4000 year old customer complaint

Picture of Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret
Complaint tablet to Ea Nasir 2020

The first documented customer complaint dates back to almost 4,000 years ago, around 1750 BC. The tablet inscribed with the complaint is located in the British Museum and is called “Complaint tablet to Ea-nasir.” It was sent to a merchant named Ea-nasir by a customer named Nanni. It was written in the language of “Akkadian Cuneiform” and delivered on a handmade clay tablet.

Here is the story.

Ea-nasir traveled to Dilum to buy copper and returned to sell it in Mesopotamia. On one particular occasion, he sold copper ingots to Nanni, who then sent his servant with the money to complete the transaction. Upon arriving, the servant concluded that the copper was substandard and it was thus not accepted. In response, Nanni created the cuneiform tablet for delivery to Ea-nasir.

Inscribed on it is the complaint to Ea-nasir about the copper being of the incorrect grade, and that this wasn’t the first time he had an issue with Ea-nasir’s copper. Nanni also complained that his servant (who handled the transaction) had been treated rudely. He stated that, at the time of writing, he had not accepted the copper, but had paid the money for it. Hold on! He was so angry that he even sent the money with the returned copper! Burn!!! He wanted there to be no mistake, this wasn’t about changing his mind on buying copper.

The fact that he was angry long enough to pull out some clay, roll it out, engrave it, bake it and then have his servant take it to Ea-nasir, that’s the incredible part. That’s not impulsively typing in a bad review on Amazon while you are bored waiting for a flight. That is pissed off!!!

I love that this complaint is the earliest known customer complaint, it couldn’t be better.

It almost reads like a script for an episode of Seinfeld.

Jerry

George, why didn’t you just tell your servant to relay a message that you were unsatisfied?

George

No way Jerry, I clay complaint tableted him!

Jerry

You clay-complained him?

George

You’re damn right I clay-complained him. He was even rude to Newman when he picked up the copper. I just sent Newman back to personally deliver the tablet.

Jerry

Well you’re never getting Copper from anyone else again once this gets out.

Kramer busts into Jerry’s apartment.

Kramer

Jerry! Did you hear that someone clay-complained a copper merchant in Mesopotamia? That guy is screwed!

George

Oh no what did I do? I’m never getting copper again. This is bad. It was supposed to be the summer of George!

Most of all, my favorite part of this complaint has got to be the “You were rude to my servant.” Well if you are going to “clay-complain” him, you might as well go all out, get it all off of your chest.

Now I have bought some substandard copper pipe from Home Depot before. I don’t think I even cared enough to return it. But customers do really get that upset, and much more so, I see it all the time in my travels.

I imagine, like me, you have seen customers far more angry than Nanni. In most cases, it’s very justified. Some of these incidents resulted in cancelation of multi-million dollar orders, lawsuits that carried on for years, and even driving regulatory organizations like the FDA to take action.

We don’t know how Ea-nasir reacted to the clay tablet with the strong language. He may have taken the time to go to the Mesopotamia Hallmark store equivalent and get an apology tablet and sent it back to Nanni with the money and a new set of copper for free. Or he could have simply jotted a quick message on a palm leaf that said, “May a thousand camels fertilize your living room!”, we’ll never know, (BTW that is a real saying I have heard my Lebanese grandmother say. More on her in the post-script if you like).

We have all seen a great variation of how people handle customers who complain. I’ve been through the full gamut. Putting an engineer on a plane the next day with a replacement part and personally fixing the issue, a big visit taking everyone out to dinner, Or just begging for forgiveness.

I have also seen suppliers simply ignore them. Their complaint is one of a thousand angry voices pilling up, and it’s often too much to handle.

I’m not interested in advising you on how to handle a displeased customer, everyone has their own style and the long-term impact of how that is handled is negligible.

What I am interested in is how the complaint fundamentally changes the supplier’s actions , and I’m not just talking about that specific issue. I want to know if it changes who they are.

Do they become a vendor that implements an improved copper inspection process that ensures that only the best copper gets to their customers; or do they go forward with business as usual and just hope for the best.

In the end, everything the supplier does in the short term is really for themselves, not the customer. The immediate reaction to the issue has little to do with the customer and everything to do with feeling like we, the supplier, can put the incident behind us. You feel better if you react quickly and beg for forgiveness, but the damage was done. Even if you are forgiven, the incident is not forgotten. There is a big difference between those two.

There needs to be a system in place that proactively mitigates issues. It needs to be in place in advance of problems because the energy generated by problems needs to have a destination for action. Without this destination, it just fades away, driving no action.

The following is a system I advise and one that should be set up fresh in each individual program.

Make a contract for customer satisfaction with your team. This creates the presence of the customer throughout the entire program. Call it the “Customer Quality Contract.”

What are the elements of this program (notice how I didn’t say product) that affect how the customer feels?

These can be anything from purchasing experience, receival and installation experience, product technology, product reliability, product cost, product long-term support, product service, etc.

