Consumers can be the eyes and ears of an organization. Taking account of complaints or comments can help reduce the possibility of a business being caught off-guard. Then finding itself embroiled in a crisis without warning.
Many organizations make it easy for people to complain about an unsatisfactory product, especially if they have an Internet connection. Most food packs now carry the address of the brand’s consumer relations or consumer affairs department. Also, a toll-free telephone number and e-mail address.
In the United States, the Food And Drug Administration (FDA) makes a point that it welcomes reports alerting it to problems and that they help ensure that the products for which they are responsible are safe and properly manufactured, labeled, and stored. The Administration adds: “Every report is important to [the] FDA. In each case, the information the consumer furnishes is evaluated to determine the serious problem and what follow-up is needed.”
When reviewing the information in such reports, the FDA considers the following factors:
- Is an illness or injury involved? If so, what is the health hazard?
- Is the illness possibly an allergic reaction to food already known to occur with that product?
- Is the problem life-threatening?
- Is the product likely to be associated with the problem?
- Is the problem likely to be widespread, or is this an isolated case?
- Is more information needed about the problem or the product?
- Is the product or problem within the jurisdiction of the FDA? Is it the responsibility of another federal agency or local or state government?
Depending on the seriousness of the problem, the FDA either investigates it immediately or covers it during the next inspection of the facility responsible for the product. Obviously, the top priority is given to products that have caused severe illness, injury, or life-threatening situations. Swollen cans or even the mislabeling of a product fall into this category.
When the FDA determines that the product could be a health hazard, an investigator could visit the consumer to obtain more detailed information and collect a sample of the product. This is usually an unopened or intact example of laboratory analysis. It should be required as evidence in a legal case.
When Do Investigators Start Their Involvement?
At the same time, depending on the seriousness of the matter, the investigator could also visit retailers, wholesalers, or manufacturers. Concerned to ascertain whether there had been any other complaints of a similar nature. Samples from the same production batch and code could also be collected for analysis. If the investigation revealed that the illness, injury, or death was caused by using the product and that the problem was widespread, a recall could be initiated to remove it from the marketplace. In addition, to prevent further illness or injury, the FDA could issue a press release. They would advise consumers not to use the product or to return it to the store where they bought it.
Peanuts are a perfect example. Many companies use peanuts as an ingredient in snacks. If peanuts spread to snacks not marketed as peanut-containing snacks, it could be a severe problem. Peanuts are the most common allergic ingredient in foods today. Mislabeling foods could mean death or injury, with the follow-up being fines, jail, and lawsuits. Also, note that this could include dogs that could fall victim to these allergies.
Nevertheless, the FDA points out that not all product problems present a health risk. Pieces of stems in a box of raisins would still be of concern but not a big one.
A curious anomaly in the FDA’s position concerning product recalls
The Administration can only advise a business to voluntarily recall a product. But, if this does not happen, the government has the power to close the factory.
In a background statement or ‘backgrounder’ on its website, the FDA declares: Consumer product reports serve as an essential alert system. More than 21 cents of every dollar consumers spend goes to products the FDA regulates. This amounts to more than $1.4 trillion a year. The FDA oversees over 90,000 US facilities where food, drugs, and other products are manufactured, processed, or stored. The FDA routinely collects samples from manufacturers, producers, supermarkets, drugstores, importers, and other sources to check quality, safety, and labeling. But FDA cannot be everywhere at all times. Therefore, consumer product reports are essential to the FDA’s monitoring system and help ensure that the products the agency regulates are safe, properly manufactured and stored, and correctly labeled.
Customer Service Tactics At Pillsbury
Today, many organizations have a very positive attitude toward consumer relations. The Pillsbury Company‘s Vice President Of Consumer Relations, Sally Shlosberg, was quoted as saying: “We very much want to hear from our consumers. Such dialogue tells us how our products are doing. Talking can provide valuable feedback in the case of a specific problem.”
At Pillsbury, all calls, letters, and e-mail messages would direct to the Minneapolis headquarters. Then handling by the consumer relations department. The staff of this department in the 90s would grow to as high as 60 trained associates. During the fall and winter, they would bring more associates for the peak baking seasons for the company’s popular products.
