Quality Improvement: Customer Returns and the Change of Mind


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customer change of mind


For a long time now, the customer return of a product has been part of most retailers’ total offer. This allows their customers to buy in confidence and consider their purchase to be at minimal risk – ‘I can always take it back’. As a marketing tool to drive sales it’s been a success. But is that the only measure of its contribution?

In my experience The Customer Return can be a vital source of quality improvement, product development and a cost reduction opportunity:

Customer Returns have been a part of the offer and they have been a successful marketing tool.

The process of handling the return from the customer must be secured. This involves capturing a generic reason for the return, ideally one of 4 system entry codes of; Quality Problems, Transport Damage, Store Damage and Customer Change of Mind. In addition, returns should record any comments the customer would wish to make to support the reason code selected. Entry systems wise this is basic stuff, but on a weekend when the customer service department has a long queue of less than impressed people who want their money back, so accurate return reasons captured by the Team can be at times problematic. The need to fully understand how valuable customer returns is vital. It’s not just a recharge to the supplier exercise!!

Once the customer returns have been processed, then the data handling and reporting output needs to be user friendly, concise and a tool for communication on a very regular basis.

The more visual in the communication and presentation the better – try to avoid a spreadsheet developers wet dream of coloured boxes, drop down menus and macros!

This golden nugget of data opportunities can be part of the following strategic development and operational activities in the improvement of the product, its quality and competitiveness:

Product Development:

 Supplier Development:

Sourcing and Purchasing Development:

If the return rate for a range or product is high irrespective of reason, then what can be investigated at the design stage, on the shop floor or in the business negotiations? It may be a problem of quality, transit damage or poor design, but the question should always be asked why – yes even the customer change of minds!

Be imaginative and creative when analyzing the reasons for customer returns. Do not always accept that Change of Mind is what it is!! If you have customer comments, look for further clues in those statements. Set targets for return rates on all levels from a total company performance then down to specific product, range and category levels. Moving forward agree these with the whole supply chain including design and development. As with all these things it’s the patterns and trends that really highlight the golden nuggets for product improvement or even the decision to drop a range.

Do not always accept that Change of Mind is what it is!!


Many organisatons run customer feedback sessions and conduct surveys and very valuable they are too, but most retailers already have a huge stream of information and data that can help secure the right design, product and service with the correct quality at the right price  – it’s called Customer Returns…..

A new angle on Good Business…



capacity-capture-blogToday, customers assume that products, services and supply processes are secured and compliant on social and environmental performance. If your organization is still struggling with this then don’t bother with the rest of this article!!

Just meeting the requirements will and can never be good enough for your customer or your competitiveness. The phrase Capacity Capture is being used to describe activities that find and unlock new sources of value and waste elimination in a business and its supply chain.

Capacity Capture can be exemplified through the sharing economy that we are all now entering.  The examples below provide fertile ground for your customers to use their resources in more efficient and effective way:

  • Peer – Peer, Crowdfunding etc: lending and borrowing that cuts out the middle men and their fancy offices, expensive suits and expense accounts.
  • Renting office space by the hour instead of onerous and wasteful short/medium/long term lease agreements
  • Regular use of car hire on a by the minute charge or driverless Uber type transport instead of 48 month auto leasing agreements or heaven forbid actually owning a fast depreciating asset like a car.
  • Food cooked by your neighbour – local, fresh, tasty and low priced.

So how are the traditional businesses that have been with us for decades able to secure their future within a business environment that challenges their old and actually quite wasteful business models?

