Sunday, February 6, 2011

Learning to Trust the Manufacturer

As a consumer, I've had a distrustful attitude towards product manufacturers that dates back to my childhood experience as a young gamer. I remember when my brothers were trading bedrooms, somewhere along the moving process, one of the controllers to our Nintendo 64 game console was lost. After searching for it and realizing we had to purchase a new controller (with my especially frugal mother, this potentially meant waiting months), I remember being annoyed at the fact that controllers were console specific. I thought why couldn't the game manufacturers agree on some universal controller so I could just grab a controller from our Sony PlayStation and plug it into our Nintendo 64. As an adult I understand there are more issues involved than forcing you to purchase replacement products from the manufacturer. In this particular instance, I now realize manufacturers design controllers the way they do for a multitude of reasons, including functionality, comfort and aesthetics. Nonetheless, I considered it my general introduction to manufacturer specific products and I didn't like the lack of options I was presented with to deal with the problem.

Being aware of such products has led me to usually look everywhere but the manufacturer when I have an issue with a product. I will go online and read forums, call a knowledgeable friend, check retail stores for parts, start the trial and error of fixing the product myself, without contacting the manufacturer. I suppose the main reason for doing so is my assumption that the manufacturer will never offer me any kind of solution that doesn't involve having to purchase any necessary parts or a new product at their price. Another presumption of mine is that the manufacturer always sells things at full price and it is certainly cheaper to find the product at a retail store. I think it's pretty clear at this point that I don't consider the company to be a useful resource for product repair and replacement. I'd go further and say our consumer to company relationship is even slightly adversarial. I trust the brand enough to make a product worth buying, but I worry that they are so motivated by profit that they would consider an inquisition about repair as a perfect opportunity to sell more product.

This past week I was forced to give in and call the manufacturer of a product. This occurred because a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally broke a piece of my fiance's breast-milk pump. I know that sentence leaves a lot of room for all kinds of questions and strange mental images so I will elaborate. The pump basically has a suction cup (the horn shaped rubber component attached to the bottle) that facilitates the milks movement from the nipple into the attached bottle. When removing this suction cup from the bottle and switching it with a traditional, rubber nipple that the baby actually feeds from, we sometimes absentmindedly leave the suction cup on top of the nearest counter. On one particular day, the nearest counter was on top of the stove. Later on that same day, I had some friends over and offered to make them some tea. I placed the pot of water on the front left burner. The rear left burner had a protective lid on it, on top of which sat the suction cups. After ten minutes of conversation with my friends, I remembered the tea and decide to check on it. I noticed the water isn't boiling and figured maybe I used too much water and it was taking longer to heat up. I decided to return to  chatting with my friends and check on it in five minutes or so. As I was talking to them I picked up on a strange, burning smell and decided to go check the Tea again. I looked on the rear burner, where I forgot the suction cups where, and realized they are melting. Quickly, I shut off the rear burner and examined the suction cups to find they were clearly no longer usable.

As I knew there was no chance to repair the piece I began doing an internet search for the part. I couldn't find it sold individually anywhere. From prior experience trying to find similar parts at retail stores, I knew I wasn't going to find a replacement suction cup there. Looking over the manual that came with the pump, I found the contact phone number for the company, Learning Curve, and prepared to pay $50 or more for a component made entirely of flexible rubber. I dialed the number and as I waited on hold, I thought about how I should have paid more attention when I was making that tea. The hold time was exceptionally short. I probably waited less than a minute before speaking to a representative. I told the woman on the line the story about accidentally melting the suction cup. She thought it was funny and laughed a little as I recounted it. She then proceeded to set me up with an order of new suction cups and another part that goes inside of them I hadn't realized I'd also ruined. I prepared for her to ask for my payment information and she instead asked for my address. She said "OK, we'll have them out you in about one week" to which, still in disbelief, I could only say "So I don't have to pay for anything?". She reassured me that no, I did not have to pay for anything and that the replacement parts were free and would be here in no time. What? Where was the offer to buy an extra set of suction cups at half-price? Why didn't she ask me for a receipt number or UPC code or some other proof of purchase? Could I really have been this wrong when it came to calling the manufacturer for assistance?

I suppose this isn't the first time I've built a seemingly strong opinion almost entirely upon personal experience only to have it shattered when put to the test. From here on out I will definitely call the manufacturer about any necessary part before attempting to purchase the time. Who knows how many products I threw away to avoid the hassle of repair when I could have called the company and got any necessary parts free of charge. Next time, before reaching for my wallet, I'm reaching for the telephone and seeing what the company is willing to do about the problem.

I suppose I should have realized that manufacturer's would be more willing to help than I gave them credit for as customer service is such an important component of running a business. Every employer I've ever worked for had extensive training focusing on customer service skills and how to use them effectively. Why should the companies I contact be any different? In an online article titled "The Importance of Customer Service in Today's Marketplace" by DJ Schwab, I was reminded of why customer service is so valuable. Schwab demonstrates that companies should meet and exceed what customers expect as far as customer service is concerned. He warns companies that having poor customer service will lose them customers in the long run and urges companies to train their employees to showcase great customer service skills to increase customer loyalty. If the company goal is indeed to meet and exceed customer expectations, it's safe to say that Learning Curve did just that. The effect was go great it not only increased my loyalty as a customer (I know when purchasing future products, I can deal with problems easily) but also helped me feel more trustful of the companies I deal with as a consumer.

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