Consumer Relations - Consumer Rights, Responsibilities & Law

Consumer relations is often confused with marketing, and in fact it is important that the public relations professional work with the marketing professional when developing goals for a consumer relations program. However, consumer relations differ from marketing in that the goals of the program are to develop positive relationships with consumers rather than to sell a certain number of a product. It is necessary to note, however that the assumption is that more positive relationships with customers will result in higher sales.

Consumer Relations is an integral part of public relations and cannot be over looked. After all, who is the most important public in an organization, the customer is right? If an organization did not have customers, could not attracted them nor maintain them, how would the organization exist. What purpose would the organization serve? Consumers literally make or break an organizations future.

With that in mind, how does an organization create, attract and maintain consumers for their product? This is the fine line where Marketing and Public Relations often blurs. Marketing and Public Relations share some basic concepts such as research methods, selection of target audiences, development of communication and action plans as well as final evaluations. Even with these similarities, the two are not exactly the same. Marketing tends to be more product and field specific, where as, Public Relations is much broader.

Public Relations takes into account such things as internal relations, external non-customers and the surrounding environment, and overall consumer behavior. Therefore, with an understanding of the roles each plays in an organization it would seem a combination of the two would create the best-case scenario for attracting and maintaining new customers. ("Relationship Marketing" department, as it were, would be ideal.)

So, how would this "Relationship Marketing" department deal with the consumer? First, it would have to understand that consumers make buying decisions based on five buying habits that include, product quality, the organizations method of handling consumer complaints, how they handle a crisis, product safety, and trading practices. They must also understand that consumers want to be served and not just sold.

Consumers want, and need, products and services that are not only of good quality but useful as well. Finally, the "Relationship Department" has to be aware of how to "delight" customers so they will become "regular, repeat, and loyal" consumers. Achieving customer delight is done by first making a promise of consumer benefits (what the consumer has to gain) and second they must meet the consumer's expectations. The third step is to involve the employees so they can help deliver the product and service and fourth they must take into account the aftermath and maintenance of the customer base and service they provide.

Although Consumer Relations is only one aspect of an organization, it can easily be ranked among the highest in importance! Therefore building and maintaining a regular, repeat and loyal customer basis (customer relationship) is the proven lifeline to an organization.

In today's business environment, company success depends on understanding your customers and exceeding their demands for service. As products become less differentiated and demand growth slows, the profitability of a firm increasingly depends on its ability to find, expand and retain valuable customers.

Customer relationship management is critical to the profitability and long-term success of companies across all industries. This traditional and personalized consumer liaison management technique allows a company to identify and resolve problems, as well as create an extensive database. Exceptional customer service is the only thing that will differentiate your business from your competition. In order for a business to grow, it is therefore essential to develop a strong customer-focused culture.

It is far more cost-effective to build loyalty with existing customers than to keep replacing them. Value the customers and believe that consumer care is a vital part of our organization. Personal approach enables one to tackle all consumer issues effectively, creating positive company perceptions.

Consumer Rights
In the 20th century, the presence and influence of the market grew dramatically in consumer life. We began to purchase things from the market for a price. Soon, mass production and industrial production came into being, giving the consumer world an entirely new dimension. Urban consumers depend on the market for fulfillment of even their basic needs. This over-dependence on the market and the inherent profit motive in mass production and sales has given manufacturers, and dealers a good reason to exploit consumers. As a consumer, you would know how market products are constantly under-weight, of inferior quality and do not prescribe to quality standards specified by quality-control agencies. Consumers not only do not get value for their money but also often have to suffer losses and inconvenience due to market manipulations.

The 8 Consumer Rights

In order to safeguard consumer interest, consumer rights activists of the West initially envisioned 6 consumer rights, namely:

  1. Right to Safety
  2. Right to Information
  3. Right to Choice
  4. Right to be heard
  5. Right to Redress
  6. Right to consumer education
  7. These rights were conceptualized in the developed world's consumer context where consumers are wealthy and completely dependent on the market to fulfill their needs. These rights had to be redefined keeping in mind the realities of a developing country like India. Consequently, two very important rights were added viz.:

  8. Right to Basic Needs and
  9. Right to a healthy and sustained environment.

These two rights are very closely linked with the realities of developing countries where environment plays a very important role as a resource and support-structure for the people. In a country like India, a large section of the population looks for food security, assured safe water supply, shelter, education and health services. Most consumers relate very little to imported goods stacked in supermarkets or for choice among latest models of cars, as is the case in the developed world. For India's 1 billion population, food security and a safe environment are more pressing needs than any other consumer options and rights. The developing country natural resources also serve as a resource base for the developed world's industrial output.

