You shouldn’t be afraid of them — they should be afraid of you

Fear is a staple of the American consumer. 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.

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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 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.

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. I just 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 consumers are.


source: tradingeconomics.com

Yeah, that’s us. The engine of the world economy. Without us, you’re nothing.

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.

Do market forces work for American consumers?

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30 thoughts on “You shouldn’t be afraid of them — they should be afraid of you

  1. No answer. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. Sometimes bigness is bad, sometimes good. Some people are nice. some are not. And sometimes things are not black and white. Let’s hear a soft almost cheer for gray.

    1. AND others that because of a little , tiny bit extra of kindness, we will answer a survey, tip a clean up person, write a corporation about… and frequent because the person was so great. Yesterday, at Noodles in Mishawaka IN, Jimmy, a table cleaner, noted our leftovers were in the cardboard cartons. On his own, he brought the sealable containers, and was so nice, cheerful. I noted that he was helpful with other customers too. Golly, he was nicer, more helpful, than people at the “top drawer” restaurants I frequent. His actions and demeanor made me a loyal customer..

  2. Airlines require so much capital, that the problem, in my view, was government allowing all the mergers (and the laws blocking foreign, probably subsidized, competition).

    For cable TV, some states have laws prevent cities from offering public “free”* wi-fi, which would allow competition because consumers could choose to pay more for a better, more reliable, private connection, or rely on the public wifi. (I asterisk “free” because taxpayer dollars are supporting this, so it isn’t really free). In San Francisco, apparently, there are areas with free wifi (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/01/republicans-free-city-wifi-municipal-broadband-socialism).

  3. I also would’ve been very turned off by that employee’s reply- so awkwardly unpleasant.

    I don’t know to what extent the market reflects consumer preferences. I suppose the quarterly reports during earnings season provide information as to customer aversion. Wall Street signals whether the company needs to make changes. While I support voting with your wallet, consumers have high pain thresholds and will endure yrs of bad service to avoid the unknown. Human nature trumps regulations.

  4. Maybe you did this but I think it is important to let the business management know what happened so they fix the problem. On the same side, if we get excellent service from a someone, we should let the company know of that as well.

    1. I have thought this many times, Anthony. All business should furnish the availability of customer response, every transaction. It should be something quick, like an email or text. Report the bad, report the good, but get management to pay attention to what their employees are doing.

  5. The answer to the poll question is that sometimes we need regulation and sometimes we don’t. If things don’t “fix” themselves properly in the marketplace (i.e. resort fees, smoking in public places, safety laws) then we need regulation. Other times, the market can take care of it. The story that Chris told about the business he didn’t go to after the unpleasant exchange with one employee happens ALL the time. And it is because (I think) because you get a bad experience and then just don’t come back.

    However, when someone or some company costs me money, by ripping me off, I like it to cost them at least 1000 times as much in revenue. The Marriott Residence Inn in Tukwila, WA charged me years ago for a $5 phone call that was supposed to be toll free. This was years ago. They wouldn’t budge on it, and I didn’t know all the tricks I know now of how to escalate. So I simply stopped going to Marriott hotels for awhile. It cost Marriott at least $35,000 in revenues over the next while.

    As to the corporate travel managers who killed multi million dollar contracts, good on them! These places need to know that when their employees or policies are going to upset people, it is going to cost them big time.

    1. I can add something else. I live in a place where, like most places, the cable company had a monopoly. However, year ago, I got an IPTV service installed by the phone company. They carried channels the cable company did not. They didn’t plaster some channels with internal advertising like the cable company did. And I asked how much market share the telephone company had taken from the cable company in this city. Although I have no way of verifying the answer, I was told that it was somewhere around 50%. So I’m thinking, here is this cable company, who has lost possibly half their market share in a city of over a million, and they are still incessantly peppering the channels they carry with relentless and repetitive cable company ads. Some businesses listen, and some clearly do not. I have no reason to believe that their business isn’t eroding even further, and I don’t see anything they have done to stop it….

  6. My 2 year old needs to sometimes be reminded to say please and thank you. I say it more kindly and respectfully to her than that receptionist. She’s human like the rest of us, and sometimes she forgets or doesn’t realize it’s necessary. I wouldn’t go back either.

    1. I got a bit careless with please and thank you as a young adult, free of the constant reminders from parents, teachers, and others older than I am. The man in my life and his parents really got on my case, though, and I now notice when others forget to say them, especially please. But I would never tell make someone say that. What really bugs me now, though, is hearing “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome” in response to my “thank you”. Where the heck did that come from?

      1. To me, hearing someone say “No problem” is the lexicon of today, it is someone saying the simple courtesy they gave me was no issue for them to do and they were happy to do it. I feel that it is in many ways more “real” than the automatic but often unmeant “you are welcome” phrase. Is gratitude only to be expressed in a singular fashion? Language is always a fluid thing, it really does change. If I told you it was cool to say “no problem” would you think I was referring to temperature or acceptability (and yet, it is an easy question to ask – how did the word cool come to have such a diverse meaning)? To not accept and appreciate what the lexicon of today is means we miss out on many nuances of communication, and makes for a rather drab and dreary life. Life now is much easier for a single person to have a greater influence, mainly due to platforms such as this one on the internet. And then there are all those review sites, people Do read them, and Do take heed. I believe that yes, in many more ways now, the consumer has much more power and influence because it is not just among a small circle of friends, it is potentially the entire internet that can be influenced. (have you noticed the phrase – the video/post/etc. went “viral”?)

