Tuesday, October 09, 2012

SHAGGED BY BIG BUSINESS... and what you can do about it

Seriously, when did the customer stop being always right? Or even right a small percentage of the time, like maybe on holidays or on the customer’s birthday? When did the consumer become the whipping boy of dictatorial high school dropouts in charge of setting policy, and when did this become so commonplace that we feel we have no choice but to accept it? Even well-meaning acts of charity now come with Terms and Conditions… some, with outright threats.

As I sat in my car outside a Goodwill store the other day, ready to go in and donate a few things I’d been saving, I read something that made me want to throw up in a trash can and donate that. The sign on the building bore a stern warning: “Anything left outside will be considered illegal dumping. Violators will be prosecuted. POLICE TAKE NOTICE”.  Police? Prosecuted? Really? This charity, this nonprofit business, is going to press charges against John Doe for thoughtfully  contributing a gift that they can sell for actual cash. Are they insane?
It gets even worse with the folks who take your money in exchange for a product or service. At every turn, they are dictating the terms to you, telling you how it’s going to be, instead of the other way around. Who said they could do that, and when did it happen? This disrespect for the business relationship can show itself in the subtlest of ways. I recently made an online payment to a credit card, and the confirmation number was accompanied by “Payment Accepted”. Accepted? I’m giving you the money, remember? It’s up to me to decide if I want to give you my business, and it’s up to you to be grateful as hell for it, not give me the impression  you’re doing me a big favor and that you can, in fact, take me or leave me.
Then there are the more blatant manifestations. Have you ever noticed how used we are to being strong-armed into slapping a checkmark on the “Terms and Conditions” box for virtually everything? Most of the time we don’t even read it, because we know there is no room for negotiation. It was placed there by faceless lawyers long gone on their latest Scottish golf trip, who don’t even know you exist and don’t care. And what would be the point of asking a salesperson who showed up in North America fifteen minutes ago and  doesn’t understand English (but somehow managed to get a driver’s license) to read it with you, much less explain it?
It never occurs to us that this is the exact opposite of the way things ought to be, and used to be, even if we’re not old enough to remember it. The truth is, if we don’t check that box – which usually means relinquishing legal rights if the business relationship goes south – then there’s no deal. And nobody cares but us.
Clerks stopped listening to what you had to say, when the owner stopped being the clerk. When on-site proprietorship gave way to absentee ownership, and traditional small businesses gave way to big business, big bucks and big CEO salaries.
When the rare business actually follows up on a sale with a “we hope you’re satisfied” note, we’re shocked. Immediately we suspect an ulterior motive. If the note comes via email, we’ve been banged around so much we presume we’ve been hacked or pfished, or that any reply will shoehorn us into marketing databases from here to Smolensk (which it will).
Businesses shag us at will, and they never respect us in the morning. While that Love Boat has sailed and there's nothing you can do, there is a way to take some of  the sting out of it. All you need is patience, a telephone with a speaker (so your hands are free to multi-task) and the number of the corporate headquarters of the business that has disgusted you most recently. This will take hours, but it will pay off if you don’t give up.

I have a friend who went out of his way to take his car in for an oil change at a Wal-Mart where the posted hours clearly stated the auto shop was open until 8pm. When he got there at 6:50pm, he was told everyone had gone home, “just because”. He complained to store management, and eventually was compensated with a $10 gift card. Just warming up, he then called Wal-Mart Corporate and came away with a $100 gift certificate. His advice: Watch Perry Mason reruns while you loosen up; try to appear rational; be calmly unrelenting in explaining the compensation you feel you deserve, for whatever indignity you’ve been through; ask "What might be ethical in your performance here?";  note times, dates and individuals you contact. Most important of all: Enjoy it for the sport that it is .
At least let’s make ‘em buy us dinner.



  1. Thank you, thank you and thank you. I have had this feeling for a long time. I spent 31 years in retail serving the public who spent their hard earned dollars to buy a product from me so that I may earn a salary and live the American dream. I have left the retail industry and gone into another "public service" industry. Seems to me that everyone feels that "we" owe them something and why shouldn't they get it. I have become very disillusioned with most things in our country today.

    This post is timely since I just had a long telephone conversation with a customer service department regarding a current issue. I explained my side and was listened to intently, or so I thought. When the discussion was over and I stated what I wanted to change, I was offered several options. All of them would have cost me more money. My statement of, "this happened through no fault of mine and now you want me to spend more money to fix your problem" was glossed over and went on to offer me more costly options. I have had an account with this business for 13 years...have never been late on a payment (usually I pay early). When I then stated that I was not about to spend the money to fix their problem, I was told "I am sorry you feel that way sir".

    What have I missed here as I have gotten older? When did this change take place and why?

    Thank you for you post.

  2. This was humorous and enlightening at the same time. I am older and remember those times when business was more personal, but now I feel like it’s just too hard to complain. Life is moving so fast why stop and patronize some callous idiot who don’t give a shit.

  3. I work at a locally owned Ace Hardware in South Carolina. The two owners actually work in the store, and their wives and kids come in to help out once in a while, as well. Customers come in, and we know the regulars by name. It's our job to help folks find what they need. We don't just point and say, "Plumbing? Aisle 19." We walk them to the aisle, show them where to find what they need, and help them make a decision if necessary. People know that the owners are completely accessible-- they're the ones helping customers and running the register just as much as the paid employees. And let's say a guy comes in needing a engine belt for his lawnmower, it costs 22.50 with tax, but the guy only has a $20 on him? I've seen the owner adjust the price of the belt so it comes out to exactly $20. There are still places where folks care. But they are growing harder and harder to find.

  4. As a small business owner, I can totally relate to your post. We pride ourselves on providing the very best in customer service, and it is very difficult to do that when we have vendors that don't provide that same level of service to us. Instead, their motto seems to be "We're not happy until you're not happy".

    We recently had our bank sell our home mortgaging servicing to a private company (NOT a bank, as they keep telling us). Because they aren't subject to the same rules and regulations as a bank, they can do to us almost anything they want, up to and including foreclosing on our house so they can sell it for a larger profit, even though we pay on time. We didn't choose them, but when our bank decided they didn't want to abide by regulations, they are able to turn already lousy service over to a company that has even WORSE values and NO service. We have now become suspect and have to prove our every payment and conversation, or we will likely lose our home. We are no longer the customer, but a liability in their way of making more money. The sooner they can get us out of the way, the sooner they can turn a bigger profit. Sad. Sickening. But the new normal.