The key to safer products: Customer complaints

Oct. 25, 2007
Companies are always looking for ways to make their products safer for consumers.

Yet, often times, they fail to use the most-valuable information available to them, feedback from customers. When a customer contacts a company about its product, it should be considered advice on improving safety and the overall design from the person that really matters — the user.

Companies generally establish a customer service or “complaint” department that handles customer phone calls and letters when problems arise. These contacts are the first step in uncovering risks with a product if properly documented over time. However, customer-service representatives often fail to identify and report safety issues to engineering or product-development departments, and instead focus on simply making that customer happy.

Customer feedback is the single greatest tool for improving and developing products. It is also the first sign a product may have a flaw that must be immediately corrected. Carefully listening to this feedback lets companies save the costs of recalls and retrofits. Careful listening also lets companies respond better to customer needs and grab a leadership role in the marketplace by implementing innovations this free market research has identified. Companies should start by strengthening the training for service representatives. Most companies classify calls. However, most companies fail to adequately train reps so they can determine the appropriate response. In short, information that eventually gets to the engineering department is only as good as the reps who gather it from customers.

A critical next step is to formalize the link between customer complaints and engineering. It is not enough to send engineering reports that detail claims statistically. Design and testing teams should help develop the reporting process. After all, they know what needs to be monitored and the signs of design problems. In short, engineering and design teams understand the hazards associated with new products and redesigns. Suggestions from design and testing teams ensure that when a consumer contacts a service representative, enough information is gathered for the engineering teams to properly evaluate whether the smoking generator represents a threat or whether the smoke was the result of a belt failing, an intentional safety feature.

All in all, properly evaluating customer communications is essential to developing safe products.

Tamara L. Karel, Esq. is with the business law firm Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aronoff LLP, Cleveland. Got a question about safety? E-mail it to us at [email protected].

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