customer expectation is unreasonable.

Sample Letter 1
(adapted from a letter referenced below):

Chief Executive
Avery Car Sales
Broad Street,
BNx 2xx

Dear Sir,

I own a YYY with approximately 70,000 miles on it. My YYY has had an ongoing problem with the accelerator sticking when I decelerate. This problem was serviced by the Tyler Road YYY dealer, but the problem returned within two weeks. I decided to bring the car to your dealership to see if you were any better at servicing. This letter details what happened.

I made the service appointment for Wednesday, October 12. The plan was to drop the car off

Tuesday and leave it. Since I had another appointment, my wife and I planned to meet at your dealership at 4:00. Unfortunately, my wife arrived before I did. When she inquired about my appointment, she was told that there was no such appointment. It seems that Carol Pace, with whom the appointment was made, was not there and no one thought to look at her appointment book. When I arrived I was told that my wife had been sent away. After waiting approximately

20 minutes, my wife called from the Kemper Rd. YYY dealership, thinking that since I had no appointment at your dealership, there had been a misunderstanding between us. She then drove back across town to meet and pick me up at your dealership.

Our car was left to get several things done. It was to be tuned up, the sticking accelerator was to be fixed, the interior light was to be fixed, and a tail light was to be replaced. The next morning I received a call telling me that in addition to a regular tune-up, the car needed new spark plugs, new spark plug wires, a new distributor cap, and a new coil before the sticking accelerator problem could be diagnosed by the computer. I was told by Carol Pace that the coil was “worn”.

Although I was somewhat sceptical, I agreed to the replacements. Later that day, I was informed that the throttle body and interior light assembly would have to be replaced at a cost of £600 and £110 respectively. I pressed on both issues and was assured that the interior light could not be repaired because it came in one unit and the contacts were bad. The light assembly was not in stock and would have to be ordered. I also pressed Carol Pace about the throttle body. She would not guarantee that replacement would solve the sticky accelerator problem, so I refused to have it fixed. For a bill of £330 the car was tuned up (including replacement of the parts mentioned above, and the tail light bulb was replaced. The interior light and sticking accelerator were not fixed.

Several days later I received a call from a company that surveys the satisfaction of your customers. I described my dissatisfaction. In response to that call, Steve Thomas (your service manager) called me several days later. I described to him what had happened and he was sympathetic. He was anxious to have me get the remaining repairs done. He found out that his top technician was involved in the work, so he was confident in the “sticking accelerator” diagnosis. He guaranteed that replacing the throttle body would fix the problem and said that if it didn’t, they would remove the new throttle body and put the old one back in. He also said they would order the interior light assembly and replace it at the same time. He offered a discount and agreed to eliminate the labour charge.

I agreed to bring it back, but after thinking it over, I changed my mind. After checking my service records, I found out that my spark plugs and spark plug wires had been replaced by BP

Procare about 1 year prior to your workshop replacing them again. It seemed very unlikely that they needed to be replaced. The plugs and wires that BP Procare had replaced had lasted over 50,000 miles. Your workshop insisted on replacing them at less than 20,000 miles. After discovering this I was pleased that I had not brought the car back.

I still had an interior light that didn’t work and a sticky accelerator, so I took the car to a small independent repair garage. The owner disassembled the throttle body, cleaned it, and lubricated it.

It now works fine. He told me that if it begins acting up again, to bring it back and he will replace a spring. He also checked the interior light problem. There was nothing wrong with the interior light. A wire leading to the driver’s side door switch was loose. He tightened that connection. The dome light now works fine. Both problems have been solved and the total charge was £19.22.

In summary:

-Your dealership’s recommendation for a new throttle body would have solved the problem, but it would have been the most expensive way to do it.

– Your dealership’s recommendation for a new interior light assembly would not have solved the problem, and once again, it would have been the most expensive action to take.

-It is not clear whether the replacement of the wires, coil, plugs, and distributor cap by your dealership was warranted. They were only one year old and had very few miles on them.

The interior light assembly did not need to be replaced, nor did the throttle body, but your technicians wanted to replace both of them at a cost of over £700. There are two reasons why parts would be replaced unnecessarily. Technicians are either encouraged to do so in order to inflate parts sales, or they don’t know any better. In other words, your technicians are either dishonest or inept.

Your service personnel couldn’t (or didn’t want to) solve a problem as simple as a loose wire on a door switch. You should know that I will never bring business to your workshop again, nor will I recommend your business to anyone else.


Bill Camper

Sample Letter 2:
(adapted from a letter referenced below):

Email to: Ron Avery, CEO
From: Steve Thomas, Service Manager

RE: Customer Complaint

I have been in contact with this customer over the past several weeks. I called him after hearing about his dissatisfaction. He then called me and told me the final results of the independent repair workshop’s work. I asked him if he wanted a refund, but he said that that would not result in him doing business with us again. He also told me that he was sending you a letter.

There really isn’t any more to the story. What he says in his letter is basically true. The problems at the drop off time did happen. Carol had an emergency at home and had to leave. No one thought about checking her appointment book. Everyone was in a hurry.

The diagnostics on his car was done by my best technician. He admitted that he did not check the door switch because he was in a hurry and the interior light assembly is a common failure problem. We do not have access to a replacement spring to repair a throttle body because our policies restrict us to using original equipment replacement parts that are provided by YYY. We have no choice but to replace the entire unit. My technicians agree that a replacement spring could probably fix it, but policies prevent them from finding such a spring and using it.

Regarding replacing unneeded parts, that is difficult to judge. The problem with “repairing” rather than replacing is that the repairs often aren’t permanent and the part must eventually be replaced anyway. If there’s any doubt, we replace. As you know, over 80% of our parts sales are through our own service department. Our satisfaction surveys show that our customers are very satisfied with the quality of our service. In response to the customer’s complaints, we refunded £126 for the distributor cap, wires, and rotor and for the associated labour.


Finch, B., & Salzarulo, P. (2011). The Customer Complaint Letter: A Student Exercise in Six Sigma. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 9(2), 307–314.

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