May 20, 2003

Avoiding Consumer Complaints


None of us likes criticism. However, 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

" buying
slightly inferior products,

" making
exaggerated claims in the selling efforts or

" 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 the
integrity of their operation.

Consider taking a day away from your purchasing and selling
efforts to gather information on how your organization actually is 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 probably will 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 are selling actually are 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 actually are 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 also will involve
discussion with your service people, since they are on the "front
line" of problems that may now only be isolated incidents but which can
become large problems very quickly.

Consumer Relations

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

* Found
a real problem with a customer, which is unique and deserves attention.

* Taken
15 minutes to solve a minor problem and brought the individual back in
operation rather than forcing him to wait a week or more for service.

* Found
a true manufacturer flaw and have impressed on the customer that because of his
assistance in getting back to you he has helped both you and the manufacturer
produce a better product for everyone.

Just a few minutes of time are taken in solving that
customer's problems, but he 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 are producing every piece of equipment yourself, there generally are other
manufacturer's warranties involved. 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 are designed to protect the manufacturer ... not the customer.

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

Experience has shown that big, serious problems such as a
system blowing up on the customer are handled without question. Minor problems
such as a blown fuse are not covered but generally are 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 received a "run-around" or have been kept
waiting while trying to have their problems solved will be outspoken in their

This does not mean that you shouldn't have legal counsel go
over your warranty. 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 your
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.

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

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

About the author

G.A. "Andy" Marken is president of Marken Communications, Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif. He may be reached at [email protected].