        1. tee hee. I still bristle at being addressed as “you guyz” . I realize in a large part it is because I am a 74 y.o. woman. However, considering the level of restaurant I frequent, it seems inappropriate, insensitive, and almost rude.

          1. I grew up with 3 sisters, and no brothers. My mom and dad used the term “you guys” often to heard us to where they wanted us to be. To me it is utterly natural, but then I am only a 64 woman 🙂

  7. Yeah, market forces work for consumers if we know how to use them. Along that lines? Perhaps it’s time for story on the power that a consumer has when they set a “credit freeze” at the three agencies.

  8. Here’s just an arms-length thought.. Why should it be that either — the company or the consumer — need be in “fear” of the other? Something to me at least seems wrong or off-base when the operating principle is that one side should be in fear of the other. I think the idea of gray is right.. I don’t think this issue is, or should be, one that is an “all or none” case.. I don’t support over-regulation.. because I DO believe that free markets are one of the better ways for the balance between price/service/product to be found and maintained… but I DO also think there is a compelling case for some level of regulation – be that product safety, anti-collusion/anti-trust or such — that I’d support..
    The issue of “sensible” regulation to me also means that both sides — the consumer and the company – are protected and benefit.

  9. Many years ago, I was visiting colleges, and I had a reservation on Piedmont (later merged to Allegheny to form US Air) to fly from Lynchburg, VA to Newark, NJ. What I didn’t know was that the flight was arranged by travel department of my father’s employer, AT&T. (Some companies used to provide this as a service for their employers.) Piedmont lost my reservation for the flight home, despite my holding a ticket issued by AT&T. I called my father — who called the VP in charge of AT&T’s travel department — who called the president of Piedmont — all presumably at home, since it was a Sunday. I ended up on the next flight — and Piedmont ended up as a “least preferred” airline for AT&T travel.

  10. You shouldda told the manager, in writing, and cite the THOUSANDS they are no longer getting because of a snotty clerk. Some managers will go into “defensive mode”. To heck with them. Others would calibrate the snotty clerk. Good management.

  11. I see both sides of this. I probably would have reacted the same way to her attitude. I work for a company that goes out of its way to encourage its customers to act like a 6 year old, be a cry baby and a tattle tale. I also feel that I shouldn’t have to tell a company how their employees should do their jobs. If you want my business then give sufficient training and supervision to your staff. But if you don’t let a company know why your no longer going to use them will they even notice? I believe the bigger the company and the less their competition is then some regulation is needed.

  12. I think it’s important to let businesses know why you like them and why you don’t (anymore). Maybe they care, maybe they don’t but at least they’ll know why you no longer patronize their business and can take action (or not). Here’s one: We pull up to the drive-thru window, the employee says, “What do you need?” We look at each other incredulously, give our order then instructed to “Drive around”. We get to the window, say “Hello”, she never says a word, takes our money, gives us change and slams the window shut with nary a “Thank you”. Yes, I could have let it go but I didn’t, I can’t. I took the “survey”. We received a gift card in the mail with an apology and told comments would be forwarded to the manager of that store. I wasn’t looking for a gift card, I just wanted the home office to know what we experienced. We loved the food, not the service this time and here’s why. We consumers are the reason you are in business and we may be the reason you go out of business…..

  13. I went to a popular Chinese fast food eatery on Saturday. I was not greeted with a ‘hello’ nor was a ‘thank you’ given after I paid. The cashier proceeded to speak to the next in line while handing me my change. I went to their online feedback and wrote this. Second time at this place. I just wanted them to teach their employees basic customer service.

  14. If I get treated badly after having been treated well by a business that I frequented for a long time, I would write to tell them why I would not be returning. That would give them a chance to make up for the wrong should they want to keep my business.

  15. I lost a customer this last Sunday because of humor (or lack of). I have a $2.00 price point and sell directly in the middle of Phila. Eagles, NY Giants and Jets territory with a large scattering of Dallas and Pittsburgh fans. When wearing a Giants or Cowboys hat, I often joke to charge $8 or $12 instead of the $2. 99% of my customers joke back that I must be an Eagles fan and we laugh. I guess the 1% (Dallas fan of course) cussed me out. I won’t miss him, but I will miss joking with the others because I have to now stop this behavior and act more “civilized”.

  16. I could probably write a much longer post about this, but I’ll digress it all down to one factor, and that’s options. When you’re eating out there are plenty of options for you to patronize, because the cost of entry for a restaurant is nothing to say the cost of an airline. The same is true of all those oligopolies you mentioned, they are very costly and expensive businesses to create. There are no small business mobile phone companies, or cable network providers. Unless your image of an airline is you and a Cessna and a web page you’re not starting an airline with a SBA loan.

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