Maybe you’re old enough to remember a time when the customer was always right. Back then, employees were friendly “yes” men and women who served you with a smile. Deals were made with a handshake. You paid less, but you felt as if you got more. You didn’t need to be the world’s smartest consumer because businesses treated you honestly and fairly.
But today, people don’t trust companies to do the right thing — probably because companies often don’t do the right thing. Businesses assume the customer is wrong unless proven otherwise. And the reason no one is screaming to high heaven about this is that the decline of trust and customer service happened slowly.
The big picture for the smartest consumers
Let’s have a look at the big picture.
Gallup has tracked the gradual decline of trust in big business for more than four decades. Note the trendline for “very little,” which jumped from 20 percent in the early 70s to above 30 percent by 2020. Note, also, the corresponding drop in “quite a lot.”
We don’t have corresponding numbers for customer satisfaction. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of a steep decline in the 60s and 70s. By the time the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) started tracking customer satisfaction, the damage had already been already done. From 1995 to 2020, the average customer satisfaction score for all U.S. businesses flatlined below 80. In other words, American customer service is getting a letter grade of C+ at best.
Businesses would like you to think the decline in service is a myth. That’s nonsense. There’s hard data that shows our trust in businesses and the customer experience we receive is just meh.
But I’m an optimist. I’ve chronicled this carnage in Consumerland. The dramatic loss of trust. The so-so customer satisfaction scores. I believe we can recover what we’ve lost. But it’s up to you to do that.
So let’s run through the basics of how to be the world’s smartest consumer. What do you want and how do you get it? I’ll dissect the problem (warning: it’s not what you think it is). And I’ll explain how the right attitude and tools can help you resolve almost any consumer issue that you might face.
What do you want?
Consumers just want a quality product at a fair price. But what does that mean?
Quality means the product operates as advertised. It doesn’t break down a few weeks after the warranty runs out. Quality means no surprises — it says what it does and does what it says. A company’s commitment to quality means it is constantly trying to improve its product or service — not cutting it.
A fair price means a rate that’s reasonable to both parties involved in the transaction. It’s based on agreed-upon conditions, promised quality and timeliness of performance. It doesn’t mean “free” (that’s not reasonable) or fair only to one side (monopoly pricing). It allows the company to make fair and reasonable profit.
Keep your expectations reasonable
Most of the time, all parties can agree to these two things. But in my consumer advocacy practice, I’ve also met customers and companies with unreasonable expectations. Some companies, for example, believe they can cut back on quality and service to achieve excessive profits. And many customers want something for “free.”
Both are wrong.
So what’s the problem?
The service you get today is in no way comparable to the service you used to get. You don’t have to be a smart consumer to know that (but it helps). Companies reduced the quality — and sometimes even the quantity — of their products and then blamed you. They recruited armies of loyalists to promote these stripped-down products and paid them off with free merchandise. They also lied about the products.
Research suggests that bad customer service is profitable. In the short term, offering customers less can boost a company’s bottom line. For example, you can look at an airline that starts charging fees for something that was once included in the ticket price and see the increased revenues.
But one thing the research doesn’t track, because it can’t, is the long-term effect on customers like you. See, we don’t forget the betrayal. And when we have a real choice, we will never do business with an abusive company again. Over the long term, providing bad service is no route to better profits.
It’s not your fault
Remarkably, companies have managed to push the blame for this erosion of quality and service onto you, their customer.
That’s right, bad service is your fault. Service has declined and customer dissatisfaction has soared because you’ve asked for cheaper products and services. Well, what did you expect?
The argument that businesses make is simple and seductive: If you keep buying cheaper products, then we have no choice but to cut the quality or the service.
Seriously, you can’t expect a $500 laptop computer to come with outstanding customer service. You’ll have to pay extra for “customer support.” Nor should you expect a discount airfare that includes a checked bag, a drink, and a meal. You get what you pay for — and if you want something cheap, you should lower your expectations.
A free market argument?
The argument becomes even more seductive when you mix in politics. Some consumers believe that in a free market, a company should be able to offer any product or service it wants, as long as it’s legal. For them, paying more to get more makes sense, and getting something for nothing does not. That’s how to be the world’s smartest consumer.
Or is it?
Hang on. Did any of us ask for a stripped-down product? No. The only thing we’re guilty of — if you can call it that — is buying cheaper products. But that isn’t new. People have been buying less expensive products since there have been products to buy.
