“Learning to be a Money-Smart Consumer” is a post by Adina J, in which she shares some tips for winning customer service battles.
Unlike Joe, TiFi’s Generalissimo and resident deal finder, I am not a particularly money-smart consumer when it comes to taking advantage of the sort of incentives and customer-appreciation offers that lots of companies are putting out these days. Part of it comes down to paranoia: I always suspect that there’s a “catch”. Another part of it, admittedly, is pure laziness. And part of it has to do with my reluctance to have to deal with customer service in any shape or form (especially over the phone). But … I am making progress, as my recent experience with J. Crew (bear with me) will attest. I’ll share the lessons I learned in a moment; first, a little background.
For Christmas, I decided that I wanted this bag:
Putatively, it was supposed to be a gift from my husband, but I usually end up picking my own presents. (I’m helpful that way.) Our local store didn’t have this particular colour in stock, so I had to order it online. The regular price was $238, and I took advantage of a store-wide 30%-off discount. Shipping was free, so the total cost was around $205. I bought the bag on a Friday, and received a shipping notification the next day. The following week, I ended up chatting to a co-worker about bags, and mentioned the newest addition to my collection. When I went to the J. Crew website to send her a link, I noticed that the price of the bag had dropped to $159.99 – and there was still a store-wide 30% off discount in effect. I was miffed, to say the least.
Normally, this would have been the end of the story, but my co-worker mentioned that J. Crew might have a price adjustment policy, which would allow me to get the difference in price reimbursed. I called the local store and, sure enough, was told that a price adjument policy did exist and applied within a 7 day window. However, since I’d purchased the bag online, the store could not process the reimbursement and I would have to deal with J. Crew’s online customer service. My inner Joe voice told me to suck it up, and contact them pronto. So I drafted a short, professional sounding e-mail and hoped for the best. As my cynical self expected, I got a discouraging response: the price adjustment policy only applied to full-priced items. Ergo, I was out of luck.
At this juncture, my typical response would have involved some (muttered) profanities, possibly a ranty Tweet, and not much else. Simply put, I am (or was) the exact type of consumer for whom customer service paradigms are created; an initial rejection is enough to make me quit. Or was. Because, in this case, I decided to channel my inner-Joe Wood. I sent a second e-mail, outlining my case for why their price adjustment policy was potentially ambiguous and should be interpreted in my favour. And, wouldn’t you know it, I did end up getting my reimbursement after all. J. Crew made an “exception” in my case … blah, blah, blah … I got my $45 back. (Editor Joe’s Note: if you win any battles against companies, get ready to hear the “we’re making an exception” line. It’s code for “You’re totally right, otherwise we wouldn’t do it, but you don’t get bragging rights because we like our cozy gig of screwing consumers.” It’s the corporate equivalent of being a very sore loser. They’ll sign an armistice, even give you money, but there’s no way in hell they can admit that you’re right.)
In the scheme of things, this is a very minor victory. Forty-five bucks in returned after-tax money is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not going to make me rich, either. I decided to write about my experience, though, because it affirmed some very important lessons – albeit a few years too late, but better than never.
Money-Smart Consumer Tip #1: Be Persistent
As I alluded, I’m pretty sure that customer service training at the lowest echelons largely centers around saying “no” regardless of the question. This operates to discourage a good portion of the population from taking their issues any further, especially in situations involving minor matters. Is $20 worth an hour or two of your time spent in telephone hold purgatory? Likely not. E-mail contact, where available, can be a godsend in this regard; in addition to the efficiency aspect, it also offers some additional benefits I will address below. (Editor Joe’s Note: I disagree. If you can get to a high enough level on the phone, it is vastly more effective than email. Dealing through email is extremely impersonal and very easy for a faceless technocrat to ignore your issue or even redirect it incorrectly.)
Often, though, simply by being persistent and not giving up at the first “no”, you can get the result you want. Companies don’t want to waste their time either, and may ultimately be willing to compromise (if not completely concede) just to get rid of you or your complaint. But don’t confuse being persistent with being annoying or, worse yet, abusive. Speaking of which…
Money-Smart Consumer Tip #2: Don’t Make Idle Threats
I will admit – I have been guilty of this in the past. When faced with unreasonable or unfair responses, I tend to go from zero to ballistic like a top-of-the-line sports car goes from 0 to 60. My knee-jerk reaction is always the same: fix this or I’m taking my business elsewhere. Making a (politely worded) threat can be effective, provided you are prepared to have your bluff called and to act on it. In lots of cases, though, this kind of threat is impotent, whether because of market realities or personal habits. I know that I probably won’t stop shopping at J. Crew. J. Crew’s customer service also knows that the majority of people who might threaten to switch their loyalties never actually do so. (And unless those customers have a record of dropping serious coin on its merchandise in the past, J. Crew likely wouldn’t care anyway.)
Making a threat is an especially poor strategy when the correctness of your position is not 100% clear. For example, you could say that, in my case, I was simply the victim of poor timing and bad luck. The ambiguity of the policy was arguable, but not so clear-cut that J. Crew’s initial refusal to reimburse me was outright wrong. Had the tone of my e-mails been more on the “belligerent” and “entitled” side, they could have needlessly antagonized the customer service rep, and diminished any willingness on their end to help me out. By merely expressing my “disappointment” and politely explaining its basis, I gave the rep an opportunity to express magnanimity without having to concede that they were in the wrong. Most of the time, that will be the easiest way to get concessions out of anyone who is not otherwise compelled to give them to you.
Money-Smart Consumer Tip #3: Get It in Writing
Last but not least, it can be very helpful to conduct such negotiations in writing. First, it involves a lot less time and elevator muzak. Second, it can help you to put forward your best position. (Editor Joe’s Note: third, it may be more comfortable for your passive aggressive personality type. But that doesn’t mean it’s as effective as calling people up. I disagree enough with Adina’s theory that I may write my own post on this. When a customer service person says something in writing, it’s suddenly in stone and far harder for them to reverse without losing face.) Personally, I am much more eloquent in writing than I am on the phone, especially in the heat of the moment. Perhaps because written communication is a huge part of my regular job, I am well-attuned to the power of tone and subtext. Just as your clothes might make an impression on others, so do your words and the way in which you use them. My writing makes me sound like a much more valuable customer than the twelve-year old I sound like on the phone. Third, having a written record of who said exactly what can be very helpful in the event that things go sideways, especially when you’ve been dealing with multiple customer service reps over a period of time.
So, there you have it: three simple tips for winning a customer service “war”, and being a money-smart consumer.