In 1997, the company recorded 640,000 consumer contacts. Sally Shlosberg anticipated they would probably hit 700 000 in 1998, largely due to Pillsbury’s enhanced accessibility. Though the number of contacts had increased, the breakdown remained the same. About two-thirds involved questions and only one-third related to complaints.
Every consumer contact was recorded, including product codes. Analysis of this information was ideal when looking for trends and how to take action, if necessary, replacement products. To create Customer Service Tactics that work, the customer must come first over the drive to save profitability.
Consumers who report problems could receive the offer of coupons, for example. Sally Shlosberg says, “If we get one call from a consumer whose cake will not rise, we regard it as an isolated incident, not necessarily due to pros quality. But, if we begin to receive several walls describing the same issue, that trend has a reflection in the analysis. When we see other products produced on the same day produce similar problems, we take steps to initial. the appropriate action.”
When Things Get Severe In The Food Industry
For problems of a severe nature, for example, where consumers’ health might be threatened, the company enacted emergency procedures. For cases of a compassionate nature, many food processors, including Pillsbury, sometimes used the standard customer service tactics released by the National Food Processors Association’s (NFPA) claims program. More than three-quarters of the Association’s members had used the service at one time or another. Including claims investigation, litigation management, and crisis management support. Like most food companies, the NFPA keeps records of chronic complainers, and names are checked against this list. The most frequent type of complaint involves a foreign body in a product. Next is that the product made someone ill.
The Association’s claims department investigates an average of some 3,500 claims annually. Only a small proportion is found to be fraudulent. More prevalent are claims from people trying to take advantage of liability laws.
Turning Complaints Into Customers That Repurchase
A study released at the 25th annual meeting of the Society Of Consumer Affairs Professionals In Business (SOCAP) in San Francisco, California, in 1998 revealed that what kept Americans buying a particular brand had less to do with pricing and merchandising than how well the company treated its customers. Over 5000 consumers would receive questions to measure how their interactions with companies affect their future purchasing decisions. The study found a direct correlation between buying intent and a customer’s experience with a company’s consumer affairs department. Nine of every ten consumers delighted with their experience said they would continue to buy the product or service. In contrast, only four out of every ten showed their dissatisfaction with their experience. They said they would remain loyal to the brand concerned.
The SOCAP Consumer Loyalty Study revealed that when consumers contacted a company’s consumer affairs department, they wanted courtesy and professionalism first and foremost (84.5%). Follow the amount of time the representative would prepare to spend with them and their problem. Encouragement to call again was rated (80.7%). The representative’s appreciation for the consumer’s business was remarked upon (79.2%) of those questioned.
Customer Trust Companies That Demonstrate Concern
88% of those who gave “ability to demonstrate concern and interest,” was the highest ranking, said they would be very likely to buy that company’s products again. Only 3% would be very unlikely to repurchase. The reaction to representatives who showed enthusiasm was similar. 88% would buy products on another occasion. Respondents would be very likely and only 3% unlikely to buy that company Lou Gargia, SOCA’s executive director. He said: “This survey offers positive proof that consumer affairs departments can build customer loyalty, resulting. in increased sales.” Indeed, the study also found that customers were satisfied with how a company handled their questions or complaints. They sometimes became more loyal than customers who had never experienced a problem.
The Society also produced another study in 1998, when America was battling against a recession. It underlined the importance of making quality customer service tactics a must if businesses were to retain continued brand loyalty. Several managers emphasized the importance of having staff sufficiently competent to resolve a complaint quickly and during the first phone call. Having to ring back greatly added to the cost of the operation.
The Measurement Of Customer Satisfaction And Loyalty
TARP is a global business based in Arlington, Virginia, that specializes in measuring customer satisfaction and loyalty. A 21-page document entitled Using Complaints for Quality Assurance Decisions cautions that complaints are not directly projectable to the marketplace. There is often a new complaint about a product or service that does not prove there is a real problem. The complaint is only a flag that suggests further exploration is prudent.
