- David Bower
Updated April 2013
Consumer conflicts include all forms of conflict between a private consumer (or family) and a business which has sold them a product or service. It can also include, for practical purposes, situations where the customer is at work, and is buying something for his or her employer's use, as well as situations where the supplier is a unit of government, but one which is selling a product or service in the same manner as a private company.
Virtually everyone has experience of a product or service which did not work as expected, so this concept is universal.
An enormous number of consumer problems are resolved by simply returning the item, or with one or two phone calls. So for most purposes, a consumer conflict is considered to begin not when the consumer first identifies a problem with a product or service, but only after a first attempt has failed to get the business to repair the product, provide a refund or solve the problem in some other way.
Systems and structures for handling these conflicts vary greatly depending on the industry involved. Some types of businesses have elaborate procedures for claims, while others provide only a basic address or phone number of the business. States regulate certain kinds of transactions, and may provide consumer fraud assistance (e.g. a New York State arbitration procedure, available for claims that have been denied by a consumer's automobile insurance company.) Also, the Better Business Bureau provides mediation and arbitration services for many types of consumer complaints, while some entire industries, such as the automobile industry, provide dispute resolution systems for claims over defects. But most such conflicts, when they cannot be negotiated directly with the supplier, are still taken to Small Claims Court. These courts do not necessarily treat every case as a "court case"; increasingly, they provide mediation and other alternative dispute resolution options.
Some creative thinking about what the dispute is actually about may be to the consumer's advantage. For example, a customer bought an old pickup truck from the very back of a dealer's lot, for a few hundred dollars. The customer accepted the salesman's claim that while the mileage on the truck was high, the truck was in sound mechanical condition. But the next day, the customer had a mechanic inspect the truck, and the mechanic said the truck had not been maintained and the engine and transmission would break down any day. "Also," the mechanic added, "the odometer has been rolled back." The customer complained to the dealer that he was lied to about the condition of the truck, but the salesman denied ever having said the truck was in sound mechanical condition. The customer could have taken the dealer to Small Claims Court, but it would then be a matter of who was believed. So instead, the customer produced the mechanic's written summary, which noted that the odometer had been rolled back, and demanded that the dealer take back the truck and issue a refund on that basis. The dealer did so – because to sell a vehicle with an odometer that has been tampered with was against the law in that state, unless the seller could produce an explicit written acknowledgment by the buyer that the seller has disclosed this fact. Thus, defining the dispute as being "about" this violation, rather than the mechanical condition of the truck, gave the consumer more power.
Every consumer needs a basic understanding of what rights he or she has. These rights vary enormously depending on the location as well as the particular type of purchase, so there is no one simple solution, nor even a single source of information. But the key advice is to do your homework. For advice about your rights and appropriate dispute resolution avenues, checking with the Better Business Bureau in your city is wise, and also looking up what services are available from your state or city government. (Hint: In a search engine such as Google, try typing in just the phrase "consumer protection" and your state's name. Often, this will lead you quite quickly to a fairly comprehensive list of offices and services.)