When service is bad, vengeance is sweet
Angry consumers have found creative ways to seek satisfaction from companies that have mistreated them.
The other day, Budgeting in the Fun Stuff remarked on Frugal Scholar's rant about the excruciating customer service emanating from Virgin Mobile. Both bloggers asked readers which corporations are best and worst in the customer (dis)service department.
Apparently, they touched a hot button. They each got a slew of responses. Among them, we see that Comcast is roundly hated. Free Money Finance is locked in combat with that worthy organization -- as his saga unfolds, it's hard to tell whether Comcast is merely incompetent or deliberately obnoxious.
Later, what should I hear on NPR but this interesting story. It suggests a new tool for hacking through thickets of bad customer service, at least in some instances: small-claims court.
Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan was subjected to United Airlines' latest insult to passengers, a $25 charge for checking his bag. When they lost his luggage, they refused to refund his money. So he took them to small-claims court. So far, he has yet to see either the bag or the refund, but, as he notes, even though the action cost him $72 in court fees, revenge is sweet.
Turns out that it's actually really important in terms of economics. It's essentially vengeance, and vengeance has a technical definition, which is you're willing to harm yourself in order to impose harm on somebody else. Now when we do that, what the behavioral psychologists have learned, it makes us feel good. It lights up the pleasurable parts of the brain just like doing other things that make you feel good. So vengeance might actually be quite rational.
United crossed the wrong guy when its baggage handlers threw musician Dave Carroll's expensive guitar across the tarmac, with predictable results. His revenge came in the form of a hilarious (and infuriating) YouTube video that, says he, "became one of YouTube's greatest hits and caused an instant media frenzy across all major global networks and sources (including the likes of CNN, the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone Magazine & the BBC to name a few)" and spawned two more videos. He may never have extracted the $1,200 it cost to repair his guitar from United, but the resulting publicity boosted his career, probably returning that much and more in increased revenues.
Well, most of us don't have Dave Carroll's talent. But it's not hard to put up a talking-head video on YouTube describing some egregious example of customer disservice, and the idea of taking the SOBs to small claims court over money owed has its charms.
My own strategy is first to bypass the customer-service reps by tracking down the names of upper management at the corporate headquarters and firing off a dear-sir-you-cur letter. Often this will get results, or a simulacrum thereof.
If the go-over-their-heads gambit fails, then I head for a regulatory agency or an attorney general. Many of these customer-service fiascos amount to fraud or theft -- when they stonewall you or outright lie to you, they're ripping you off. The trick here is to go to the AG in the state where the company is headquartered and send a copy of your complaint to the AG in your own state.
When a company operates across state lines, as most of the faceless monsters that have developed immunity to customers do, then a fraudulent action becomes -- yes! -- a federal case. Corporate America, as we have seen by the vast corporate donations to political campaigns, really dislikes dealing with federal regulators. So if you can't get any action from a state attorney general, kick it up to the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, or the U.S. attorney general. You'd be surprised how fast a call from any of these entities will settle your complaint.
Frugal Scholar and Budgeting in the Fun Stuff asked readers about their choices for best and worst customer service. My all-time worst customer-service nightmare is Qwest, an outfit with whom I believe no one should ever do business.
The best? It's hard to think of many, since retailers and service providers now will openly tell you that the old saying to the effect that "the customer is always right" is dead wrong. CSRs apparently are encouraged to be rude and trained to bounce off complaints like tennis balls hitting a concrete wall. In my experience, the only outfit that's consistently shown excellent customer service is the Mayo Clinic.
My question to you is this: What has worked best for you to cut through a customer-disservice fiasco?
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Editor Bev O'Shea lives and works in the foothills of the Appalachians. A former copy editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Orlando Sentinel, she joined MSN Money in 2007. She's a fan of sunsets, college football and free shipping, among other things.
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A writer for MSN Money since January 2007, Donna Freedman won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. She also writes about smart money tactics for magazines and on her own site, Surviving and Thriving.
Mitch Lipka has been warning people about scams and shining light on questionable business practices for more than 20 years. Mitch, the consumer columnist for The Boston Globe, has also been a reporter and editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Consumer Reports, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and AOL. He won the 2010 New York Press Club award for best consumer reporting online and was honored in 2011 for his reporting on child product safety.
Marilyn Lewis is an award-winning writer with a passion for getting readers clear, straight information that helps them stay out of financial trouble. A former reporter for The San Jose Mercury News, she works from her home in Port Townsend, Wash. Contact her at MarilynLewis@Outlook.com.
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