Oddly, blaming the victim also appeals to our common sense. After all, shouldn’t you pay more if you want more?
But that’s a fallacy, too. In their never-ending quest for profits, companies are cutting corners. A one-pound package of pasta becomes 13 ounces — but the price remains the same. That’s called food inflation. These are word games corporations play with us.
It’s not pay-more-get-more. It’s pay-the-same-get-less.
Don’t be a pushover — or a prima donna
Many companies use clever ads and marketing to convince you that you deserve less. It’s enough to fool even the smartest consumer.
Ask yourself one or two questions if you think you may have fallen for it: Do you believe that because you found a bargain, you should have an inferior product?
Maybe you got some points or miles with your latest purchase, which gives you something “free.” So do you deserve those restrictive booking policies? If you agree with any of this, then maybe you’re a pushover consumer. (For the record, you deserve the product that the company promised you. Price has nothing to do with it.)
Pushovers lack the confidence to stand on their own two feet during any kind of consumer dispute. They wilt under the bright lights of the company’s attention. They get nowhere because they don’t think they deserve to go anywhere.
Just as dangerous is the consumer who believes they’re entitled to more. The two main causes of prima-donna consumerism are advertising and arrogance. Companies promise you the world in the large print of advertising, but then remove it in the fine print. If you really believe that popping open a Coke will “open happiness” or that you’re going to “love” your next visit to McDonald’s, or that you’ll really “think different” when buying an Apple product, then you’re in danger of becoming someone who expects too much. Prima-donna consumers are impossible to please because their expectations are too high.
Pushover consumers are highly profitable because when a company tells them they have no case, they believe it. They accept whatever product or service a company sells them, usually without question. Prima donnas, on the other hand, are profitable in another way. They buy the advertising slogans and then believe they are, in the words of L’Oreal, “worth it.” The ones who complain are easily dismissed as being too demanding — because they are.
Either way, the company wins, and you lose. Neither attitude will help you become the world’s smartest consumer.
What happens when you need help
When you call a company, it doesn’t want to help you. Nearly half of all call centers are primarily “cost-driven,” according to the National Association of Call Centers. In other words, helping you remains a secondary consideration.
What do companies want, in addition to saving money?
Protection from their customers
It sounds weird, but corporations want call centers to shield them and their executives from unhappy customers. Companies can and do claim they’re doing “more than ever” to help their customers by investing in infrastructure and information technology. But in the process, they create multiple layers of protection, including an “I-can’t-help-you” call center, a web form that leads nowhere, and automated chat functions. Meanwhile, the key executives in charge of customer service are shielded from the customers they’re supposed to help.
A sales opportunity
Ever notice the sales pitches when you’re on “hold”? The scripted offers for an upgrade even while you’re trying to resolve your problem? Yes, in an effort to justify the expense of a new call center with all of the latest bells and whistles, companies are ramping up the sales efforts. Savvy executives argue that providing good customer service is an incredible sales opportunity. After all, you’ll be on hold for minutes, and maybe hours. Hold time, says one software developer, “is prime time” for selling to your customer.
Many companies now charge extra for “premium” support. Even businesses with sterling reputations — hey Apple, you reading this? — charge extra for technical support. Ka-ching! The call center becomes a profit center.
It’s clear that companies want it both ways. They want to get credit for “helping” you. But they also want you to leave them alone, to buy more stuff from them and ultimately, to pay them extra for something that should be included with the product. This is not good customer service. It’s pure corporate greed.
Do you have a valid complaint?
You may think you know, but there’s only one way to find out. You have to do your homework. The bellwether for a valid case is summed up in the three Rs of complaint validation. It’s one of the cornerstones for how to become the world’s smartest consumer.
Read the contract
Maybe you skipped it when you bought the product. That’s OK. Contracts are written in a way that makes you want to not read them. (A nauseating combination of legalese and awful writing.) But now is the time to remedy that. Read the contract. C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y.
Research your case
Do you see any other cases like yours online? If so, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Did the company resolve the problem or ignore them? If they did fix the issue, how did they do it? That could be a useful road map for getting your issue resolved. And if not, then what did the other consumers try? That, too, could be a helpful guide.
Review your options
Weigh the importance of your case against the amount of effort it will take to get it resolved. If it’s a lemon you bought from a car dealership, you’ll want to spend a lot of effort fixing the problem. But if a server at a restaurant was mean to you, it might not be worth your time. Remember, your time is valuable. Don’t let your consumer case become an obsession.