Each of these has great complexity. For instance, let’s look at one we often take for granted, “experience when receiving the product.” Have you ever purchased an Apple product? The purchasing receival and unboxing are really nice; It feels a little like your birthday. This sets the entire tone of your relationship with the product and in turn, with the company. Unboxing an Apple product feels like opening an origami. The packaging is thought out so that not only do I not experience frustration, but there is a satisfying sense of interaction as well. Throughout the process of unboxing, I have never felt confused and all my possible missteps have already been mitigated. How far do they go with this product reception experience? The last Apple laptop and phone I purchased was ordered online and delivered to my work office within three hours. If I had purchased those items in the store I would have been greeted by an individual that felt like a cool new friend of mine. “Why did I feel this way?” I wonder, after I leave.

Well, firstly, they asked me what I did for work in an unrelated fashion to the sale. I have reason to believe they even did so with sincere interest because when I said that I need a fast processor because I use Final Cut Pro to edit videos, they didn’t then talk about processors or cost. Instead, they asked me about what kind of videos I make. I got going on how much I like making engineering videos for my business, I even forgot I was in there to purchase something for a bit. I started to feel bad about how much of their time I was taking even though they kept asking me questions like, “who are your customers?” or “What kind of engineering?.” They even commented that they had read a related article on this.

I never have issues with Apple products. I feel that the technical team committed to me and to not disrupting my work because they know how important time is to me. They made a magnetically attached power cable because they know me, my kids, or the dog are eventually going to trip on it and pull the laptop to the ground. Yes, if that happens I am not going to blame them, it’s my fault. But they made sure my work wasn’t interrupted on that future inevitable day because they know my work needs to get done.

If I do have an issue, I just call them and immediately I’m talking to a new friend who is going to make sure we resolve it. Sometimes, they even get another friend on the line who is an expert with my specific issue. They then prod at me to find out if anything else, no matter how small, has bothered me in the recent past, then they solve that issue too.

The Lexus brand was Toyota taking their contract with the customer to an entirely different level. They didn’t just want their customers to be satisfied with their cars, they wanted them to be thrilled. So, they made a new contract to achieve just that. When Lexus launched, they sent mechanics to people’s houses if even so much as a scuff was found on a piece of plastic in a wheel well. Today, when you go to the Lexus service center, you are talking with someone who respects your time and wants you to be thrilled.

Start with these questions to get your customer contract going:

“What odd situations could a customer end up in with our product from the moment it arrives?”

“What use case oddities have we not considered?” (use the Use Case 7 exercise here)

“What does our customer experience with the arrival and setup of our product? Do they feel more like they are excitedly opening a birthday present or worried like opening a plastic blister pack and knowing there is a 50/50 they are going to cut themselves?”

“What is the experience when they have an issue?”

“What happens when they have a question about the product?”

“How do they learn about the full functionality of your product?”

Make your customer quality contract. Do it today. Call your top program leads into a conference room at lunch, order some Chipotle and hash out a few ideas. Get it started. If you accomplish this, the customer will always be there with you through your development program, expressing their needs and desires at a time when you can still do something about it.

-Adam

This topic was also in last weeks Reliability Leader podcast episode. Check it out here or on any of your favorite streaming services.

P.S.

By the way, as I said, I’ve really heard that saying, “May a thousand camels fertilize your living room” is something my grandmother would really say. She was a 100% Lebanese girl who was born in Lawrence Massachusetts (a tough industrial town) to a family of doctors and engineers. But she mostly grew up (age 8+) on the streets of Brooklyn NYC, a survival of the fittest environment as much as any Serengeti plane with roaming lions.

When she was mad it was hysterical, and a little scary. She would play handball with us kids on the brick wall outside her house, smacking that hard rubber ball with her hand harder than any tennis racket I have seen hit a tennis ball. She would just go through us kids on a string, as one of us wore out from exhaustion or our hands hurt too much to keep going, she would just call in the next victim. Start with some smack talk and then offer a no mercy beatdown.

Afterwards, she would make us all lunch. This usually entailed her warming or toasting the bread she had made the previous day over an open tall gas flame on her stove. She would hold and turn the bread on the flame bare-handed, flames licking over her fingers.

But she had the softest hands. She had some secret hand moisturizing routine that was passed on for generations to the ladies in the family at a young age. This was important because the next day she would be shaking the hands of royalty, Kings and Princes of middle eastern countries, Russian Oligarchs, or business tycoons.

As part of my grandfather’s work they would host international dignitaries. He worked at the UN for the US government on international trade. So she was a part of the full customer experience for the guests and their families. Often, after their work in NYC, they would head out to California to introduce their guests to “American royalty.” She’d be shaking the hands of Marilyn Monroe and getting an embrace from Cary Grant just four days after the handball beatdown.

It was a weird feeling growing up knowing I would never do anything that would impress my grandparents. They were nice and always said they were proud of me, but I knew the truth. I came from a softer generation that didn’t keep a customer contract with the outside world the way they did.

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