The smarter consumer: 7 qualities of a winning customer

I spend a lot of time harping on customers who screw up. Sometimes I can’t help myself. Not only are the cases interesting, but they’re also instructive.

For example, one reader who will remain nameless recently visited an airline website with a “best fare” guarantee. She assumed she wouldn’t have to shop around, because if she found a cheaper fare elsewhere, she could just invoke the guarantee.

She made her purchase, but later found a better fare. The airline denied her claim.

If you’re wondering why, just check out the fine print on your average “best price” guarantee. They are maddeningly complicated, and ultimately worthless. All you have to do is read them to know why.

All of which brings me to the first quality of a highly successful consumer: that you have all the facts on your side. Each of these people-on-a-mission is aware of how much an item costs; have read the warranty, and know what others are raving or criticizing about before they purchase the thing.

Here are six more qualities of an in-the-know buyer:

Enlightened. Understanding the system is key to avoid being victimized by it. Business aren’t charities—they are well-run profit machines. Nothing’s wrong with that; it is the corporation’s main purpose, and it is what drives our economy. But it’s your job to do some homework on whether the profit said company makes is deserved.

Polite. As counterintuitive as it might sound, politeness is your most powerful weapon when dealing with any company. A smart customer knows she mustn’t wait until there’s a problem to exhibit that exemplary trait—she’ll always deploy it. Politeness has a magical effect on service providers: they treat you with respect and sometimes even bend over backward to satisfy you. Wouldn’t you be more inclined to side with a customer who treated you with respect than one who acted as though you were a crook?

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Frugal. Money doesn’t grow on trees – at least not yet. But the very best customers keep a close watch on everything they earn. That money is hard to come by! These beautiful people run the numbers before they purchase and have a pretty good idea of what they will spend before they reach the checkout. Read that again: before the checkout.
Resourceful. A smart customer has learned there’s strength in numbers and can find the info they need to help his cause both online and off. He visits forums and blogs, trades tips, and clips coupons. (Hint: You can sign up for this site’s RSS feed and get every magnificent story on being a better consumer. Try it.)

Persistent. A fine upstanding consumer knows that sometimes even the best companies need a nudge or two to do the right thing. He isn’t afraid to ask; he feels it’s his right — nay, duty. Nor does this wonderful being feel he is imposing when asking a sales associate for help at all. He’s just doing is job.

Correct. Contrary to what everyone has said since the Renaissance, the customer is not always right. But the customer is correct almost all the time when he has done the research and has the background on his side. Of course, customers can be wrong, too. For instance, the price tag may be incorrect. That happens.

Too often, we think of what businesses should be doing for us instead of focusing on our own behavior. And while it can be immensely entertaining to point out our blunders, it’s also important to zero-in on the right behavior for successful consumers.
Here’s the funny thing about these practices: You can do everything on this list and still get scammed. That’s because buying takes a few extra steps.

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I’ll talk about how to think about your next purchase next week.

(Photo: Old Shoe/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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