Customer Complaint


Roy Lobenhofer


 The phone startled Uncle Joe as he was half dozing in his recliner. He looked at his wife as she picked up the telephone, smilingly spoke into it, and then handed it to him. “It’s Andy.”

Uncle Joe rubbed his thinning hair as he took the phone. “Hey, Andy. What’s going on?”

“Hi, Uncle Joe. Sorry about calling so late. I was going to call earlier but I’m just getting home from the foundry. I’ve got a problem I know you can help me with. Are you free for an early breakfast tomorrow morning?”

Uncle Joe looked quizzical but nodded his head. “Sure, I guess. What’s going on?”

“Well, I told you I lost our quality manager and now I’ve got a customer complaint and I have to talk to the customer tomorrow morning. When I was buying castings, I complained but I never thought how to respond to a complaint.”

Uncle Joe nodded. “I guess I’ve handled a couple complaints through the years. I can give you some tips. Do you know what the problem is?”

Andy answered quickly. “They’re saying some of the castings we sent them are too hard. But, Jane’s been trying to keep dinner warm for me. So, how about we save the rest of it for breakfast tomorrow?”

Uncle Joe looked at his watch. “Since it’s almost 9, you better get off the phone. See you at 7?”

“Can we make it 6:30?”

“Hey, I’m supposed to be retired. We’re supposed to be able to sleep in, but I guess I can do it for my favorite nephew. See you then.”

“See you then, and I do remember I’m your only nephew.”


 * * *

Andy walked into Mr. T’s at precisely 6:30 and headed toward the table where he and Uncle Joe usually sat. Andy wasn’t surprised to see Uncle Joe already there drinking coffee. Andy shook his head as he slid into the booth, “Complain about me getting you up early and you still show up earlier. Can you explain the logic behind that?”

Uncle Joe grinned sheepishly, “I’ve always hated being late for anything. The one way I can be sure not to be late is to be early.”

Andy picked up the menu, looked at it momentarily, and then set it down. “This customer complaint is really bugging me. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Uncle Joe smiled broadly, “Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. The first customer complaint I was involved with was so early in my career, I still wasn’t sure where all the bathrooms were in the plant much less how to talk to an upset customer. At least you’ve had some experience on the other side. All you have to do is remember what you were looking for when you were complaining and give the customer that.”

Andy smiled a little and said, “I suppose you didn’t have an uncle to talk to either.”

Uncle Joe almost laughed, “No, I didn’t. To make matters worse, even if I did, I was most likely too macho back then to admit I didn’t know what I was doing. However, after getting beat up a few times making stupid mistakes, even I learned it was okay to ask for help. Let’s see if we can’t help you avoid some of my mistakes.”

With that Tina, their usual waitress was looking down at them with her usual smile. “Who’s beating you up Joe and what are you doing here today it’s not Saturday?”

Uncle Joe hit himself on the forehead, “It’s not Saturday? We old retired people have a hard time keeping track of what day it is. And my getting beat up was only figuratively, although I’ve wondered at times whether literally isn’t sometimes easier than figuratively.”

Tina winked. “Well figuratively doesn’t mark up your devilishly handsome face. What’s it going to be today?”

Uncle Joe answered immediately. “I’ll take a short stack and a waitress with decent eyesight.”

Tina snorted and looked at Andy who ordered.

As Tina went to place their order, Uncle Joe looked at Andy and said, “One of the most difficult things is to find out how bad the situation really is. The customer initially tells you everything is terrible. After a while, it usually comes out that it’s only some of the castings that are bad. To make matters worse, the person you’ll be talking to most likely doesn’t know what the situation really is. He’s most likely getting his information from the supervisor of the person who really knows. I think you’ll remember how frustrated you get with me when I ask you questions you don’t know the answers to. It’s one thing for an uncle to do that with a nephew, and it’s another thing when a supplier is doing that to a customer.”

Andy laughed and then got a concerned look, “I certainly know the frustration of you asking questions about things I don’t know. I can see where I’m going to have to be careful asking my customer those type of questions.”

Uncle Joe looked at him and smiled gently. “You may get lucky and be talking to a buyer who has been through it long enough to be ready with some of the information you’ll need. Do you know if you made these castings before?”

Andy smiled, “Somehow I knew you were going to ask that question. Yes, the foundry has been making them for years.”

It was Uncle Joe’s turn to smile. “That’s good news! All you’re going to have to do is find out what’s different about these bad boys. If you hadn’t made them before it’d be more steps.” Uncle Joe paused and then continued, “Did you make all of the latest shipment on one shift or was it spread over multiple shifts.”

Again, Andy smiled, “I’m getting good! I looked that up last night before leaving the foundry. We made them on both shifts on the 3rd and on the first shift on the 4th.”

Uncle Joe nodded started to say something, paused, and the continued. “The first thing you are going to have to find out if the hard castings came from the latest shipment. Sometimes machine shops work off inventory and use a FIFO system. If they’re working off inventory, you’ll have to find out when the troublemakers were made.  If they’re from the latest shipment, you’ll have to try to find out if the bad ones came from one shift or what.”

Andy had taken out a small notebook, jotted a note down, and nodded.

