Customer Complaints: How Important is Your Response?

Success in business requires business owners to respond to customer needs in the marketplace. Businesses that do not respond to customer needs and deliver what customers demand will lose sales to their competitors who do. Ignoring customer complaints about the product line is a common way to build up a reputation for poor customer service, which can hurt the brand. In more serious cases, ignoring customer complaints can expose businesses to liability.

Civil Liability for Ignoring Customer Complaints

Defective products often fail to meet customer needs. Defective products can also pose hazards to customers, such as by having sharp edges that can cut customers, breaking into small pieces that children can swallow, or having poor wiring that can overheat a unit and cause fires. When serious product defects occur, business owners must take steps to recall the products and make changes to the design.

There are three types of product defects in tort law: manufacturing defects, design defects, and marketing defects. Manufacturers are liable for manufacturing defects if the product departs from its intended design and causes an injury; customer complaints are normally irrelevant. Similarly, with marketing defects, customer complaints may not be determinative of the business’ liability. The same cannot be said for design defects.

Manufacturers Liability

Manufacturers may be liable for design defects if the foreseeable risks of harm posed by a product could have been reduced with the integration of a reasonable alternative design. Courts may not take into account customer attitudes and beliefs in determining the reasonableness of an alternative design, as customer attitudes do not determine whether an alternative design could have been produced at a reasonable cost. However, some courts will take consumer attitudes into account.

In any event, lawsuits relevant to defective products often include claims of negligence. A successful claim for negligence requires the plaintiff to prove beyond a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant breached a duty of care and that that breach caused an injury. For the causation element, courts will assess the foreseeability of an injury. Customer attitudes and complaints can strongly affect a determination of whether an injury was foreseeable. In some cases, the defect will not injure the customers; instead, the defect will only damage the product. Customers can also sue for a breach of an express or implied warranty.

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Consumer Attitudes

Any business should be monitoring consumer attitudes. Apart from the liability issues, if you track and file your customers complaints, and monitor customer attitudes, you can help your business determine the flaws in products and how they can be improved. Tracking consumer attitudes normally requires discussions with consumers to determine their expectations and their experiences with the product.

Some companies may perform market research or hire a firm that performs market research. Market research companies will interview customers, hold focus groups, and conduct surveys in order to determine customer attitudes. Professional market research companies can select a statistically random sample of customers or target customers specifically within the company’s intended market. The research companies collect the data from customers and compile it into a single, useful report with conclusions stemming from hard data. For many businesses, market research data is invaluable.

Customer Satisfaction Levels

A company may not require a market research company to become aware of particularly negative attitudes towards the company’s line or serious product defects. Serious defects will increase returns and warranty claims. In the modern age, consumers who feel that they have been wronged by a low-quality offering will often take to the Internet and broadcast their issue to as many of their peers as possible. Chat sites and web forums permit users to air their grievances. By quickly searching around on online forums, businesses can discover the lesser complaints about the product that may not motivate a return, but may prevent a further purchase decision.

Businesses that respond to customer needs proactively and adjust the product as necessary can help avoid negative consumer attitudes and prevent civil liability. Whether an injury is foreseeable from a defective product will always be an issue in a civil trial, and a business can hardly argue that injuries were not foreseeable if customers have been complaining about the very issue. In an age of highly informed consumers, massive jury awards, and constant competition from all over the world, giving the people what they want has never been more important.

Former journalist Ann Bailey compiles this research for businesses and their customer satisfaction departments.  By using an online service such as Gripevine, you can file your customers complaints in a clear, public manner which will define your company’s attitude to safety and satisfaction numbers.

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