These traditional businesses now need to generate positive values. There are now examples on how companies have developed their product, service and supply chain to eliminate waste and provide positive value for their customers, suppliers and communities:

  • May 2016 saw Nissan launch a scheme allowing UK-based owners of the Nissan LEAF car and e-NV200 electric van models to sell back their vehicle battery’s stored energy to the National Grid.
  •  IKEA work with vendors and their communities to secure the benefits from a Supplier Development Programme. The final output from the process is a low priced, quality product. However, along the way; energy and water consumption are reduced, pollution is tackled, factory workers enjoy higher salaries and safer working conditions through the development of clean, efficient and lean production.
  • São Paulo-based Banco de Alimentos launched Reverse Delivery, an initiative in May 2016 to harness the power of the thousands of delivery drivers that return empty-handed after dropping off food. Participating restaurants (there are currently more than 35 signed up) ask the customer if they want to donate any food. The driver then collects the items from the customer when they deliver the meal and take it back to the restaurant, where it is picked up by Banco de Alimentos.
  • Adidas investing in automated footwear factories located in their developed markets. Manufacturing each pair of running shoes according to individual customer orders placed by smartphone. Reducing the lead time, inventory and environmental footprint whilst increasing local employment opportunities in the local community where the operation is based.

When looking at your operation and its supply chain ask yourself if any of the new business models could help you, your suppliers or customers to reduce or eliminate waste, and more importantly actually generate a positive value for the communities and stakeholders involved in the supply of your product or service.

Don’t just think in monetary terms: Tap into the sharing economy and its powerful desire to have better communities and social values with the creative approach of CAPACITY CAPTURE.

Doing ‘good’ business will be good for your business.

Video Presentation 1

Chemical Leasing Video

One of the big strengths of Robert Vernon Associations is the delivery of the message. We have strong experience in training development, whether its Classroom Presentations, Accelerated Learning activities or  Media programmes. The main aim being the presentation of a simple, concise and clear message in a jargon free way with humour and real engagement. Good examples of this can be viewed below in the Video presentations highlighting the Robert Vernon Associates approach to Good Business Growth:

An innovative solution to the challenges of running a dye house in India with environmental, quality and cost pressures – Chemical Leasing.

Business visual communications for Good Business Growth..


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For a long time I have been interested in visual business communications. How can we use graphics to provide simplicity, clarity and efficiency. In the world of work, there is an overload of reports, spreadsheets, emails and routines/procedures etc. Therefore its imperative that we become knowledge masters – not by just feeding our brains with more fact, figures and instructions but by summarising, indexing and prioritising what we receive and what we want to communicate. There are many tools to do this. These are the three I used regularly:

Flow Charts: A great tool to condense a massive amount of information in a concise and clear way. Flow Charts helps map the different steps in a process and then identify any weaknesses.  Its a great way for presenting and explaining long and detailed routines/procedures – very useful if used at heavy process driven organisations. If the map is too long and complicated then its not the chart’s fault, its the system you are working with!   And if you do produce a complicated flow chart then you have fertile ground for identifying problems, improving processes  and reducing waste.


Mind Maps: The tool for radiating thoughts in a creative process for the presenter and the audience.  The word and pictures are the hooks for the brain to think, remember, spread thoughts and ideas. They should always be developed and read in a clockwise manner. A good Mind Map is a treat for our brains which are usually overburdened with mono tone (monotonous ) written sentences. The brain is always craving a colourful image and hooks to make connections in your vast memory of knowledge, experience and creativity.


Mind Trees: This is my own developed tool based on other similar techniques and ideas. A Mind Tree is a great way for management to develop their plans and concepts and put them into a format that can be explained on one page. Then just as importantly Mind Trees can help operational co-workers  understand and implement: for example company business ideas, the factory customer goals, the latest management trends and organisational restructuring etc. Mind Trees have strict rules. There must be one goal, 4 x needs and then 12-16 x drivers . Then finally the described actions required to achieve the goal!


Business visuals should work to present themes, processes and ideas; grabbing attention, promoting comprehension and motivating people to use their precious brain space, energy and time to achieve real understanding and further creativity in the maintenance and implementation of their work.

Mark K. Astley: Robert Vernon Associates Ltd.

The Retail Store Practice: Understanding the customer experience to secure improvements..


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For all buying organisations and their supplier base, especially those working in the international sourcing industry, there is a removal from store practice_edited-1the customer experience and the supply chain. One of the classic examples on the consequences of this removal was in the sourcing of pizza cutters in China about 20 years ago. The local buying team and its vendor produced and supplied the circular knife as per dimensions and colour scheme – except it did not cut!! The team and the factory had no idea what a pizza cutter was! They did not understand the customer experience and probably did not know what a pizza was!

