That Moment of Clarity: You’ve Been Duped

All of us have them — rare moments of sudden clarity when a seemingly complex problem or issue becomes perfectly clear.

Sometimes it happens when you read a particularly insightful article or listen to an instructive speaker. Sometimes, though, it happens when you’re dealing with a major corporation, and you realize in the course of some transaction that you’re being unfairly exploited (as opposed to fairly exploited…).

It could be that the exploitation has been going on for months, or even years, without you realizing what was going on. What exactly am I talking about? Consider these situations:

  • You visit a cell-phone store to obtain a second cell phone to give to your spouse or child. The salesperson describes the rate packages and prices, and you realize that one of the packages he’s offering on the second phone is one-third less than the rate you’ve been paying the last two years on your first phone. You inquire if you can obtain that rate not only on the second phone but also on the first phone, and he says you can. It is in that moment that you realize: I’m getting the lower rate only by chance — how long would the cellular company have been content to let me pay the higher rate on the first phone? Would it have ever let me know about the lower rate?

  • You order a new DSL line for your company, and after the installation is complete you find that the router the DSL company sold you isn’t appropriate to your needs. When you call to ask for the one you really want, the DSL company says it won’t make an exchange; you have to buy the one you really want at full price and keep the inappropriate one you’ve already paid for. The (real) reason? The DSL company needs to get rid of its stock of inappropriate routers.

I thought it was just me who had these moments of clarity — the first one happened with Cellular One and the second one with Covad Communications — until I read a survey just issued by Brann Worldwide, a direct marketing organization. The survey finds that consumers in significant numbers are very much angered by these sorts of practices, to the extent that “up to half of the buying public is seriously considering taking their business elsewhere.”

Here are some of the practices that had more than 40 percent of the 1,800 survey respondents angry enough that they “don’t want to do business with that company again”:

  • A company charges for calling technical support when either the product is defective or the manual is so complicated it can’t be easily deciphered.

  • A company representative who can’t solve an immediate product or service problem promises to call right back but never does.
  • A company offers a special deal or rate for new customers but won’t make any allowance for existing customers, even if they’ve been customers for quite some time.
  • A company offers a special membership program with points, but when customers go to redeem the points for rewards, either the rewards are unavailable because they’re in limited supply or they can’t be used when the customer wants to use them.

Let’s assume that the companies engaging in such practices aren’t criminally deceptive. But then you have to wonder: Do these companies think that their customers are stupid? Or are these companies just so focused on obtaining new customers that they can’t be bothered with trying to satisfy their existing customers — who, they think, won’t want to deal with the costs or inconvenience of switching to an alternative supplier? Either explanation is pretty scary.

What makes such practices even more amazing is that one would think the Internet would be able to inhibit them. The Internet, after all, enables consumers to quickly compare prices and services as well as to scout out complaints prior to making a purchase.

Moreover, the Internet offers companies that might be tempted to engage in such marginal practices the opportunity to alert customers to problems and win loyalty. For example, imagine if Cellular One sent emails to existing customers to alert them whenever the company lowered the costs associated with various calling plans and automatically put the customers on the lower plan. Or if Covad alerted customers that it had an improved router that existing customers might want to obtain, at no cost, or perhaps at a nominal trade-in fee to cover the cost of sending out a new router.

It’s a big, open, fast world out there, full of opportunity for winning customer loyalty, but many companies seem unable to shake the old, shady ways of doing business.

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