At-Risk Customer Relationship Found During Continuous Improvement Exercise

A vendor’s day-to-day contact within a behemoth account was in a position to pick the vendors he used to make parts for his portfolio of products. He could also influence his peers within the company to switch to vendors he preferred. He was tempted to switch when he voiced a complaint to his account manager at the vendor and heard nothing back. The lapse was found during a routine customer feedback study that was part of the vendor’s continuous improvement program.

Key Question

“Is there anything I can pass along to the president on your behalf?”

Course-correcting Quote

Product Manager: “You tell them, if they expect me to pay this invoice for destroying the ‘overage,’ it’s the last invoice of theirs I’m going to process.”

The Client’s Quandary

This was supposed to be a simple assessment. The vendor was just checking to make sure there weren’t any hidden issues that could put key relationships at risk. Good thing they checked! The right parties were put in touch with each other, disaster was averted, and the relationship grew as a result of how well the vendor handled the misstep.


It was a fluke that this problem was caught. The product manager and I had been talking for 20 minutes at this point. He’d offered quite a bit of “constructive feedback,” but nothing that required an immediate response. When he heard me offer to take his closing thoughts to the president, he saw an opportunity to alert the president to an ignored complaint. Apparently, balking to his account manager when he received the invoice was a dead end; the account manager neither canceled the invoice nor escalated the matter. That means two problems were uncovered:
  • the immediate customer dissatisfaction over being billed for excess-product destruction, and
  • the more systemic problem of account managers not knowing when to escalate a complaint.
Ann’s note: I categorize projects as assessments, investigations, treasure hunts or rescue missions. This project was another case of an assessment-turned-rescue mission. Feedback projects are a continuous-improvement tool that can find counterproductive policies (e.g., charging minor expenses to major customers) and gaps in employee training (e.g., how to handle a complaint). Internal resources can miss holes in customer communication. My job is to hunt for their effects.
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