One of the ways to address this removal is to invest in and organise a Store Practice Training programme for co-workers and members of the supplier’s operational management team. The aim of these sessions are to understand, appreciate and help improve the following:

  • The retail and distribution network
  • The customer buying process – the mechanics of the store shelf
  • Understand the customers – Mrs Jones, the kids and her husband!
  • Product and Process Quality Improvements
  • Return as brand ambassadors and customer champions to the office and factory.
  • Start a local supplier development programme at the vendor factory.

My experience of these in-store training programmes was as a 3 days session, based at a retail unit near a distribution centre with opportunities for retail worker and customer interface. The profile of the participants was a mix of buyers, merchandisers, factory operators, supervisors and managers from various suppliers and locations.

The learning outcomes during these days were significant; understanding the product, the packaging requirements, how the stores operated as a sales machines and the application of Good Business Growth  – price, availability, quality and business ethics.

Upon completion of the training programme when everybody returned to their factories or offices, the next important stage of the training was to secure success and a return on investment by implementing a follow up action plan:

  • With presentation to co-workers back at the Office/factory shop floor and about their experience and what they learnt.
  • Create a Customer Champion within their organisation, using the Store Practice training course material as the base for how the Champion and the factory work together.
  • Create an atmosphere of pride, working for and supplying the brand – tied into the 4 Good Business Growth  parameters.

Creating and participating in a Store Practice training  is a considerable time and resources investment. The return on that investment can be considerable in:

  • Improving product quality and development at the suppliers
  • Align all parts in the supply chain to a core set of values and business idea.
  • Open the channels for cost savings and improvement just by seeing what happens in the retail and distribution process.
  • Create a’WE and not us and them..

A Store Practice training programme provides development and improvement opportunities for all participants including the retail co-workers. And finally it secures that pizzas can be cut by a knife that is sold, supplied and made by people who care about quality, price, ethics and is actually available for Mrs Jones and her family to buy.

Music: The lack of scarcity a signpost to the future..


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Music forecast..

Music has over the last 60 years been a good predictor to future developments in society and business. Now its actually  pointing huge clues to the future of selling and distribution!!

But first to set the scene, some examples of what music has foretold :

  • Rock and Roll coming of out of the US south in the early 1950’s foretold the sexual revolution to come.
  • The Beatles were precursors  to the changes in society and western religion.
  • Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground’s 15 minutes of fame prediction is now actually happening in the various media platforms that proliferate our lives.
  • 15 years ago the first crowd sourcing finance activities started with rock music fans helping their favourite bands with the costs of recording their next album.

So what is music predicting for the selling and distribution of objects?

In the early part of this century, recorded music started to become a free product. MP3 catalogues of popular music proliferated on independent web sites. Suddenly our hard drives were full of rock, pop and dance music files that only 5 years previous would have cost a small fortune to own on CD. The media corporations were slow to respond and they lost control of the situation. Eventually the IT industry regained that control  through the hardware suppliers(Apple) and streaming services (Spotify). However, the cat was out of the bag, the end users did not want to pay; physical music content had limited or no value. Professional musicians’ revenue streams now come through live concerts not CD or LP’s; a complete reversal to the glory days of 70’s – 90’s classic rock, soul and pop.

This short history of MP3 music  is now a serious pointer to the future development of selling and distribution of hard goods. The selling revolution started a few years ago with the disappearance  of the music stores along with other hard goods retailers fighting to stay in the game from downloading and internet retailers like Amazon.  The actual distribution of objects  will provide an even more radical future through the 3D printing of stuff.  Like the arrival of MP3 music , the independent web Torrent sites are now starting to store and make freely available the 3D printing file shares to make your own toys, kitchen ware, decorations, car parts, knitwear, machine components and the sinister guns etc!!  It’s not happening on a large scale just yet, but domestic 3D printers are available in niche electrical retailers and some local mass production 3D print workshops are starting to appear.

