Melinda Kirk had only been the office manager at Ohio Consolidated Builders a few weeks when she took a call from an abusive customer. He was furious because he'd phoned about a window problem and the company's technician had not shown up on time.

“He used any and every curse word you could think of,” she recalls. “He had me in tears.” Eventually one of the owners of the company, a window and siding operation in Cleveland, took the call. The technician reached the house and the homeowner was assuaged.

Manage It Even the most efficient companies get complaints. And the complaints you get will tell you a great deal about your organization's flaws and weak spots. On the other hand, a deluge of complaints can tie up your internal staff, damage your image, and affect company morale. Managing those complaints represents an opportunity to develop a culture of customer service and to build your brand, that is, to make your company known as one that stands by its products and services.

Set the Expectations Lay the groundwork for managing complaints by making clear to customers what they're getting for their money, and document it.

“We make sure the customer knows and understands what he's getting,” says Ed Dunagan, president of Larmco Windows, also in Cleveland. Larmco clients sign not only the contract, but the work order “with pictures of the product we're going to sell them.” When Larmco comes out a second time to measure, the company's technician goes over the contract and the measure sheet, line by line. “So by the time the windows are ready for installation,” Dunagan says, “there's not much more to talk about.”

Front Line Installation, of course, brings its own problems. The question is: Who handles them? Fick Bros. Roofing & Exterior Remodeling Co., in Baltimore, trains its front-line production people to resolve client disputes. Vice president Patrick Fick says homeowners are introduced to the person in charge of their project at a pre-construction meeting — standard company procedure — and from that point forward they know who to bring complaints to. That way, “customers don't feel they have to pick up the phone and call the office.” Since setting up the project manager system in 1997, complaints that reach the office have dwindled.