American consumers shouldn’t be afraid of companies — companies should be afraid of them

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By Christopher Elliott

Fear is a staple of American consumers. But it shouldn’t be. Customers live in a state of constant worry, like having their credit score dinged or ending up on a legendary customer blacklist. And there’s the ever-present concern that you’re getting ripped off — that maybe there’s a store just around the corner with a better price or friendlier service.

But it’s not you who should be afraid of companies.

Companies should be afraid of you.

Hard to wrap your head around that, isn’t it?

I’ll say it again: We, the American consumers, are bigger than any company on Earth.

They should fear us

I was reminded of that during a quiet moment this weekend. There’s a business across town that I used to frequent. Driving there was impractical, the prices were a little high, but I had grown fond of the employees and liked their service. They’d always treated my family and me well.

One day that changed when I had an unfortunate exchange with a new employee. As I signed my credit card slip, I politely asked for a receipt.

“Can I get a please?” the new employee replied.

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I was taken aback by her sudden flash of anger. Had I been rude to her? I replayed the last 10 seconds of our conversation in my mind. No, but I didn’t say “please.”

I immediately apologized and added a “please” to my request for a receipt. And that was it.

I never darkened the door of the business again.

I didn’t write the business off after the exchange. But I no longer went out of my way to patronize it, and now, more than a year later, I realize that I effectively blacklisted it without intending to.

The business lost my family and the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of dollars we spent every year. It also lost the dozens of referrals, all of which also spend hundreds of dollars or more.

All told, an angry answer from a receptionist probably cost the business as much as $10,000 a year in revenue. It all added up.

I know what you’re thinking: “Chris, maybe she was just having a bad day.”

Of that I have no doubt. But her answer made me feel uncomfortable, and I had other places — closer, less expensive places — that I chose to give my business to.

My story is pretty benign

I’ve spoken with corporate travel managers who killed million-dollar contracts after they were treated disrespectfully by an airline employee. They didn’t have to play the “do-you-know-who-I-am” card. Sometimes, they didn’t even bother telling the airline why they were losing their corporate account. They just left. (But they told me.)

This would be the place where I’d insert some kind of chart with consumer spending, to show how powerful American consumers are.

The customer is always right

Maybe it’s time to throw our weight around. There’s a reason for the saying, “The customer is always right” even though we all know it’s not always true. In a very real sense, the customer is all-powerful.

Except when they’re not.

I’m lookin’ at you, cable TV, wireless, airlines and various other mini-monopolies and oligopolies. Is it any coincidence that those are the businesses we hear the most complaints about? I think not.

So what went wrong there? For whatever reason, market forces are not working. Some might argue it’s because the government meddled in the free market, protecting incumbent businesses and allowing oligopolies to form. Others would say it’s because the government isn’t regulating these industries carefully enough. But we know the invisible hand is powerless when customers are getting the invisible finger from businesses.

Maybe this happened because our elected representatives stopped representing us, the consumers, and started representing their corporate donors. But fortunately for us, it’s an election year.

Our lawmakers should be afraid for their jobs. And the companies who had the benefit of operating in a no-compete environment? They should be afraid of us. Our comprehensive customer complaint guide will teach you how to fend for yourself.

And if you still need some advocacy support, you know where to get hold of my team.

Do market forces work for American consumers?

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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