How failure can make you a better customer

By | April 3rd, 2017

When people say you learn more from your failures than your successes, William Seavey is the first to agree.

He bought a Samsung top-loader washing machine, recommended by Consumer Reports, at Sears. “It turned out to be a lemon,” says Seavey, a consultant based in Cambria, Calif.

The washer made “horrid” noises when it spun, wouldn’t drain water well, and had electronic controls that were indecipherable. Before it was recalled, Seavey invited Sears technicians to visit the ailing unit to make it work better. When they couldn’t, he tried asking Sears to replace the unit. It refused.

“We appealed to the company for months,” he remembers.

It looked as if he was stuck with the failing Samsung appliance. That’s a place far too many consumers find themselves in, and not just when it comes to big-ticket items bought from a department store. One in four American homeowners said that they would not buy their house again if they had to do it all over, according to a 2014 Harris Poll survey. Nearly 75 percent of consumers in a survey have made an impulse buying decision, and half of those regretted it.

And with essential government consumer protections crumbling around us in an unashamedly pro-business administration, our failures as customers are becoming all the more irreversible. But there’s hope. Failure can strengthen your resolve, teach you important lessons and even show you the way out of a bad purchase — if you’ll only listen to its lessons.

“Failure always teaches you something,” says Lynn Zakeri, a clinical therapist. “It builds resilience. Every time.”

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So what is that something?

Assume nothing
When things head south, it’s not always the result of corporate incompetence, say experts (although it sometimes is). Rather, it’s a lack of communication. A review of the case correspondence between businesses and consumers usually reveals that one or both parties concluded something they shouldn’t have about a warranty, a service or a product.

“Most business failures are the result of errant assumptions,” says David Corbin, a consultant and author of Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “They’re also the result of an inability or lack of willingness to confront issues, concerns and challenges head-on.”

The problem is that, when not clarified, the issues “often multiply like mushrooms.” Misunderstandings beget even more more misunderstandings. So the first lesson of failure often is: Assume nothing. If you don’t have something in writing, get it in writing.

The right attitude counts
The way you approach failure determines what you learn from it. No, that’s not pop psychology mumbo-jumbo. If the company wins — if you’re stuck with that broken appliance for good — and you accept your fate, then companies will have their way with you the next time, and the next time.

Danny Zoucha, author of the book Happy Rich, recalls one such pivotal event. After receiving a cell phone that was defective, he says he felt “defeated” and accepted the carrier’s insistence that the phone was out of warranty. But Zoucha didn’t accept it the next time. A few years later, when faced with a similar problem, he politely pushed back when a representative tried to do the same thing.

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“What I learned was a change in attitude,” he explains. “What I learned was that when I walk in, I’m not dealing with a big, bad company. I’m dealing with a big, bad company’s representative, who is just a human, and totally faking it to get by. Most people are.”

You can hurt them as much as they’ve hurt you
Wronged consumers quickly realize that they have the power to hurt companies as much as they’ve been hurt. Power doesn’t just belong to those who can buy full-page newspaper ads or who employ an army of reputation-management operatives. And it isn’t something that can be legislated away from customers. This is one of the key lessons of failure.

“Word of mouth is something no regulatory body can take away from consumers,” explains Michal Strahilevitz, a visiting professor at Duke University. “While it does not always work, mentioning that you will discuss your negative experience with a marketer in detail on social media can be helpful. They don’t want bad publicity, and thanks to social media, we all have the power to spread the word when we are unhappy with a marketer.”

Strahilevitz says consumers pay more attention to negative information from friends than positive information from friends, and her own research suggests that this is particularly true of female consumers. Or, to put it into the vernacular, hell hath no fury like a female consumer scorned.

These three key lessons of failure each deserve to be remembered and studied. Certainly, Seavey learned them when he ended up with a lemon from Sears. He assumed, incorrectly, that the Consumer Reports recommendation meant the appliance would be problem-free. But Consumer Reports — which, the last time I checked, was staffed by humans — makes mistakes, and it had just done so.

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Seavey also learned the importance of having the right attitude. Because he didn’t accept Sears’ “final” word on his washer. He kept fighting, even contacting Sears executives (I list the names, numbers and emails of Sears’ top executives on my consumer advocacy site). In the end, he threatened to park in front of his Sears with a big lemon sign. And that did it.

“They gave us a credit on a new washer,” he says.

Consumers shouldn’t have to learn any of these these lessons, of course. Companies should take care of their own customers because it’s the right thing to do. But in a world where government support the rights of corporations to exploit their customers over protecting the citizens they’re supposed to represent, it seems inevitable that we’ll be learning a lot of these lessons in the next few years. Let’s hope we remember what we’ve learned.

  • Wuerzburg

    Man I really do love the work you do for folks who have been wronged by corporations, but why do you feel the need to continually subtlety criticize the Trump administration? In the process of doing it, you are alienating a portion of your avid readers. I don’t recall you being at a loss for your services during the last administration. In any event, keep up the good work. Sadly your services will probably always be needed.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I fail to see how Christopher pointing out actual facts about the current administration is “subtly criticizing” it.