Be a smart consumer: Put your complaint in writing
The absolute best way to resolve a consumer complaint is to write a tight and polite email. The most effective emails and letters are very short — no more than one page, or about 500 words. They include all details necessary to track your purchase or reservation, such as confirmation numbers and travel dates. They’re polite, dispassionate and free of spelling errors.
Remember, there’s a real person on the other end of the process reading the e-mail or letter, so something as seemingly insignificant as bad grammar can determine whether your complaint is taken seriously or tossed into the circular file.
A sample complaint letter
Here’s an effective letter, courtesy of our friends at the Federal Trade Commission:
[Your City, State, Zip Code]
[Name of Contact Person]
[City, State, Zip Code]
Dear [Contact Person]:
On [date], I bought [or had repaired] a [name of the product with the serial or model number or service performed]. I made this purchase at [location, date, and other important details of the transaction].
Unfortunately, your product has not performed well [or the service was inadequate] because [state the problem].
To resolve the problem, I would appreciate your [state the specific action you want]. Enclosed are copies [copies, not originals] of my records [receipts, guarantees, warranties, canceled checks, contracts, model and serial numbers, and any other documents] concerning this purchase/repair.
I look forward to your reply and a resolution to my problem. I will wait [set a time limit] before seeking third-party assistance. Please contact me at the above address or by phone [home or office numbers with area codes].
If you want to be the world’s smartest consumer, how patient should you be?
During the resolution process, everyone wants to know: How long will it take? It’s a fair question, and unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. The reason: There are different phases of the resolution process. Understanding them is a key to becoming the world’s smartest consumer.
- Initial contact and a “courtesy” response. When you reach out to a business in writing, it usually will respond within 24 to 48 hours, acknowledging your message and promising a speedy resolution. Response times are faster when you call or initiate an instant “chat” through the website, of course. But there’s a tradeoff — you may not have a paper trail! Remember to take a screenshot.
- The company’s answer. Realistically, it takes two to three weeks for a company to research your grievance and offer a full response. If you’re a member of the company’s loyalty program or a valuable customer, they might expedite your case. But generally speaking, you should hear back no later than three weeks after your initial reply.
- The appeal. A lot of the more complicated cases get appealed to a higher level of customer service. They can sometimes linger for months. If you have a more complex case or you’ve forwarded it to one of the executives, you may have to wait months (and maybe years) for a resolution.
Businesses may dispute this timeline. But I have a stack of cases that says otherwise. Companies that promised to respond to a complaint often turned foot-dragging into a fine art.
I have more strategies in this story on fixing any customer service problem.
Is there a permanent fix?
Getting bullied by big corporations makes you wonder: What is the ideal relationship between consumers and companies. I think it comes down to three words: honesty, fairness and respect.
- Honesty means that the price a company displays should be the price its customers pay — no tricks. Customers have the right to know what’s included — and not included — up front.
- Fairness means no incomprehensible one-sided contracts drafted by expensive lawyers. Terms and conditions must be written in plain English, and they should apply equally to the customer and the company.
- Respect means companies should treat their customers as they would want to be treated. There’s no excuse for bad service.
- Honesty means customers should never take advantage of a company, even when the business is unethical or avaricious. They have an obligation to educate themselves to the best of their ability before they buy.
- Fairness means giving the system a chance before complaining. We believe that by working within the system, responsible consumers can ask for and receive a just and fair resolution to any service problem.
- Respect means treating employees as they would want to be treated. Selfish and entitled consumers poison the marketplace, driving up prices and tempting companies to adopt customer-hostile policies.
It’s a two-way street, but if both sides are honest, fair and respectful, we can fix the frayed relationship between consumers and companies.
Why I created Elliott Advocacy
I want you to become the world’s smartest consumer. So I created an organization that empowers people to solve their own problems and helps those who can’t.
Elliott Advocacy helps consumers through direct advocacy, journalism and maintaining the largest database of executive contact information on the Internet. If you’re having trouble with a business — any business — and you’ve reached a dead end, we’ll try to help.
If you follow the simple steps I’ve just outlined, you’ll no longer be a hostage to sky-high, take-it-or-leave-it prices. You can avoid companies with onerous terms and limited warranties, infested with legalese that strips away your rights. And when you have the audacity to ask for a refund or a replacement, instead of having someone laugh in your face, you will get it.