Consumer Responsibility
While one likes to know about our rights and exercise them, hardly ever accord the same importance and urgency to our consumer responsibilities. Consumer rights and responsibilities are intertwined together and without sharing consumer responsibility, consumers will find it very difficult to enjoy their rights on a long-term basis.

Consumers need to tread cautiously in the market place. While buying a product, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you really need this product?
  2. For how long would you like to use it? Will it last as long as you would like it to?
  3. What are the health fallout of that product? If it is a food product, does it give you any health benefits? Check the labeling of the product to see the nutritional chart of the product.

Consumer can also empower himself by knowing the law. For e.g., ISI mark on bottled mineral water has been made mandatory by the government and now labelling of non-vegetarian ingredient in food products will also mandatory for the industry.

Consumer responsibility can play a very important role in not only checking the market but also in restricting unnecessary consumption. It is not the sole responsibility of the market or of the government to provide consumers with detailed information. A consumer, on his part, must make every effort to inform himself of the product or service. For example, if a consumer consumes a health product, he must make efforts to inform himself beforehand about its possible side effects, and must also exercise caution regarding his eating habits, diet and physical exercise, to take full advantage of the product.

Consumer responsibility is based on ethics and rationale. There is no definitive set of consumer responsibilities and a consumer must exercise restraint in consumption to consume responsibly. For example, conservation of the environment cannot be forced upon consumers but a consumer must make a conscious effort to reduce consumption, choose environment-friendly alternatives and conserve energy.

Consumer responsibility needs to be shouldered by different consumer segments. Every segment has its own special consumer profile and consumption patterns. These patterns define the kind of consumer responsibility that a segment must discharge.

Responsibility towards safe waste disposal
Most often we consume without sparing any thought for what's going to be left behind as waste. More and more percentage of waste generated in urban areas today consists of non-biodegradable waste. Urban consumers are making use of plastic, paper and cardboard packaging, disposables batteries, plastic throw-away pens, use and throw nappies, empty cans etc are becoming a common feature of an urban dustbin. India's urban population is around 300 million. By 2011, the total quantity of solid waste generated in urban areas is expected to cross 56 million tonnes, creating a waste management crisis for urban India. Consumers need to become accountable for their consumption patterns and their serious environmental and economic implications. The 4 Rs of consumption (Reduce, Recycle, Refuse and Reuse) are not just a consumer's prerogative but also his consumer responsibility.

Responsibility to endorse safer products - Eco-labelling
Eco-friendliness is an important criterion in judging a product's feasibility. It is a way of assessing how much damage a product has caused to the environment. 'Eco-mark' is one way of knowing which products conform to environmental standards and are more environment-friendly than others. Ecolabelling is a methodology practiced by many countries in the world, including India. The Indian government has formulated a scheme whereby some categories of products are awarded the 'Ecomark' if they conform to certain standards set by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Unfortunately, in India, the scheme has not taken off due to consumer apathy and lack of response. The market has manipulated this situation to lobby with the government to make Ecolabelling a voluntary scheme, which will allow manufacturers to disclose and cover information at will.

Consumer Bonding
The consumer movement needs active participation of consumers to lobby with the government, pressure the market to deliver better quality, and to support consumer rights campaigns. Empowerment of consumers by NGOs and public campaigns is a two-way process and without continuing consumer support, no campaign can flourish.

The concepts like Caveat Emptor (beware the buyer) and Caveat Venditor (beware the seller) together are still relevant for India.

Consumer Protection Act 1986
Industrial development in the field of manufactured goods has led to the influx of various consumer goods into the Indian market to cater to the needs of the consumers and a variety of services such as banking, financing, insurance, transport, housing construction, entertainment have been made available to the consumers.

In order to protect the consumers from exploitation and to save them from adulterated and substandard goods and deficient services the Consumer Protection Act came into force on 15th April, 1986 and it applies to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Author: Y. Babji, Vice President (Adm & Prog), Global Forum for Public Relations, Hyderabad

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