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BMW's fear of lawsuits blinds it to a customer's idea

BMW's fear of lawsuits blinds it to a customer's idea
Pouring cold water on customer feedback, as BMW did, is foolish from a loyalty perspective and represents a reckless disregard for arguably the single most important source of business intelligence. (JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP/Getty Images)

Dr. Ron Aryel, a pediatrician whose patients include many disabled kids, had a brainstorm after recently buying a new BMW 328i Sports Wagon.

As part of his research for the purchase, he learned about BMW's new gesture-control technology, which is being incorporated in the carmaker's high-end 7 Series vehicles. It allows the driver to interact with the infotainment system by simply waving his or her hand.

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"That may be a stupid pet trick for most people," Aryel told me. "But it could also be a way for disabled people to more easily operate the car."

He wrote a letter to the head of BMW North America, Ludwig Willisch, letting him know that "there is an urgent need for adaptive controls to allow disabled persons to drive, and your gesture technology can be of immense help."

BMW's response: Thanks but no thanks. The company doesn't take suggestions from customers.

"They shut the door completely," a bewildered Aryel said.

This has become an all-too-common occurrence in the corporate world — and it needs to stop. Pouring cold water on customer feedback is foolish from a loyalty perspective and represents a reckless disregard for arguably the single most important source of business intelligence.

Aryel contacted me after reading my recent column involving an AT&T customer's similar experience. In that case, the customer wrote to AT&T's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, with suggestions for improving the company's wireless service and was told to pound sand.

Stephenson subsequently acknowledged that the company "blew it, plain and simple" by placing a fear of lawsuits ahead of a loyal customer's outreach.

BMW suffers from the same allergy to legal proceedings, and, like AT&T, it admitted after the fact that the company dropped the ball.

"Someone should have looked into this customer's letter a little more," said Thomas Plucinsky, a spokesman for BMW North America.

Jeffrey Shulman, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Washington, said companies face a legitimate risk of being dragged into court by people who believe their ideas were stolen without due recognition or compensation.

But this risk, he said, must be balanced with an awareness that it's crucial to promote and maintain customer loyalty and to encourage constructive feedback.

"There's value in having customers feel engaged," Shulman said. "A lot of times, they'll have ideas you never thought of."

Aryel thought he was on to something after checking out the gesture-control technology BMW introduced last month. As one of the few pediatricians in Reno who sees low-income Medicaid patients, he said many of the kids who come to his office have disabilities.

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Aryel also has cerebral palsy and is unable to drive on his own. His wife, a pediatric neurologist, drives the new Beemer.

In his letter to the carmaker, Aryel observed that drivers who lack the use of their legs have to install costly hand controls.

"BMW can help such drivers by implementing a full suite of voice commands, not just for calling on a cellphone but for any function, such as controlling the radio, activating turn signals or hazard lights or even specifying the speed at which they want the car to travel," he wrote.

"Similarly, gesture commands can serve similar purposes, empowering the driver to use a brief and efficient action to accomplish an essential task," Aryel said.

He received a letter in response from Eileen Paletta, BMW North America's executive customer communications manager. "We appreciate your enthusiasm for sharing your ideas with us," she said.

However, "ideas or suggestions received from customers or individuals outside of our business network aren't accepted," Paletta said, noting that Aryel's original letter was being returned and "no copies have been made or retained."

BMW's Plucinsky said the company has been sued by members of the public who believe their ideas were stolen. He declined to elaborate.

"We have to be very careful about how we source technologies," Plucinsky said.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that BMW could have responded more thoughtfully to Aryel's letter. "Unfortunately, that one got shut down a little early," Plucinsky said.

I get it. The stakes are high. The last thing a company wants is for ownership of a hot product to be disputed.

James Lattin, a marketing professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, recalled hearing from a General Mills exec that there was no upside to accepting suggestions from the public.

"You don't want to be taken to court by someone who says you stole their idea for pumpkin-apple corn fritter cereal," Lattin said.

No, you don't. But you also don't want to turn a deaf ear to suggestions for how that pumpkin-apple corn fritter cereal could be improved.

My solution: Any time a customer makes contact with an idea, clearly admit that the risk of lawsuits makes dialogue difficult and ask the customer to sign a litigation waiver before their suggestion would be considered.

This might seem off-putting to some people. But consumers whose sole intent is to improve a company's product or service likely will have no problem with agreeing to the company's terms.

It shouldn't have to be this way. But we also shouldn't have a situation where businesses have a blanket ban on suggestions from the very people who use their product on a daily basis.

"What BMW said to me is that a customer's ideas don't count," Aryel said. "They didn't want to hear from me."

They may now. Plucinsky said someone from the company's engineering division will be in touch.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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