The feedback of our users is very important to us. Openness and transparency are cornerstones of our quality policy: we have always strived to engage with users of the European patent system to improve the quality and efficiency of our products and services.
We aim to improve and increase these interactions and the arrival of new electronic tools has provided us with even simpler and more direct ways for us to engage with our customers.
User consultation takes many different forms:
Representatives of the legal profession and industry have always had observer status in the Administrative Council of the European Patent Organisation, something which is exceptional for an international organisation. This means that users’ views are heard before legislative, budgetary and technical matters are decided by the Organisation’s member states. Every year Business Europe and epi (the Institute of Professional Representatives before the European Patent Office) each nominate two representatives to participate in meetings of the Administrative Council. Business Europe and epi also send representatives to the meetings of the committees set up by the Council (Budget and Finance Committee, Technical and Operational Support Committee and Committee on Patent Law). This approach has facilitated an open and informed debate and has contributed significantly to the development of the European patent system. In the interest of transparency, Administrative Council documents are also now published on the EPO website after each session – giving the public access to Council documents, including preparatory documents for Council decisions.
A dedicated advisory body, the Standing Advisory Committee before the European Patent Office (SACEPO), was created in 1978 at the same time as the Office opened its doors, in order to involve users in the development of the European patent system. SACEPO brings together a wide range of experienced patent attorneys and representatives of industry (including small and medium-sized enterprises and large companies) to conduct a general review of EPO activities of the past year and projects for the future. Its members are nominated for a three-year term of office, and regular meetings hosted by the EPO President are held once a year. In addition, meetings of four specialist SACEPO sub-committees (Rules, Guidelines, Patent Information and E-Patent Process), dedicated to more technical matters, take place on a regular basis during the year.
In order to facilitate the early involvement of our users in shaping European patent law and practice, we recently put into place an electronic consultation process allowing users to comment on proposals for changes to procedures, rules and guidelines. Under the new web-based consultation platform, draft texts of proposed changes are published on the EPO website and anyone is invited to comment. All responses are analysed carefully, and used to make improvements to the texts under consideration. This tool has already proved extremely helpful. In the past two years, eight consultations have been put online and the response rates have been high, both from individual users and organisations. A number of important topics have been addressed, including patent law harmonisation, PCT matters and rules on the filing of divisional applications.
We have a Customer Relationship Management System with a central customer services helpdesk and a free telephone number in place to channel and track customers' requests and ensure that they receive timely and informative answers from the right experts. To continually improve the quality of these services, a link to a feedback form is systematically sent to all users who have been in contact with the EPO and is also available on our website. In addition, we regularly run short phone interviews with users who have recently been in touch with us to verify the quality of the service offered in terms of timeliness, quality of the answer, language skills and service orientation of our staff.
In addition to the various qualitative measures in place, we monitor customer satisfaction by running regular quantitative surveys (market research) with the help of independent research institutes. A solid and consistent methodology is used and samples are taken which are representative of our diverse groups of users. The results allow us to draw comparisons over a longer period of time, and identify trends and corrective actions. The surveys we run regularly are:
Our users are becoming increasingly global. That is why we encourage direct contact with our users around the world at different levels of the Office, including the President and Vice-Presidents, managers, patent examiners and legal experts. When attending international conferences in all regions, the EPO President routinely organises meetings with local industry representatives and patent attorneys to inform them personally about new developments at the EPO and gather their feedback.
In order to understand users’ needs on specific and complex issues, the EPO also regularly runs focus groups across Europe. These roundtable discussions usually involve patent attorneys and SME representatives. Focus groups were recently organised on the new Global Dossier service, for example.