    I must assume you are referring to this line: “And with essential government consumer protections crumbling around us in an unashamedly pro-business administration…”

    It’s a simple, verifiable fact that this administration is unashamedly pro-business. Trump ran on that platform. He’s flat-out PROUD of it! So how is pointing that out a criticism?

    it’s also a simple, verifiable fact that this administration has been dismantling the laws and regulations that have protected consumers for many years. Trump has already begun dismantling consumer protections in the financial industry, with rollbacks of regulations governing the financial services industry and Wall Street under the Dodd-Frank law and beyond. And he’s rolling back protections in many other areas too. It’s all over the news…one can hardly avoid it.

    These are not “subtle criticisms”…these are facts.

    Many of us DO consider these things to be worthy of criticism, as we strenuously disagree with these actions. But Trump supporters tend to see these actions as strengthening business, which (they believe) will lead to more jobs.

    So if you see pointing out these facts to be criticism of this Administration, one can only assume you are on the side who thinks they are bad governance. If so, I will happily say I agree with you! ;-) But to accuse Christopher of “alienating” a portion of his readers is disingenuous. He’s not. He’s just…need I repeat?…stating facts.

  • Jeff W.

    LeeAnne articulated far better than I could have, but this is not necessarily a dig at the Trump administration.

    Since the creation of the Consumer Protection Bureau, there have been members of Congress that have been doing all they can to neuter or dismantle that agency. Those efforts predate Trump.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Thanks. Oh, and I wanted to add to my earlier comment – there may be another line in this article that Wuerzburg is referring to as well – this one:

    “But in a world where government support the rights of corporations to exploit their customers over protecting the citizens they’re supposed to represent…”

    I can possibly see where this line might be viewed as a subtle dig…but again, it’s still factually accurate. The fact is that this administration DOES support the rights of corporations over the protection of customers, far more than any administration in a very long time (if ever).

    And again, I think it bears pointing out that many see this as a positive thing, removing burdensome regulations on businesses so that they can increase profits and expansion, creating more jobs, while expecting that the fair market will shake out those that don’t treat their customers right.

    I could not disagree MORE with that assessment, but that’s just my personal opinion. ;-)

  • PsyGuy

    One of the best Chris articles I’ve read, some really good valuable advice in this one.

  • PsyGuy

    I’m perfectly happy with Cris alienating that subset of readers, and I’m proud that Chris doesn’t bend to the subtle and not so subtle peer pressure, that’s what being an advocate means, it means confrontation in the face of adversity. Chris doesn’t need to like, or sympathise with your political selection or agenda, he is well and duly justified in saying this guy is bad for America and bad for consumers and if that means that group of supporters has to take the long walk, so be it.

  • PsyGuy

    Those efforts have intensified under Trump, and those efforts were from the same league of senators and congress people who are in trumps corner or pocket.

  • PsyGuy

    Why is their position an “assessment” and your position an “opinion”? Your assessment/position/opinion is as equally valid as theirs or anyone else’s.

  • PsyGuy

    “Alternative Facts”

  • michael anthony

    “Alternative Facts” is way too over used these days, just like many new slogans coined in the last 3 months or so. It’s a clever marketing tool.

  • joycexyz

    As Chuck Todd pointed out to Kellianne Conway, “alternative facts” are falsehoods.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Just as a reminder PsyGuy…I did tell you not too long ago that I will not be responding to your comments anymore, after you made many comments to me that I found offensive. So please know that I will not be answering any questions you ask. Feel free to ask away…just be aware there will be no response from me.

    This will be my last comment to you. Bye now!

  • PsyGuy

    I remember, please feel free to continue not responding to future comments.

  • PsyGuy

    I wouldn’t say it was clever, broken clocks are right twice a day.

  • LonnieC

    Actualy, in this comment I think he’s fully supporting you.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yes, that may be true…but please understand that’s not the issue. This is about previous behavior. I’ve asked PsyGuy not to respond to any of my comments, due to some highly offensive comments he’s made to me in the past. I let him know at the time that I would prefer not to have any interaction with him whatsoever, and politely asked him to respect my wishes.

    Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped him from replying to my comments. My fear is that, because he knows that I will not respond to any of his comments, he will feel he now has carte blanche to say whatever snide or offensive things he wants to me, knowing that I will not respond. I hope that he is able to maintain enough maturity to not do that…I would have hoped that my lack of response would remove the motivation to be offensive towards me. However, he continues to respond to my comments even today.

    I did learn there is a “block” feature in Disqus, which I may use if the behavior continues. I’d rather not, however…sometimes he posts a comment on an article and an an interesting discussion ensues beneath it that I’d prefer not to have to miss. But we’ll see what happens.

  • LonnieC


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