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Avoiding Consumer Complaints

None of us likes criticism. But with widespread public and government attention being focused on consumer protection, it's imperative that businesses take every possible step to avoid conflicts with the consumer.

The possibility of warranted criticism can make it tempting to reduce expenses by: 1) buying slightly inferior products, 2)making exaggerated claims in the selling efforts, or 3) reducing the service department to a skeleton force.

It's precisely at times like these that companies must be especially concerned about guarding and strengthening their customer relationships in the areas of product and service reliability, to preserve integrity of their operation.

Consider taking a day away from your purchasing and selling efforts to gather information on how your organization is actually operating from the standpoint of consumer protection. Find out if there are problems, where they are, and analyze what should be done to correct the situations.


Consumer Reaction

Take the time to examine your company correspondence files and service department records. This will reveal the current consumer attitude toward your organization. Complaints will probably highlight principal problem areas and will point to those areas where corrective actions are indicated.

In fact, if you analyze those records over a year's time, you may find that some of the products you're selling are actually doing your firm harm or--worse yet--costing you in terms of warranty and out-of-warranty service work. Track your service costs and you may find that those low-cost, high-profit products you thought were such a great deal are actually providing less of a return than other higher cost, moderate profit items.

Determine whether there have been enough customer complaints to indicate that something is wrong. If so, what is being done about it?

If your products, services and operations aren't under attack, does it seem likely that they may soon come under fire? Finding this out will also involve discussion with your service people, since they're on the "front line" of problems which may now only be isolated incidents but which can become large problems very quickly.


Consumer Relations

The consumer (individual or business) is the life blood of your operation, and generally the most difficult to communicate with. In many companies, there are actually no firm policies for handling complaints. Or, the policy may be deliberately buck-passing, which turns the complaint back to the customer in the form of a form letter.

Establish a policy of checking back with the customer 30 or 60 days after the purchase of a total system or specific piece of hardware to see how the product is performing, how service was provided, and if you can be of further assistance.

This is extremely important if you want to remain in business in your community and prosper by having people tell others how well your company performs even after the sale.

It's a simple effort that can mean a lot to a person whether they purchased a $1,000 system or a $100,000 system.

Do you have a written policy for adjusting complaints?

You'd be surprised at how fast, courteous attention can defuse most of the complaints before they become major consumer problems. All that person wants to know is that someone cares. Many times problems have been turned into real benefits for the operation because you have:

Just a few minutes of time are taken in solving that customer's problems, but he or she will talk up your operation and your ability and desire to stand behind the products you sell.



Most consumer complaints center around warranties. Unless you're producing every piece of equipment yourself, there are generally other manufacturer's warranties involved. But that doesn't absolve you of any responsibility. Read the warranties that you receive with the product or systems you repackage and sell, and analyze them.

Most warranties are not written by the marketing, engineering or manufacturing departments, but rather by the firm's legal staff. They're designed to protect the company...not the customer.

Develop strong, clear, and concise customer warranties and get your supplying manufacturers to agree to support them.

These warranties should spell out what you and the manufacturer will do. They should detail any costs. They should specify the length of time covered. They should explain what the user must do. They should specify where the faulty product must be sent. They should detail which parts are covered and which are not, and who pays for what.

Experience has shown that big, serious problems like a system blowing up on the customer are always handled without question. Minor problems like a blown fuse aren't covered, but are generally taken care of after considerable discussion and extensive paperwork. That paperwork and discussion costs everyone time and money.

Many companies have broadened their warranty coverage for that reason.

Don't get preoccupied with protecting yourself from every little complaint that comes in the door. Remember that people who have had their problems solved will give your company a strong recommendation when asked. Individuals who have gotten a run-around or have been kept waiting while trying to have their problems solved will be outspoken in their criticism.

This does not mean that you shouldn't have legal counsel go over your warranty. But don't get bound up in legalities that tie your hands when working with an individual. Don't let the warranty be a piece of paper to hide behind every time someone walks in with a complaint. Defuse the problem quickly and effectively by listening attentively and working with the customer on a strong, positive solution. Don't expect the customer to have read all of the warranties for the equipment you sell and be fully familiar with all of the loopholes. You can point out several areas, but enforce your own organizations' warranty program. After all, while the supplier says he is concerned about your problems, he isn't as concerned as you are.

The community you sell in is your livelihood and you investment in the future. Individual firms cannot be replaced because people buy products from people not companies. They buy because they respect you as a local business person who will stand behind the products you sell. If you switch product lines they will switch with you because they know you are going to be there tomorrow.

So why worry about a long, complex written warranty? Your warranty is you...and your word.

Analyze your records every six months, or at least annually. Look at your service and complaint files. See if trends good or bad are developing with individual products or product lines that could affect your reputation. Review your warranty program annually to make sure that it is keeping pace with your reputation and your company's direction.

Show your customers that your warranty is the first thing they're buying. Next they're buying solutions to their needs. Finally, they're buying specific products.

When your warranty becomes your first selling tool it also becomes your most powerful selling tool.

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