Handling customer complaints

by Teresa Acklin
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Keeping detailed records of problems will reveal solutions and help avoid repetition.

By David Sugden

   The dictionary defines a complaint — hence the term “plaintiff” in a court of law — as a statement of injustice suffered, among other meanings. This injustice may be either real or imagined. In any event, the wise miller will have a system that logs the initial complaint and follows it through to completion, whatever that may be.

   The detailed recording of any problem, from beginning to end, will allow the miller normally to spot not only the solution but also to set about designing out the particular difficulty in question in order to keep the same problem from happening again.

   Complaints at a flour mill can cover a wide area, from delivery, time keeping, administration, short weight, packaging, communication, foreign matter, quality, consistency and variation to functionality. All of these can be described as a question of fitness.

   The effect is usually clear enough. The cause, all too often, is not. The first step is to determine the precise nature of the complaint, preferably by visiting the customer face-to-face.

   For example, many flour users are particular about deliveries being effected within certain times and on specified days. Mistakes in bulk deliveries connected to the wrong customer bin are common. Substandard packaging or palletization can be trouble. Poor administration — perhaps an invoice with the wrong price, type or quality of flour — is unintentionally annoying.

   Human error is normally the cause of these problems. In the case of timing of deliveries, however, factors outside anyone's control can be at work — a traffic jam or a natural disaster, such as a flood.

   Short weight can be a nasty problem for a flour miller. The miller's records can often prove that there was no such problem. But the baker or cookie customer may be able to show the opposite. In any case, loss of good will is threatened — to the detriment of the supplier. The complaint must be settled quickly and compromise is needed to avoid loss of trade. Avoid involving government weight inspectors, which only extends the period of resolution and creates suspicion.

   Complaints about foreign matter contamination nowadays is increasingly likely to involve government inspectors. Particularly awkward are contaminants such as glass, insect and rodent parts. Super-sensitive members of the public can and do create mayhem. The answer to foreign matter issues is constant inspection of relevant equipment: the final sieving apparatus, magnetic and nonferrous metal protection equipment, destoners, entoleters, observation of potential points of access and their elimination and efficiency of fumigants, pesticides and rodenticides. Again, don't forget the possibility of handling errors by staff.

   It is critical for the miller to possess the contaminant sample for two clear reasons. The first is to bring the sample back to the mill to identify and determine point of entry, so that future contamination can be eliminated. The other is to keep the offending sample out of potential lawsuits.

   High bacteria counts in flour — always a risk in humid climates — need rapid identification. One common solution is chlorinating the water used for dampening and conditioning. Another solution is to carefully clean all internal spouting and machinery, which have a tendency to accumulate condensation in even the best kept plants.


   What about bread faults, for example a complaint of lack of volume? The cause could be problems within the bakery, including poor procedures, too high dough temperatures, too little yeast, too much salt, chilled dough, slack dough and over-ripe dough. However, weak flour is another common fault.

   Sometimes flour can be the cause of too low an amylase activity. This can easily be measured in the laboratory and corrected. Excess starch damage is well known to reduce, even collapse, the volume of bread. Several laboratory chemical determinations are in vogue, together with suitable calibration of NIR (Near Infra Red) apparatus.

   Farrand's thesis of the early 1960s was the first to point out the relationship between flour moisture, protein, water absorption, alpha amylase activity and starch damage for optimum bread-making performance. Too high a water absorption figure is often a telltale sign of poor bread performance.

   More insidious is the problem of lack of gas retention in dough, which leads to low volume bread. Although many laboratory tests will not detect this problem, yeasted dough rheology equipment can. Everything else being equal, the cause is usually poor wheat varieties. The solution is to change the grist or add gluten, which is expensive.

   Lack of consistency and variability in flour can be a problem for the baker or biscuit maker. The larger the customer, the greater the need for consistent products. Major plant or industrial manufacturers that use well over 50 tonnes to 100 tonnes (1,000 to 2,000 cwts) per day of flour are highly sensitive to slight changes. Because of the amounts of material in progress within the customer's plant, this can lead to significant damage and cost.

   Just as one swallow does not make a summer, so it is that one flour sample does not represent a whole delivery. But the sample could be an indication of inconsistency and therefore should always be checked and corrected.

   The two areas the miller looks at are measurement of samples within and between flour deliveries and wheat varieties and their blending. A biscuit manufacturer may find that his biscuits do not fit into the packet without a reduction in number. This is indicative of a flour that is more resistant than extensible, according to dough rheology apparatus. The solution lies in wheat selection, milling technique and/or treatment.

   Wheat selection is a matter of just that — selection. Should the higher reduction rolls be set too close, extensibility will be lost, by degree. A slight easing off often will do the trick. Treatment, where allowed, with sulfur dioxide, proteolytic enzymes or sodium metabisulphite also will help to relax or make the dough flow out and not recover so easily. Many manufacturers prefer to treat the flour themselves. Whichever it is, teamwork between the two will save trouble.

   Adding gluten to flour as part of a specification is one thing. But the miller is often tempted to add gluten to correct a flour fault when it is the subject of a complaint. Gluten, the “magic dust” of a miller (also called “gold dust” on account of its cost), often is readily available and can provide the solution to a problem.

   Analysis of the fault could show that gluten addition is not the answer. In fact, these days the addition of gluten is carefully controlled and monitored, for example by loss in weight feeders and on-line NIR instruments. These work on a feedback principal (gluten loop).


   The most difficult of all complaints to solve are those caused by sabotage. By its very nature this is unexpectedly inconsistent, even if perpetrated by the same individual. After all, that person does not want to be found out.

   The saboteur has the element of surprise on his side, is difficult to catch and is liable to cause internal suspicion among all manner of people. As with theft, sabotage is hard to prove. One way is to create a “sting” operation, or arrange circumstances in which the miscreant can be caught in the act. This relies on the finger of suspicion pointing in the right direction by the observation of a pattern of likely events.

   The reasons for sabotage all too often involve an employee with a grudge, an ambition thwarted or one who has been passed over for promotion. One such case involved a number of complaints of poor water absorption of flour from a large customer. The mill's laboratory sometimes detected this problem. Eventually, the common factor was observed as only happening during a particular shift, and not always then.

   A set-up was arranged. The mill was carefully set at 6 p.m.; a visit during the suspected shift at 3 a.m. showed the settings to be significantly different — way outside normal procedures. The senior shift miller eventually admitted deliberate sabotage because he had been passed over for promotion three times. The individual was subsequently fired, but it took two weeks to catch the culprit.

   The common procedure for handling any complaint is to record it carefully, circulate it to all relevant personnel, especially all department heads, and then use the laboratory, when possible, to identify the problem. Complaints about service or short weight can best be handled by administration.

   The resolution to each complaint will point to ways to redesign an operation in order to stop repetition. Because of cost, time and space limitations, it may be necessary to play the “percentage game” — determining the likelihood of recurrence and their consequences versus costs in putting matters right. Plants fortunate enough to have a PLC computerized manufacturing system may run a product tracking arrangement, which can identify packs and batches of flour made at particular times, leading back even to parcels of wheat. The use of ISO 9000, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and Good Manufacturing Practices also are helpful but, unfortunately, may not be the complete answer to handling problems and complaints.

   David Sugden, independent consultant to the grain industries, may be reached at The Coach House, Killigrews, Margaretting, Ingatestone, Essex CM4 0EZ, U.K. Tel: 44-1245-352048. Fax: 44-1245-251162.