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Great Walks answers an important question about returning defected outdoor gear.

Q: Over the years I've had a mixed response from outdoor gear manufacturers if I've ever returned a defected product before its warranty date was up. Do you have any advice on this?
Shannon Miller
Bulla, Vic

A: Me too, Shannon! And to be honest it doesn't always make sense, especially when compared to the warranty process in the USA or Europe, where companies tend to focus on making customers happy rather more than here.

There is a distinction that I should first make clear before going further. What I think you are asking about is the manufacturer's warranty that covers defects and faults from when you purchase the product to the end of its ‘usable lifetime’ and does not cover any lack of satisfaction with the product. Some manufacturers and retailers choose to add a ‘satisfaction guarantee’, which allows you to return or exchange a product should it not fulfill your expectations after you have started using it.

OK, from my experience there seems to be two major issues with the warranty process in Australia. The first one is a clash between consumer expectations and company culture. I’ve seen people become half-crazed in shops and on the phone to the manufacturer or distributor in an attempt to voice their belief that a product has failed.

The best way to approach a warranty claim is to try and speak the same language as the manufacturer. Study the instructions and company website, try to get an idea if they are interested in customer feedback. It is surprising how many companies don't want to talk to their end-users! If they encourage feedback, then try the, “I really like your product, the design for my [insert use] was excellent, but I was surprised when…” approach to customer service or the marketing department. Be positive about your involvement with outdoor activities and groups as companies will normally try to keep opinion-leaders and advocates happy.

The second issue is, what actually is a ‘usable lifetime’ for any product? I am quite convinced that most products are designed to fail after about 100 days of continuous heavy, rough usage. That equates to about a 5-year lifetime for most products, bearing in mind that most product usage is not very heavy. So the really tricky part is, has the product reached the end of its ‘usable life’?

Many manufacturers dispute warranty claims because they claim incorrect or inappropriate use, and the best course here is to write a letter to the company owner or CEO, but make sure you address it them by name. Use the same approach as before, but this time as a hand-written letter to the big-boss – it can work wonders! After this, the next level is to threaten to send a report to the ACCC. Maligning products on websites doesn’t seem to make much difference as manufacturers rely on retailer recommendation to sell their products, but that may change in time.

So if all that doesn’t work, what is your final option? Well, try what ‘demanding’ customers do, and make a fuss at the shop counter where you purchased the product until they give in, it’s a unpleasant thing to do for everyone involved, but you’d be surprised how often it works!

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