How to Audit Customer Communication

An effective customer communication process contributes to the success of any organization’s quality management system, and ultimately, to the success of the organization itself. Conversely, many problems an organization experiences with its customers can be traced back to poor communication.

ISO 9001 Requirements
ISO 9001:2000, clause 7.2.3, Customer Communication, states an organization must determine and implement effective arrangements for communicating with customers in relation to:

a) product information,
b) inquiries, contracts or order handling, including amendments, and
c) customer feedback, including customer complaints.

To understand how to audit the customer communication process, we should first look at other ISO 9001:2000 requirements that relate directly or indirectly to customer communication, including:

5.2 – Top management must ensure that customer requirements are determined and are met with the aim of enhancing customer satisfaction.

5.6.2.b – The input to management review must include information on customer feedback.

7.2.1 – The organization must determine the requirements specified by the customer, as well as, any requirements not stated by the customer, but necessary for the specified or intended use, where known.

7.2.2 – The review of requirements must be conducted prior to the organization’s commitment to supply a product to the customer.

7.2.2 – Where the customer provides no documented statement of requirement, the customer requirements must be confirmed before acceptance.

7.5.4 – If any customer property is lost, damaged, or otherwise found to be unsuitable for use, this must be reported to the customer and records maintained.

8.2.1 – The organization must monitor information relating to the customer perception as to whether the organization has met customer requirements.

8.2.4 – Product release and service delivery can not proceed until all planned arrangements have been satisfactorily completed, unless otherwise approved by a relevant authority, and where applicable, by the customer.

8.3.b – One of the ways an organization may deal with nonconforming product is by authorizing its use, release, or acceptance under concession by a relevant authority and, where applicable, by the customer.

8.5.2.a – A documented procedure must be established to define requirements for reviewing nonconformities (including customer complaints).

ISO 9004 Guidance
In addition, ISO 9004:2000, clause 7.2, states that management should ensure the organization has defined mutually acceptable processes for communicating effectively and efficiently with its customers and other interested parties.

ISO 9004 also suggests that organizations implement and maintain such processes to ensure adequate understanding of the needs and expectations of its interested parties, and for translation into requirements for the organization.

Verifying Effectiveness
Verifying the effectiveness of customer communication is a critical component for achieving customer satisfaction. Although there is no specific requirement in ISO 9001:2000 for a documented procedure, depending on the size, complexity, and culture of the organization, it may be necessary to have one in order to ensure effective implementation of the customer communication process.

ISO 9000:2005 defines the term “customer” as the recipient of the product. It also gives examples of customers, including the “end user”.

Many organizations sell their products or services through dealers and retailers and may not be receiving orders directly from end users. It is important for the auditor to verify how the organization also communicates about the quality of its products and services to the end users, and to verify the mechanism for obtaining feedback (besides complaints) from the end users. The needs of the dealers and retailers may at times be different from those of the end users.

Audit Approach
As we’ve seen, customer communication falls in three general categories:

1. An organization’s general communication to existing or potential customers, such as advertisements or marketing information,
2. Specific information relating to a customer inquiry, requirement, or order, and
3. Communication in response to customer feedback and complaints.

General Communication

Where an organization receives orders from dealers and not the end users, the auditor should establish that the product information available to the end users (e.g., pamphlets, brochures, and web sites) describes the products and services adequately and accurately. The auditor should also try to establish how the customer needs have been identified and product specifications arrived at.

The auditor should verify the product information to confirm that it is readily available to customers or potential customers, and provides information that is up-to-date and accurate. The auditor could also query how often advertising material, web sites, and product catalogs are reviewed to reflect the organization’s current product offerings and services, and what measures are taken if a particular product is modified, discontinued, or no longer available.

Specific Communication

Some or all of the following means of an organization’s specific customer communication may be observed by the auditor:

Inquiries, contracts, or order handling, including amendments, e.g.,

• quotations
• order forms
• confirmation of order
• amendment to order
• delivery documentation
• invoices
• credit notes
• e-mail and general correspondence
• visit reports or notes to/from customer

Customer feedback and the complaints management process, e.g.,

• Letters in response to complaints
• Acknowledgments

Other areas where the auditor may observe the organization’s communication with customers are:

• During the ordering process where the customer provides no documented statement of requirement, the organization must have a system in place to obtain or confirm these customer requirements before accepting the order

• During the design and development process there may be considerable communication taking place between the organization and the customer

• During the process of authorizing product release or service delivery (under concession by the customer) prior to satisfactory completion of all planned product testing

• During the process of authorizing the use of nonconforming product by release or acceptance under concession by the customer

• During the process of gathering customer satisfaction data from customers on their perception as to how well products and services are meeting their requirements

The auditor would use normal trace methods to verify the conformity of these activities to the customer communication requirements of ISO 9001, as well as, assessing the effectiveness of communications with customers in the execution of the inquiry, contract, or order.

Note: This article was based one of the Auditing Practices Group papers at the ISO web site. Another paper at that site addresses the customer feedback and customer complaint processes.