Uncle Joe paused while Andy wrote and then continued, “Of course, it’s always essential to get back at least some of the bad castings.” A question appeared on Andy’s face, but Uncle Joe continued. “There’s no doubt customers know when castings aren’t meeting their needs, but their definition of casting defects may be far different than yours. I’ve seen where shrink defects were called pinholes or gas holes by casting buyers. Hard castings are possibly one of the most suspect definitions a casting buyer can make to me.”

The question on Andy’s face became more intense. “Why’s that?”

Uncle Joe smiled a little and replied, “Put on your casting buyer hat again for a moment. You had some hard castings problems back then as I remember.” Uncle Joe made quotation marks with his fingers when he said hard. “How did you know the castings were hard?”

Andy grinned. “That’s easy, the machining supervisor told me they were.”

Uncle Joe looked a little disappointed. “And how did he know they were hard?”

“He would tell me either about bits that were breaking or wearing out faster than normal.”

Now it was Uncle Joe’s turn to smile, “Exactly! Customers are prone to do that. Can you think of anything beyond hard castings that would cause those things?”

“Well, there was one time when our tool life went to hell and the supervisor wanted me to talk to our supplier of the tool bits. The supervisor related the faster wear to a new shipment of bits. So, I guess the bits could be the problem instead of our castings.”

Uncle Joe nodded. “If you talk to the suppliers of tool bits, they claim they’re always getting blamed for our mistakes. However, I can’t remember a time when I was ever able to connect a complaint to the bits. Maybe the machinists weeded those out before the complaints got to me or I wasn’t smart enough to catch them. I wouldn’t even bring up tool bits to your customer other than something in passing.” Again, Uncle Joe paused before going on. “What do you think would happen if you tried to machine castings with burnt on sand?”

Andy looked questioning at Uncle Joe. “I suppose it would screw up the tool life, but it will still be our problem, wouldn’t it?”

Uncle Joe nodded. “It would indeed, but it would certainly require different changes to the operation as opposed to truly hard castings and that’s why it is so important to look at the bad castings.”

With that Tina brought their food, set it down, refilled their coffee and asked if there was anything else she could get them at the time. Since there wasn’t she left them to their discussion.

Between bites Andy asked, “But, what if the castings are hard? Will you look at a microstructure if I get it done.”

Uncle Joe shook his head and said, “I’ll look but it’s almost a certainty I won’t be able to tell you a thing about the problem. I’d stand a better chance of coming up with something if you had a good casting and you had microstructures done at the same place on the good and bad. In all honesty the way microstructures are used in problem solving something like this drives me up a wall. The first thing many people do when there’s a hard casting problem is get a microstructure. The results almost always show some funky graphite and a trace of carbides – that I usually can’t see. I’ve seen cases where someone started changing things on microstructure only to find out the microstructure didn’t come from the problem area and once it wasn’t even the right casting. On the rare occasions when significant carbides can be seen, you’re still stuck with the same problem – what caused them?”

Andy looked frustrated, “So I shouldn’t bother with a microstructure.”

Uncle Joe shrugged his shoulders. “It’s most likely not all that bad of an idea. The casting buyers, I believe, have come to expect it. You’ll send them a copy of the report that they won’t really understand, but it’ll show them you are following up on their problem.”

Now Andy was looking very frustrated, “But that isn’t solving the problem of why the castings were hard and what we need to do to fix it.”

Uncle Joe shook his head and his tone sounded irritated, “Right now, you don’t have enough information to do anything! Once you get a firmer hand on what’s going on then you can try to find out what was different about those castings. It won’t be easy because nothing is ever different until you find out what was different. It could be so many things that trying to change things without knowing what the problem really is could end up screwing up the entire operation.

There were a few moments of silence as they both finished their breakfast. Uncle Joe broke the silence. “Okay, you’ve got to get going. After you’ve talked to your customer and have some details about these hard castings give me a call and we’ll talk about a plan to see if you can find out what the real cause is.”

* * *

It was 10:30 when Uncle Joe’s phone rang. The caller ID indicated it was Andy. Uncle Joe picked up the phone and said, “So, is your butt well chewed?”

Andy laughed. “Not even remotely! It turns out they dual source that casting and they found out the castings that were causing the problems were from the other supplier. The buyer actually apologized to me for the extra work!”

Uncle Joe grinned broadly and leaned back in his chair. “Well, that doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. It’s even better they found the error in whom to blame. It’s always touchy when you tell a customer those bad castings you sent back aren’t ours. It reminds me of the time we got some castings back and we didn’t even have the pattern to make them. But, that’s a story of what was. You don’t need to listen to an old man reminiscing. Since you don’t have to solve the hard casting problem, why don’t you take Jane out for a nice dinner to make up for having to keep your dinner warm last night?”

Andy smiled, “Good idea! Maybe I will. I do want to talk to you about the quality manager I need to hire. Are we still on for Saturday morning?”

“If you’re buying, I’m eating. I’ll see you at Mr. T’s.”

Andy nodded and added, “By the way, thanks for being willing to help with this. Even though we didn’t have to tap your metallurgical expertise, it was great knowing you were there if I needed it. See you Saturday”

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