Originally selling and distribution of hard good’s objects was solely through the high street, now its also through daily home delivery by a white van and soon it could be on a printer near you!  It may not always be a total 3D printed product, it could be a combination of sources; eg apparel and home textile printing on blank garments/fabric and componentry/small parts printed at home for use with specifically cut and drilled laminated/wood panels ordered and then delivered by a driverless vehicle!

Like any forecast, this is a good guess, I am not that clever to be certain that 3D printing will be a success on a mass scale in the home or in small local production units. But it will be interesting to conjecture on this and the consequences for the whole Supply Chain around the world. That is something I leave for another article or for you dear reader to comment on.


Every industry that produces and sells objects will soon be put into the same place as the music business of 15 years ago. Does industry and business understand  the extent of what is going to happen?  It is coming! The unknown bit is the scale of its implementation..

This article has been inspired by a 40 year old academic book called Noise by the French author Jacque Attali. In this book he  predicted back in 1975 what actually happened to music ! Today Attali concludes that all objects are going the same way, where there is very little scarcity.  Any music or book can now be downloaded so they are no longer scarce, consequently their value has dropped considerably.   The idea of something  being scarce is now actually for most people –  time.. We have all the objects we need, but we are always short on time.  Again music  exemplifies this perfectly; we will not pay £4.00 for a CD  (we can access it whenever we want in a free for all buffet) but we will pay £60 to use our valuable time and watch artists play music in concert at a  huge arena with a light show providing a fantastic and memorable experience!

So in the very near future will your customers pay for stuff from China and India? Why bother when they can download it  and save money to enjoy something for that most valuable and now most scarce of commodities – time..

Mark K.Astley

The RACI Chart…

RACI banner

Over the last year I have published a number of Blog updates concerning Good Business Growth in the supply chain. Focusing on how  buying teams and their vendors can secure good quality products at a competitive price, delivered on time and supplied by companies that care.

I thought I would now try and bring some of these LinkedIn posts together in one activity matrix tool to secure understanding and integration in the business.

Whilst I was working for Tesco International Sourcing we worked extensively with the RACI Chart tool:

Responsible: Who shall achieve the task?

Accountable: Who is ultimately answerable?

Consulted: Who is the expert?

Informed: Who is to be kept up to date?

I found RACI charts to be a practical and concise way to determine who does what. They are great for clarifying roles and responsibilities in cross-functional/departmental projects and matrix processes.

The Supply Chain in all companies are moving out of their silos of function, it’s no longer possible for a colleague to just focus on their own specific narrow operation, and to be fair I have not really met anybody who thinks like this anymore! The RACI Chart is indispensable in helping the Buying teams, the Factory management and Logistic operators secure Good Business Growth.

I have completed a RACI below using 9 titles from my previous posts, where I have advocated what needs to be action in the modern supply chain. In this chart example I am more interested in securing the understanding of RACI than actually who does what – this will always be different according to organisations and their structures. A RACI is an excellent one page tool to present and agree on who the hell is doing what!!  If its a well thought out and compiled chart then it provides a  great way to start the task clarification process and then finalise/maintain activities in the day to day operations of the Supply Chain.

RACI Chart


Whilst writing different LinkedIn posts, I was very conscious that they could be read as conflicting with each other and I would then glibly bring them all together under one banner of Good Business Growth. The RACI Chart I hope avoids this glibness in a practical, concise and easy way – everybody should be aware of their own and their colleagues’ responsibilities and accountabilities. Of course in the above example, point 10 needs to be added for the traditional commercial, logistic and technical daily operations – oh for those days when we worked in our silos of function, we didn’t need a RACI then!!!

Mark K. Astley Robert Vernon Associates Ltd..

The Factory Visit – Good Conditions

Supplier Visit_edited-3

At the supplier – buyer factory visit what should be the agenda for a business meeting that shall also include working conditions, social and environmental compliance? Based on my own experience, whether it was textiles, furniture or ceramic/metal etc. there are basics that provide a framework for both parties to work with when conducting factory visits:

  • The Business Report
  • Full compliance audit reports – 2nd and 3rd party
  • Social and Environmental performance
  • Child Labour
  • Sub Supplier Management

1. The Business Report: To assure maintenance and continuity in compliance at the factory there shall be a written document at every visit. A brief, points driven hardcopy produced by the buyer before they depart that follows up previous reports, business decisions, visit results and latest corrective actions with noted responsibilities for the supplier or buyer to implement.

