Companies have betrayed you. Here’s how to deal with it

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By Christopher Elliott

After decades of consumer advocacy, I think I finally understand the one emotion that all customers feel when a business falls short of its promises: betrayal.

Betrayal is a common theme on this site. Every day, greedy businesses betray their customers in one of at least three ways. But you can do something about it.

How companies betray you

Companies betray their customers every day and as a consumer advocate, I see it, read about it, and I feel it every day when I review our case files. Betrayal is something we experience far too often as customers.

A product that doesn’t perform as advertised

The most common type of betrayal involves products that don’t do what they promise. Consider the recent case of Emily Comia, who purchased a timeshare in 2019. Then the pandemic happened, and she couldn’t use the timeshare. When she was finally able to book a stay, the unit was awful — broken toilets, old furniture, and an overall terrible experience. So she tried to undo the timeshare purchase transaction. A representative of the company laughed at her and said that wasn’t possible. Then the rep tried to sell her even more timeshare points.

“They saw an opportunity to pad their pockets and take advantage of our situation,” Comia told me. “We now realize that the reps lacked character and displayed the ultimate betrayal and deception toward us by helping themselves.”

This type of betrayal evokes feelings of deep anger and a desire for retribution. It’s a motive that keeps cases coming to this site every day. Readers eagerly waive their right to privacy for a shot at revenge.

The betrayal of having your loyalty not reciprocated

A related form of betrayal is giving a company your business over a long period of time but then getting minimal service, or getting minimal or no service.

That’s what happened to Joanna Heath, who recently booked airline tickets through Expedia. On the night before her flight, she checked to confirm her American Airlines tickets. An airline rep told her she had no tickets.

Southwest Airlines is dedicated to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to providing our employees with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

“Expedia had initiated but never completed our booking,” she says. “They had never paid the airline, though they did charge us. According to American Airlines, they had sent several notices to Expedia to complete the booking. Expedia never replied.”

She had to book an extra night at a hotel and pay for new tickets, which cost her an extra $1,489. To add insult to injury, Expedia won’t refund her out-of-pocket expenses.

“I have been a long-time loyal customer of Expedia and am shocked by their lack of response and lack of follow-through on their promises and rendering the services they were paid for,” she says.

This sense of “if-I’m-loyal-to-you, you-should-be-loyal-to-me” is deeply ingrained in all of us. Yet the loyalty only goes one way for many consumers. This leaves you shocked and dismayed. You thought you had a deal. The company knew that you thought you had a deal. But you didn’t.

Surprise terms and conditions

I’ve said it for years — beware of the fine print. It’s never been more true than today. Terms and conditions can be a real gotcha, whether you’re booking a hotel with a resort fee (mind the drip pricing) or buying a cell phone.

That’s the problem Tony Tucker had when an AT&T rep offered him a sweetheart deal on a bundle that included a phone, a wireless plan, gift cards, and a subscription TV service. But, of course, AT&T didn’t deliver.

“Basically, AT&T lied to me,” he says. “I found out the representative gave me incorrect information regarding the costs of the cellular plan.” AT&T also failed to send him the promised gift cards.

And when he asked why, AT&T pointed him to the actual contract he’d signed, which clearly spelled out what he would — and wouldn’t — get. The company referred him back to the terms and told him he was simply out of luck.

This type of betrayal often leaves people confused. If they can’t trust the word of a company representative, then who can they trust? That confusion can then metastasize into anger, or it can lead to a sense of resignation — “I guess I’ll just accept what they give.”

By the way, all three of the cases I’ve just mentioned are ongoing. We are going to try to help fix these consumer problems. (Related: Should you get rid of your loyalty program?)

How to deal with your betrayal

So what can you do about betrayal? Once you’ve given yourself some time to process the pain, is there a path forward?

There’s actually some science on betrayal. The most troubling to me is that betrayal can cause post-traumatic stress disorder. It also can lead to deep and permanent changes in your behavior toward others, and especially toward the one who betrayed you.

  • Feeling betrayed is normal. I think the first thing to recognize — and I’m grateful to the friends who have helped me do that — is that feeling betrayed is normal. You need to know that you are not alone, even though you might feel that way. All around you, there are other consumers dealing with the same emotions. Find support on a site like this, on social media, or in-person from a friend.
  • Find a way to fight back. We should name and shame companies that betray consumer trust. That’s a necessary function that this site performs. You can head over to the help forums for a sampling of angry consumers sounding off about their betrayal. That felt good, didn’t it?
  • Don’t repeat a mistake. If a company betrays you, never, never reward it with your repeat business. I’ll never forget the TV report on Spirit Airlines, a company with a long history of betraying its passengers. The reporter asked a flight attendant about the people who complained about Spirit’s fees and other ‘gotchas. And I’ll never forget the response: “Oh, they’ll be back!” And when I look at the issue of betrayal, that is the biggest problem. We allow it to go unpunished, and then we come back for more. How stupid of us.

No one wants to be betrayed, but some good can come of it. As Susan Campbell notes in her book “Love and Betrayal,” being betrayed is an unwelcome rite of passage that can usher us “toward a brighter understanding of what love is and what love isn’t — what helps love grow, and what destroys it.” (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problems.)

Betrayal at the consumer level can also help you understand the difference between a company that’s worth your business — and one that’s just interested in making a quick buck.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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