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Consumer Complaints and Product Safety
Author: Eric Tarnow

With so much attention given to regulatory issues, product safety, recalls, etc., it might be easy to bypass another important segment of the production and distribution chain for consumer goods: your consumers.

Your handling of consumers’ concerns and complaints can go a long way towards your company’s positive image and success, but it also can contribute to enhancing your product quality, safety, and compliance efforts.

The ideas in this article were gleaned from my prior experience in manufacturing, with both large and small firms.  I’ve been in situations in which I had staffing and support, and situations in which I was the “Lone Ranger” in a sense, speaking directly with unhappy consumers.
This is stated up front to pre-empt the excuse that you need a large staff to accomplish some of the things you will read about. In all situations, we handled – and you should handle -- the process the same way through the same steps. If you have the staffing to produce and distribute your product and take profits, then you have the staffing to respond appropriately to consumers and complaints.

Let’s start with the basics.

The consumer is the life blood of your company.   They give their money in good faith, with basic expectations of product quality and reasonable after-purchase support.

Correspondingly, you are responsible to react in good faith and back your products.

If we were to sum up “How to Handle Consumer Complaints” in one word, it would be: “seriously”, regardless of the nature of the complaint or the perspective & and demeanor of the consumer. 

We have all experienced "questionable" complaints – the Grandma, for example, whose 2-year-old grandson was hit in the head when his friend threw a hard plastic toy across the room, and who deemed the product “dangerous” and wanted it recalled. Our handling of that was to calmly and respectfully obtain the pertinent information, and then, at our expense, retrieve the toy and send a different one.

There are two main areas in the resolution of any consumer complaint:

1) Resolve the issue with the consumer.  Make the consumer happy.  Listen to them.  Give them a refund or replacement. Of course, at some point, you may have to draw a line in the sand. For example, if the grandmother in the previous story had asked for high or unreasonable compensation, you might not have accommodated her, but, in general, you should do whatever is reasonable within your framework.

2) Investigate to determine the Root Cause(s) of the problem:

Check your records to see if you’ve had other similar complaints.
Check your internal and 3rd-party lab inspection & testing records to see if there is something which might have been a red flag.
Check on-hand inventory to see if the same problem exists.

Determine the depth and breadth of the problem – is this a systemic problem or an aberration?

If possible, see if there are similar complaints to other manufacturers of the same type of product.

And, whenever possible, get the product back from the consumer – at your expense.  There may be legally-based / "protect-yourself" reasons for this, but another primary reason is that you can't do a complete investigation without seeing the product – and the problem – first-hand; without correlating what you have in your hands with what the consumer has reported.

Based on these, determine appropriate Corrective Actions, if any.

Additionally, in conducting your investigation, look beyond the immediately obvious. Think further.

You will not only potentially satisfy the consumer, further your company’s good name, and protect your company, but you might just discover a latent issue before it becomes a major problem. You never know what you will learn and find once you listen to the consumer and start to investigate.

I was part of a situation several years ago which involved repeated similar consumer complaints about an infant bouncer.  Apparently, the seats / support frames were detaching and/or collapsing during use.  Fortunately, there were no reported injuries.

The returned products appeared to be undamaged, although some were returned with some of the assembly hardware still in their original shrink-wrapped packages, apparently unused.   Each returned bouncer was put through rigorous inspection and evaluation, including repeated assembly and disassembly.  We could find no defects or construction or design issues, and we could not duplicate the reported incidents. We even presented the returned bouncers to a few less-than-handy, non-technical people in our offices, and they were able to assemble the product with no problem. Of course, due to the number and frequency of the consumer complaints, we also advised CPSC of the issue, whose review determined that there was no need for regulatory action, recall, etc.

During our investigation, we stepped back and wondered if there might be something inherent in the assembly instructions which was leading so many consumers to improperly assemble the product, which was leading to the reported scenarios. After some discussion and debate, we determined that a few minor adjustments to the instructions and to the individual packaging of some of the hardware might make the assembly steps more clear to the consumer. Those minor changes were implemented, and the complaints soon dwindled and eventually ceased.

So, in summary, take all complaints seriously, take the same steps in each case, and take appropriate actions.

Again, you never know what you will learn and find when you listen to the consumer and start to investigate.

And one more thing, which was alluded to earlier:
If you think you see a pattern of complaints on a product, even if there are no reported injuries, and if you aren’t sure whether this puts you into a category which requires reporting to CPSC…… contact CPSC.
They will be glad to take your calls, and CPSC will work with you and will provide you with the benefits of their expertise and guidance.

Do not ignore it; do not hide it; avoid shortcuts; or the situation might grow into something much worse, for the consumer and for your company.

Eric Tarnow is Compliance & Regulatory Manager for TUV Rheinland NA
E-mail: etarnow@us.tuv.com

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