The following events were reported in "What Happens When A Customer In Toledo Complains," Think September 1973, pp. 46-48


A few months ago, Paul Schlagbaum, a brand-new marketing manager in the Toledo, Ohio, branch of the IBM Office Products Division (OPD), learns that one of his typewriter customers has written a letter of complaint to the IBM chairman of the board. The next morning, he drives an hour and a half with the marketing representative on the account to visit the secretarial division of a two-year college outside Toledo.

The "complaint" turns out to be a letter written by a student in an advanced typing course -- part of a class exercise to find out how companies would react to complaints and suggestions. About 20 letters were sent to different firms that manufacture a variety of products used in offices.

When IBM receives its "complaint" letter, an acknowledging wire from OPD President Bart M. Stevens is sent to the writer the same day. Now, student and teacher are flabbergasted that IBM would dispatch a manager and a salesman so quickly to investigate a minor mechanical complaint and a question about a technique in the formatting of typed material.

"We had no idea IBM would respond this way," the embarrassed teacher declares. The IBMers have arrived in person long before even acknowledgment letters are received from other companies. Later, the teacher writes a letter saying she is sorry for all the trouble the bogus complaint has caused -- she had expected only a letter -- and expresses admiration for IBM's service.

"The story," says Richard L. Hott, customer relations program manager, "points up the fact that customer complaints are not taken lightly either in headquarters or in the field." OPD, with five million pieces of equipment installed out in the field and whose customers are mostly one- and two-typewriter users, in fact, takes all customers seriously. Case in point: a complaint of any kind received at division or corporate headquarters immediately sets in motion a number of actions, beginning with an acknowledging wire from Bart Stevens giving the name of the branch or district manager who will contact the customer, and ending with a follow-up letter from Stevens offering apologies when appropriate and thanking the customer for bringing the matter to IBM's attention.

Quick action

Office Products Division President Bart M. Stevens

Office Products Division President Bart M. Stevens
Office Products Division President Bart M. Stevens
"Customer satisfaction," says Stevens, "is the cornerstone of our success in the marketplace. When a product or system fails to live up to a customer's expectations, we feel it's due to a deficiency in our attention to that customer's needs. Full and speedy attention frequently enables us to convert an unhappy customer to a real IBM booster."

Of course, unhappy customers are not common. As Frank P. Frost, OPD vice president, marketing, explains: "The number of complaints remains disproportionately low in relation to the tremendous growth in our business volumes. In fact, our people in the field, who have the day-to-day responsibility for satisfying our customers, are doing this job remarkably well."