The  Compliance Agenda points for a factory visit:

2. The Audit Reports – 2nd and 3rd Party: The results and notes from current and previous compliance audits conducted by your own or 2nd/3rd party organisations are reviewed. What were the audit results and more importantly actions taken since; for non-conformances, improvements required or suggested? How has the supplier or even the buyer addressed these issues and implemented the requirements. Make a note to follow up these issues during a visit to the factory floor or production office.

3. Social and Environmental Performance: This part of the factory visit is about touring the shop floor and walking through all or a specific work section; making sample checks, quick observations securing the factory compliance in working conditions, safety and environmental performance as per the following suggestions:

  • Are machines safe and operated in a safe manner
  • Are emergency evacuations clear and apparatus in working order
  • Is the shop floor clean and tidy
  • Is the factory operator personal protection equipment in use
  • What are the discharges levels – noise, air and water? Does it look and smell okay. Are monitoring records maintained?
  • How are chemicals stored, handled and used
  • Medical emergency equipment and materials are available e.g. first aid box.
  • Conduct sample checks of the time keeping and attendance systems – follow up one or two randomly selected operators. Are their working hours recorded and what is the level of their overtime.

4. Child labour:

  • Conduct random sample checks on employee age records – are they maintained and can these operators be identified in the factory.
  • Are age records maintained with verifiable documents eg id cards, birth certificates etc..
  • Is the factory employing Young Workers – how does this work within the law, what are their ages.
  • Can employment records be obtained immediately on any factory operator who ‘looks’ young.
  • The Factory management understand the routines when there are potential issues of child labour being identified.

5. Sub Supplier Management:

  • Secure that the supplier maintains accurate and up to date records of its vendors who supply semi-finished, components or materials that are used in  the buyers finished products.
  • Check a randomly selected vendor:
  • When was the last visit by the factory management to one of its vendors?
  • Has the supplier secured the national legal and buyer requirements at its vendor
  • Have corrective actions been identified at the supplier’s vendors, how have theses been followed up and secured by management.

From Audit Project to Business Process

The above are a suggestion to include in a supplier visit agenda. It is not a full  audit, but rather a quick follow up and push for the factory and the buying team to keep compliance as a 365 days assurance. For both parties it’s a good temperature check on performance and highlight where things may be going astray. The results of the check can then be passed to more specialist colleagues for further and more detailed examination if serious areas of concern were noted during the visit.

Adding these points to factory visit agendas every time  would initially increase  the pressure on the supply chain. Eventually it would be managed on a day to day operational level – no longer a compliance project but a factory and supply chain process.

The main things to consider:

  • Conduct sample checks – random selection of operator records, factory departments, vendor performance reports.
  • Make it an observation exercise with aim to improve not punish
  • Always start with the previous visit actions
  • Depending on the regularity of visits, selected points can be reviewed on a rolling basis rather than every time.
  • Drive the issues of good working conditions, social management and environmental performance into the DNA of the supply chain as being good for business growth.


The factory visit by the buying team should be a very hands on operational activity. It is an excellent opportunity to achieve alignment if the meetings are within a structured framework of a practical agenda. The above can be one part of a factory visit agenda that is concise, practical and can be conducted through existing resources including commercial, logistics and technical personnel

For both the buyer and suppliers, the brand protection of the retailer and its customers is vital. In the supply chain this is everybody’s responsibility and everybody can play a part. When it comes to compliance I have seen too often that this is left to a company CSR colleague and very often a third party auditor to secure and maintain a supplier performance. This is not practical for 365 days or even fair and is actually a big risk for society, the environment and the business!!

