Consumer-affairs sections channeling new clout for the customer

The people who handle coporate consumer affairs -- once limited to fielding gripes from irate customers -- have started spending less time behind the complaint window and more time in the board room.

In fact, to find the most effective customer relations department, don't ask the customers, one expert says.

"The best way to judge a consumer affairs department is not by how it handles complaints," Nell Stewart explains, "but on the input it has into other areas of the company."

Mrs. Stewart is director of consumer relations at the Texize division of Morton- Norwich Products Inc. and president of the 1,600-member Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals, in Business (SOCAP).

It is, she feels, more important what a consumer relations department does within the company after the complaint is handled, going from the customer back to the company with ideas for changes in labels, advertising, and even in the product itself.

This task makes consumer affairs the third major force in the business of product development, Mrs. Stewart maintains. The first is market research to see if there is a demand for the product.

The second is test marketing, where the product is sold on a limited basis -- in a few selected cities, for instance.

The third, consumer affairs, "allows the customers to have a say in company activity," suggesting new products, changes in the old, or elimination of bad ones, Mrs. Stewart says.

Consumer affairs has come a long way in a relatively short time, she notes. In 1968, she was the entire customer relations department at Texize and did little beyond handling complaints. Now, she and a staff of 10 spend much of their time consulting with the company's executives, chemists, and sales people, as well as answering customer inquiries.

"At many companies [consumer affairs departments] started out as window dressing," she says. "But they've been forced to be more than that."

One reason for this, she agrees, is the rise in consumer activism, led by people such as Ralph Nader. But the activists have served a more important function than making particular changes in certain companies she says.

"The activists have made the consumer more aware that they can be a voice."

The increased number of vocal consumers who are demanding satisfaction, Mrs. Stewart says, have had another effect on her profession. A frequent topic of discussion at consumer affairs meetings, such as the gathering of SOCAP members from New England she recently addressed in Boston, is the rise in the use of the third-party arbitration procedure to settle consumer-company disputes. In many parts of the country, local chapters of the Better Business Bureau provide third-party arbitrators. In some areas, this service is provided by state departments of consumer affairs.Often they are part of a state attorney general's office.

However, Mrs. Stewart asserts, consumers sometimes go to these state officials before they have given the company's consumer affairs department a chance to work out the problem. She admits there is a vicious circle operating here: People think the consumer affairs department cannot or will not help them. So they avoid it. And consumer afairs departments cannot prove their effectiveness if they don't receive any complaints.

Her first suggestion for getting a response from a department like hers: Write twice.

"The post office does a marvelous job. But letters can get lost," she says. "And they can get lost after they reach the company. So send two letters." Should both get through, the complaint is even more likely to be noticed, she adds.

It's also nice if the customer supplies complete information. Mrs. Stewart remembers one person who complained to the Federal Trade Commission. When an FTC official came to Texize with the complaint, she says with a chuckle, "we found six letters from this person in our files. Not one of them had a return address."

As to the question of who has more responsibility for the safe and effective use of a product -- the manufacturer or the customer -- Mrs. Stewart seems to feel the burden should be shared equally and that the rise of consumerism in recent years has obscured this idea.

"I get criticized for saying this," she said. "But the consumer has to take some responsibility for the way they use a product.

"A label can't list every problem that might come up. The customer has to have some background on how to use it. a company can't stimulate every situation in which a product might be used.

"You cannot hold a business accountable for knowledge gained after a product is marketed."

The FTC is one agency that consumer affairs officers deal with quite frequently, she added. The agency is under heavy criticism from business groups and many members of Congress who would like to see some of its powers curtailed. This experience, she feels, "will make the FTC a better agency when it's over."

"The FTC is a very necessary organization. But it can get into overkill," she charges. "You can't have effective product development if you have someone questioning every move."

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