Food communication in Finland: Product knowledge is key also to consumer service in the food sector

Authors: Heidi Halttunen and Pia Jännes

Akvamariini has specialized in food and beverage communications since its inception in 2004. It has also offered an outsourced consumer service to the industry for the past seven years. In this blog, we examine the significance of product knowledge for this service.

Product knowledge is a broad concept that needs to be managed by the consumer service provider. A broad understanding of products helps to respond to consumer feedback smoothly. In everyday consumer service, it is also important to understand what the consumer expects from the product: feedback often stems from a mismatch between expectations and experience. This also helps to interpret the consumer’s intent, which is not always clearly expressed. Feedback often relates to complex issues, so it is good to understand what, for example, sustainability means for a product or what the legislation says about labelling.

Managing brand image – the sum of many parts

Managing the communication of the dialogue is key in all situations and for all types of feedback. Consumers may be interested not only in the product itself, but also in advertising or packaging size, for example, or they may present their own product idea. The consumer service produced by Akvamariini also provides additional information on these topics when needed.

However, when it comes to food, the importance of substantive skills must be stressed: of course, safety, for example, is key. A wide range of allergies and hypersensitivities, in addition to preferences, determine consumer choices. Consumer services then really need to know what to respond to.

In addition to the product itself, packaging is at the heart of the issue. It is an important communication platform, and an increasing number of consumers are already scrutinising labels in the shop. This is due both to the growing awareness of consumers and to the possibility of special dietary requirements. For example, they may be interested in the animal origin of raw materials, allergenicity, lactose intolerance, nutritional information, celiac disease or gluten-free diets. On the other hand, the role of a particular raw material or the role of an additive may be considered. The origin and ethics of raw materials are also of interest, and one should be prepared to justify choices made from a sustainable perspective.

The consumer’s choice is often based on the appearance of the packaging. The consumer service representative should therefore also be able to justify the choices made in packaging design. In addition, long-term consumers of a product will notice changes in both packaging materials and raw materials, which should always be brought to the attention of the consumer service at the front end. Product knowledge therefore requires constant updating.

In turn, the quality of the product is affected by the actions of many people other than the producer: for example, the cold chain must be maintained at every stage of transport and home storage, if necessary. Consumers, on the other hand, tend to be more concerned about quality failures caused by stages in the food chain than about whether they are handling the product correctly (Kennedy et al. 2011). Where necessary, this issue must also be addressed in a suitable communication.

Does the consumer need a refund?

When considering refund in consumer services, it is important to understand the types of quality defects that can occur in a product and what causes them. This information is needed when deciding what kind of quality defect counts as a compensable defect. There are, in a sense, two types of reasons for a claim: either there is a defect in the product, or the consumer’s experience is incomplete for some other reason. For products with a wide distribution, quality defects are inevitable, and their degree of perceived annoyance at a personal level varies widely. For some consumers, even a clear defect will not cross the threshold for a complaint, while others expect the product to be exactly the same from one package to the next.

Some consumers make a complaint specifically to seek refund, but sometimes it is because they want information. The need for information may, for example, be due to concerns about the quality of other products in the same batch or the safety of the product consumed. Good product knowledge will help the consumer service agent to understand and clarify the cause of the concern. Feedback about a concern or fear may be related to a real or perceived situation, and the reasons behind the concern may be very diverse. In any case, a competent and accurate response will always alleviate any potential consumer concern and increase trust in the brand.

At Akvamariini’s consumer service standard credit assessments are routinely prepared and carried out, but we also identify situations where greater consideration is required.

Knowledge, understanding and skills for successful communication

The name says it all: the consumer service perspective must be close to the consumer’s world. The consumer service provider’s work is successful and smooth from the point of view of all parties involved when the consumer can easily get through the complaint with the necessary information and stays informed throughout the process. The channels of contact should therefore be clearly defined and easy to find.

Any uncertainty on the part of the consumer has an immediate impact on the smooth flow of communication. And it cannot be over-emphasised that the consumer service provider must have up-to-date information on range, availability, changes in raw materials and possible promotions. Whatever happens around a product, it will raise questions for the consumer service: consumers are particularly interested in brands that feel like their own, and rightly so!

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