Mark K. Astley

Quality: The Buyer – Factory Meeting



Quality 6 basics

At the supplier – buyer factory visit what  should be the agenda for a quality assurance meeting? Based on my own experience, whether it was textiles, furniture or ceramic/metal there are five basics that provide a framework for both parties to work with when at the factory:

  • The Business Report
  • The Quality Inspections
  • Safe and Durable
  • Packaging
  • Customer Experience Product Quality

1. The Business Report: To assure maintenance and continuity in the quality work there shall be a written document for every visit. A brief, points driven hardcopy produced by the buyer, that follows up  previous reports and records the latest actions with noted responsibilities for the supplier or buyer.

The agenda points for the factory visit:

2. The Quality Inspections: The results and notes from current and previous product inspections at the different manufacturing stages are sample checked during the visit. One of the key aspects to these quality inspections should be the viewpoint – is it through customer eyes or to a technical compliance in the specifications? Each viewpoint is valid. Both parties should have already agreed at what stage and to what criteria these inspections are conducted.

3. Safe and durable: This part of the factory visit  is very much about securing the product performance in terms of function and safe use by the customer.

  • Review product test requirements to secure that they are fully understood by both buyer and factory.
  • The product tests are conducted correctly and in the right conditions.
  • Approved external and in house testing facilities are used during the product tests.
  • Full documented test reports are available and valid.
  • Material Safety Data Sheets are available and valid.

4. The Packaging: Check that the packing materials, containers and their on site storage secures the specified performance requirements. Confirm that the materials are neat and clean and during specific seasons will not degrade because of the weather conditions.

5. Customer Experience Product Quality CEPQ: Both buyer and supplier review their customer focus throughout the factory operation in terms of the following.

  • Durability and Function: Confirm the performance of the material and components to secure that the product does ‘what it says on the tin’.
  • Safe to Use: Assure the correct chemical and substance content in the product. Confirm the security of small and loose parts.
  • Well Designed Product: Review design briefs and specifications. If the product is part of a range, secure its modularity e.g. correct dimensions, consistent and true colour/shades.
  • Customer Friendly: What is the after use appearance, are the buttons, switches convenient. Is the packaging sufficient and recyclable. Assembly and installation is easy for the customer.


The factory visit by the buyers technical or commercial team should be a very hands on operational activity. They are excellent opportunities to achieve alignment  if the meetings are within a structured framework of a practical agenda. The above are my suggestion for that framework. Two of the above I would like to stress as a must – The Business Report to secure continuity over time and changing personnel and CEPQ to secure customer quality.

One last point: stick with sandwiches for lunch when on factory visits!!

Mark K. Astley  Robert Vernon Associates

Innovation Through Good Business Growth…



Moving to innovation

Following on from my previous article regarding the Staircase Model. I recently discussed with an old friend in India about the four foundations that the staircase model is built on:

  • Quality
  • Price
  • Social and Environmental Assurance
  • Delivery on time.

We discussed adding ‘Partners in Innovation’ to the above. After some reflection I came to the conclusion that this is actually a result of achieving a good performance. Innovation maybe difficult within a business if there are a number of quality claims for high priced products that have inherent reputational risks and are not always available in the store or distribution centre! The business would be fire fighting and a long way from innovating.

Then in terms of the Staircase Model – where does Partnership Innovation come in:

Staircase Level 4:  When a factory achieves this level, the organisation and its buyers have a strong understanding of the following:

Buyer and supplier alignment at level 4 allows for a partnership of success between the organisations – wanting and needing each other to be successful traders/retailers or factories. This then becomes a fertile ground for Innovation in product  and production development; helping to secure capacity and supply agreements that allow investment in efficient technology, new materials and processes that reduce the consumption of resources. An Innovation Partnership secures profit and a fabulous offer for the customer with Democratic Design.


All my LinkedIn articles have essentially been about business doing good in terms of performance and its responsibilities to society, both of which compliment each other to achieve growth.

Good business growth needs to work on quality, price, ethical and delivery performance. Once performance is secured in all these 4 areas at the same time, it creates a virtuous circle of success that allows for partnerships and high investments.  The staircase model is an excellent framework to achieve improvement and development through an innovation partnership.

One last reflection: probably the most difficult stage in starting to work with the Staircase Model is to find the right organisations to begin the climb by having the right management attitude to achieve level 4.

Mark K. Astley – Robert Vernon Associates Ltd.