Have you ever ordered a meal or purchased a food product and not been satisfied with it? Did you make your feelings known? As a member of the food industry, I certainly hope you did. Food processors establish customer service departments for just that reason.

Research indicates that good customer service is good business. According to TARP, for every complaint that a company receives, there are up to 26 people who experienced a similar problem. Each person who had the problem will tell between 8 and 16 people about their experience. There are some who tell twenty or more. Do the math and you'll find that for every complaint received, there may be up to 500 other people unhappy with your product. The same survey indicates that 91 percent of unhappy customers never purchase those goods or services again, but if the company made an effort to remedy the problem, between 82 and 95 percent of customers will remain loyal.

In addition, the customer service department can serve as a second line of defense or an early warning system for quality and safety problems. The first line of defense is rugged quality, safety and sanitation programs. But, there are times when things slip through the cracks and the customer service department ends up raising a red flag. Customer service people should be trained to notify their managers when they receive unusual or special complaints. It may also make sense to use computer data entry systems to monitor trends. For example, if there are a rash of off-flavor complaints, foreign material issues or leakage problems, they would be flagged and reported to the quality group. If the event appears serious, the company can initiate an investigation and, in the worst-case scenario, a recall of some sort may be the result.

Customer service people should also be trained to recognize complaints that might result in a claim against the company. If someone alleges that he/she was injured as a result of a foreign material (a broken tooth on a rock or bone) or that a family member got sick from your product, the customer service person must not only try and ease the consumer's concerns, but also take steps to try and obtain the suspect product. Consumers may be asked to send the product to the company offices, or the customer service representative can make arrangements to have someone meet the consumer and pick up the product. Research indicates that it is more effective to have a third party pick up the suspect sample. Apparently, it is less intimidating for the consumer to deal with an independent person. There is also a greater chance that the consumer will surrender the sample to a third party.

Whether the company is large or small, whether it provides ingredients to the food industry, manufactures retail items or products for the foodservice industry, it must make a commitment to customer service. Make sure that your staff is properly trained to respond to complaints and that you build a system that encourages proper response, allows resolution of quality issues and is designed to make sure that your customers remain happy. It costs five times more to attract a new customer than to retain an old one, according to the TARP study. Keeping the customer happy, then, is one way to maintain your business.