ISO 14001 case study: How to handle complaints

One of the key elements of any EMS (Environmental Management System) is how complaints from customers or stakeholders are dealt with. The ISO 14001:2015 standard provides guidance on how to approach a compliant, but there is good news, too – research suggests that positive engagement with customers during an effectively managed complaint procedure can actually strengthen the relationship with the customer and provider; therefore, there are ways of using the complaint process to ensure a positive outcome for your organization. This fact was uppermost in my mind when recently helping an organization deal with such a complaint, and the case study that follows can help provide some guidance on how this process can be managed correctly.

Customer complaint: The facts

The organization, which we shall call “company A,” consulted me when a complaint was made regarding an environmental element of its product, namely the packaging. As part of the development of company A’s EMS, a considerable amount of work had been done with the organization’s main supplier to ensure that the packaging that protected the product was effective, environmentally friendly, and reusable. After a series of incidents where the product had been damaged in transit and the packaging had proved not to be fit for purpose, a formal complaint was sent, which was logged on the EMS. As the organization has both an ISO 9001:2015 and ISO 14001:2015 accreditation plus a combined QMS (Quality Management System) and EMS, it was decided that this complaint would be logged on the EMS, as the elements of selecting appropriate packaging and ensuring recycling properties had a significant impact on environmental performance given the amount of product shipped. So, what action was necessary?

Customer complaints: The action

Firstly, the ISO 14001:2015 standard was consulted. Complaints are mentioned in terms of requiring management input in clause 9.3 and Annex A.9.3, and being used to drive improvement for the future, so a plan of action was established, which drove the following actions:

  • The internal management team was informed and consulted for the approval of the action plan, which was logged on the EMS against the customer complaint itself.
  • The customer was contacted and a conference call arranged. To mitigate the organization’s carbon footprint, it was agreed that the customer would send photographs to demonstrate the severity of the issue and travel would be avoided if possible. Daily conference calls were held to update actions, clarify timelines, and set expectations.
  • The formal corrective action document was shared with the customer to ensure that they realized due recognition was taken of the problem, and so they could play a consultative part in the corrective action itself. This was updated daily and shared.
  • The agreed corrective and improvement actions were put into place and a monitoring period was agreed with the customer for formal closure of the complaint and corrective action.

The above process was followed up by a request for customer feedback on how the customer felt the complaint was handled and a suggestion invited for any feedback on their part. So, what significant environmental benefits were seen from the resolution of the customer complaint?

Customer complaint resolution: The environmental benefits

The customer confirmed that the complaint had been handled satisfactorily and that the corrective action had been effective. The environmental benefits were listed on the EMS as follows:

  • The packaging design was changed, and this allowed the internal packaging to be returned and re-used up to eight times, giving the packaging a 400% greater lifespan than the previous design, saving cost and reducing environmental impact.
  • It was discovered that some of the product was re-sold on to the Middle East, which was not known before. After further investigation the packaging was not thought to be recycled there, but a communication to end users and recycling instructions in Arabic were now printed on the product guide and interior of the packaging to provide guidance on how to do this, ensuring that this would happen in the future. Monitoring of this action to ensure recycling at the end user site was recorded on the EMS and actioned. This also caused the top management team to discuss, research, and update “context of the organization” definitions that were held on the EMS, and demonstrated that a systemic improvement can ensue from a customer complaint if handled correctly. Read more on defining organizational context in the article Determining the context of the organization in ISO 14001.
  • Use of conference calls, phone calls, photographic evidence, and email ensured that there was no significant environmental impact through traveling while dealing with the complaint issue.

So, were there any other benefits?

Handling complaints effectively: The soft benefits

The environmental benefits are possible to measure and analyze, but the feeling of the team involved in dealing with the complaint, corrective action, and resulting elements suggested that there were other benefits, too:

  • The customer feedback suggested that the customer felt valued, important, and involved in the resolution and improvement process, and that company A was seen to be taking its environmental responsibilities seriously.
  • Several members of the team became closer to the customer through daily working and sharing of information, strengthening relationships for the future.
  • The customer requested a visit to meet the team involved and share practices for the future to improve the environmental performance of both organizations.

This provided proof that the correct treatment of a customer complaint can not only provide opportunity for improvement, but play a part in strengthening relationships as a result. Nobody likes receiving customer complaints, but like company A above, if you follow the same framework you may yet protect the environment and your customer relationships simultaneously, and that is a benefit to all.

Enroll in this free online training: ISO 14001 Foundations Course to learn more on handling complaints.

Advisera John Nolan
John Nolan
John Nolan is a Fellow of the Institute of Leaders and Managers in the United Kingdom, and Prince 2 accredited with a background in Engineering and Electronics and Data Storage and Transfer. Having studied and qualified as both a Mechanical and Electronic Engineer, he has spent the last 15 years designing and delivering Quality Systems and projects across many sectors in the UK, including both national and local government.