Second, the report also points out that if complaints go up, the incidence of the problem may not have doubled. Customers might have been open to a new method to complain. One of the most basic customer service tactics can be as simple as adding a toll-free phone system. That might double the complaints coming in when there was no change in product quality.
A third conclusion was that complaint data was not a substitute for market research. A study of the customers’ needs should happen with a survey to establish that estimates were correct. Complaint data was only a short-term flag of what might be going on. It was not, nor was it intended to be, all-encompassing.
TARP found that at least one-third of customers’ dissatisfaction with a product or service typically stemmed from either unfulfilled expectations or a lack of knowledge. Another third arose from company policies and procedures, and product defects caused the final.
Tony Hines On Crisis Management And Customer Service Tactics
Tony Hines, who heads up Leatherhead Food International’s crisis management operation, also underlined the importance of customer care officers. He said: “Very often, the customer care office will be the first point in a crisis. Especially, with the involvement of consumers. Its involvement in identifying complaint clusters is paramount to successful crisis management. Its value should always be considered. The customer care manager should also be incorporated into the crisis management team.”
“Companies should always have a board-level policy on consumer complaints. Such a policy should guide staff in managing complaints that may be fraudulent. No company wants involvement in a recall at any level. Due to a complaint where the motivation is only by financial reward. The policy must also give guidance on referring such claims to the police. The establishment of clear communication channels between the customer care manager and the crisis management team lessons confusion and false alarms.
“Customer care staff should train to recognize fraudulent claims, written and over the telephone.”
He listed as examples letters that:
- Seek cash or compensation by return;
- Badly handwritten, with spelling mistakes;
- Could look bad if just a scribble on a scrap of paper.
- Refer to non-existent dental or other practices.
- Contain phantom or photocopied receipts.
- Refer to a foreign body that is no longer available.
- Show the wrong date, brand, or company.
Hines added: “Naturally, one has to be exceptionally careful not to confuse a genuine complaint with a fraudulent one. The company’s policy on referring the matter to the police for further investigation must consider the severity of the claim, the time and trouble involved in pursuing prosecution, and the resultant publicity.”
Most importantly, he adds, “However, if the compensation culture is to tackle the responsible companies, they will want to play their part. Reducing the impact fraudulent claims have on the food and drinks industry.”
Customer Service Tactics For Customers That Complain
The other aspect of consumer complaints is compensation. ‘Consumer Complaints and Compensation’ a Comprehensive and Clear Reference for the Food Industry was published in late 2004. It supported Leatherhead Food International’s courses for training consumer care personnel to deal with complaints and inquiries. The author, Lisa Carson, a qualified solicitor, has advised food companies and trade associations on consumer handling. Especially in fraudulent complaints and product liability cases. She now works at a research center specializing in the food industry supply chains and corporate social responsibility.
She pointed out: “There is little doubt that America has headed towards a compensation culture. It is a difficult balance between compensating consumers adequately in the event of a genuine problem. Also, detecting the potentially fraudulent or exaggerated claims and protecting the economic interests of the business.” The book deals with both civil and criminal prosecutions. As well as, giving advice on how to spot possible fraudulent claims and when, why, and how much to recompense a genuine consumer.
Legislation That Protects Consumers
Hines points out that legislation exists to protect consumers from illness or harm when they eat or drink. He remarked: “It, therefore, follows that producers, manufacturers, importers, and retailers share the legal responsibility to ‘protect the health of the nation’. The legislation puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of this group to prevent the sale and consumption of food or drink that is unfit for consumption.”
Tony Hines regards the consumer relations department or consumer affairs officers as the eyes and ears of a company. One of the most effective customer service tactics is the production of a weekly analysis of the complaints the company receives and circulating them to directors and senior executives. Those responsible for production, quality assurance, purchasing, distribution, logistics, marketing, and sales. As well as, the managers of the producing factories, quickly alert all concerned to an emerging problem or trend. The value of such reports also underlines the need for information on product packs. That information would indicate the batch code as well as the involvement of the producing factory might include more than one location. Otherwise, human nature being what it is, every factory manager will defend their plant and blame another location.