A television anchor and producer friend bought a premium sports utility vehicle (SUV) last year. Within a week of driving the vehicle, he changed his mind—either about having spent the kind of money that he did on it (close to Rs20 lakh) or he genuinely did not enjoy the ride. He, of course, claimed it was the latter.
Can you guess what his next move was? He convinced the dealer to take the vehicle back! The task wasn’t easy because goods once sold are not easy to return or be replaced. But he pleaded and cajoled the dealer to take the brand new SUV back, agreeing to accept a sum that was smaller than what he himself had paid.
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The friend lost Rs1.40 lakh on the car. Contacted recently for a renarration of the episode for this column, he sheepishly admitted that he had spent Rs50,000 on accessories before the car was returned!
The next story is related to the same man, but is not entirely linked to his experience in the automobile category. While AA (his initials) managed to return a product worth Rs20 lakh to the dealer, he could not get his brother’s faulty refrigerator replaced. He couldn’t manage to get him a refund either.
The refrigerator had faulty cooling. So, for the first six months, the company’s engineers tinkered with the product and changed its compressor twice. But changing the unit was not an option. The family went through a hellish experience for six months. “They just wouldn’t change the piece. The psychological damage of having to continuously get a brand new product repaired is heavy,” says AA.
Like AA’s brother in Delhi, Dinesh P. in Bareilly, who bought his first air conditioner after retirement this summer, feels cheated and has lost faith in the brand he purchased. In one month, the AC broke down twice. Although the compressor has been replaced, Dinesh is convinced that the dealer has sold him a fake.
Similar cases of major snags in home appliances abound and poor consumers are left high and dry. This is not to say that the companies are not attentive to consumer complaints and product servicing. In fact, Korean brands such as Samsung and LG have taken the lead in setting up elaborate and efficient service networks.
However, some concerns remain. For a start, executives in the consumer durables sector privately admit that companies take advantage of the general consumer mindset. Even now, despite increased awareness about consumer rights, most buyers are willing to live with a “below par” product. There’s general inertia about pursuing complaints or approaching consumer courts.
So, companies put off replacing products unless it’s an emergency. Then, companies in the consumer durables sector spend a minuscule 1-3% of their total sales on service. In their scheme of things, the service department is still viewed as a cost centre. And each replacement would add to that cost.
However, on paper, most companies have a policy for replacing defective products. Samsung, for instance, changes the product if it is dead on arrival, customers make repeated complaints about it, its spare parts are unavailable or the cost of repairing it is too high.
But the expert view is that good policies often face implementation issues. Very few people in the entire service chain of a company are truly empowered to take critical decisions, such as replacement of a product or granting a refund. Clearly, inadequate “empowerment” remains a major bottleneck in servicing as the senior executives in positions to order replacement of products are too busy to look speedily into complaints.
Suresh Khanna, former secretary general of the Consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturing Association (CEAMA), the industry body for the white goods and electronics sector, speaks up in defence of consumer durable makers. He says that the number of complaints as a percentage of volume sales is insignificant.
Over 15 million television sets are sold in India every year. The figure for refrigerators is five million a year. The air conditioner market grew 40% this year to touch 3.25 million units, according to Khanna. It is a high volume game and there could be some delays in addressing complaints, he adds.
But complain consumers must, and exercise their rights to get a flawless product. In fact, social media is a good way of putting your message across to the companies that refuse to listen. They are becoming increasingly responsive to this medium.
And, yes, there are consumer courts, too. However, CEAMA’s Khanna says that there are consumers with genuine problems and then there are those who like to create trouble. He remembers a case where an advocate in Indore took a company to court on grounds of “cheating”. The television set that he bought, he claimed, was 20.5 inches in size as opposed to 21 inches as advertised by the brand. Since it was a criminal case, the company’s managing director had to appear in the court.
The proposal to set up an industry ombudsman for complaints redressal, which was spiked because of differences within industry, must indeed be revived.
Shuchi Bansal is marketing and media editor with Mint. Comment at email@example.com