December 12, 2007
The Bug Letter
I wrote this column a while ago, but the problem of getting a live person to answer the phone is worse than ever. I tried to call DIRECTV, which scammed me into believing they had plenty of HDTV channels a year ago and now wants me to pay for additional HD channels as they add them on. I was calling to cancel DIRECTV forever, but I could not get a live person on the phone, so I will stop paying them until they get a recorded voice to call me.
THE BUG LETTER
It's a corny old joke that goes back a million years: A man is riding on the old Erie Railroad when he spots a bug crawling in his Pullman bed. The man, irate, writes a letter complaining to the railroad.
He receives a letter from the president of the railroad apologizing and stating that this has never happened in the history of the railroad. Unfortunately, accidentally clipped to the letter is a note that the railroad's president had intended only to be seen by his secretary. It read, "Send this guy the bug letter."
It dawned on me the other night, while trying to reach LIPA, the world's most expensive power company, that no one is given the courtesy of even getting "the bug letter" these days. Consumers are largely ignored because they have no power, in my case that night both literally and figuratively.
How did this happen? Whatever happened to "The customer is always right"? For one thing, the men who believed in that old adage have long since died and gone to corporate heaven.
Back in the early 1900s corporations were very often owned by men whose names were on the front of their factories or stores. Names like Edison, Macy, Chrysler, Gimbel, Firestone, Carnegie. Many of them were scoundrels, but they took great pride in the products they made and they all shared in the belief that the customer was king.
Back in those days, it was not unusual for the head of a corporation to pick up the phone and personally field the complaint of an incensed customer. If you called the Firestone Tire Company and asked for Mr. Firestone, you either got Harvey or his faithful secretary Betsy. There was no hold button on the telephone. Betsy would put her palm over the speaker part of the phone and whisper, "It's a man who says he's a customer and he sounds mad. He says he wants to speak to you, Mr. Firestone."
Couldn't you just see Harvey S. Firestone picking up the phone in his office in Akron, Ohio and soothing the caller? "You say you're on the Ohio Turnpike and one of my tires blew up on your Ford Model T and scared you half to death? Tell you the truth, we've been having that problem with our tires lately. Why don't you come on by here and we'll replace your tire for free. Hell, I'll replace all your tires. When you get here tell the guard at the desk to call up to me. I'll come down and help you put the tires on, too."
But Harvey Firestone grew old and died of natural causes, which is more than you can say for some of his recent customers.
By the 1950s the Harvey Firestones of the world were replaced by men who wouldn't know one of their customers if they ran over them. Along with them came improved phone technology that further insulated the producer from the consumer. There is the "hold" button on every phone, which, in effect, stops the world while the man in charge tells his secretary, "Say I'm in a meeting." Then there's voicemail where an executive can hide from a dissatisfied customer for days.
The language has changed, too. One day in the 1970s a smart corporation executive decided to eliminate the Complaint Department and replace it with the "Consumer Relations" Department. No Complaint Department – Voila! No complaints. Have you tried to register a complaint lately – with anyone? Try getting through to Consumer Relations at any corporation in the United States. I maintain that there isn't a single person working in Consumer Relations. They are all voices in voicemail. Have you noticed that all the voices sound exactly alike at Consumer Relations? I'm convinced that it's the same actress who records this message for every corporation. She then leads the caller through the voicemail maze telling you to answer every question by hitting numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. It goes something like this:
"You have just been connected with the Consumer Relations voicemail system of Stonewall Unlimited. If you are slightly unhappy with our product, press 1. If you are quite unhappy, press 2. If you are fuming mad at us, press 3. If you are looking to rip someone's head off, press 4."
So you press 4 and then the new line of questions start. "If you are planning to sue us for under a million dollars, press 1. If you are planning to sue us for more than a million, press 2. If you won't be satisfied until you have driven us out of business, press . . ." and so it goes.
In time, the consumer gives up. That's what happened the other night when I tried to report a blackout in East Hampton where we have more blackouts than they had in London during World War II. After 20 minutes of pressing the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 like a trained chimp and finding myself unable to connect with a human voice, I elected to sit in darkness and sulk and write this column by flashlight.
Eventually my power was restored. Now the question is, "When will the American consumer get his power back?" To understand how to do that we must learn why it was lost in the first place.
It's all about fear. The reasons consumers were respected was because for years the heads of corporations were afraid of them. They were afraid of consumers because they were so unpredictable. They could make or break a product and no one really knew why. A loyal consumer was cherished but hardly understood. Along came consumer research and focus groups in the early 1960s and suddenly the elusive consumer was no longer a mystery.
When Dorothy found the Wizard was just a man hiding behind the curtain, she no longer feared or respected him. Since corporations and countries always need something to fear, corporate attention quickly turned to Wall Street whose analysts could diminish a company's value overnight. So it came to pass that half a million unhappy customers weren't half as worrisome as one unhappy analyst.
And that is precisely how I believe consumers can win back the fear and respect of corporate America. Every unhappy consumer must assume the role of a Wall Street analyst or a government regulator. And wouldn't you know it? Behind this all lies a new dot.com called Scaryletterhead.com.
And here comes the commercial: In accordance with the rules and regulations of this fine newspaper I must disclose that I am the founder and sole shareholder in Scaryletterhead.com. It works this way. Let's say you're a disgruntled consumer and are fuming because you had a lousy ride on a United Airlines flight. Granted this is the same United Airlines that recently announced that, to repay their customers for suffering through a recent strike, they are now planning to cut down on a number of their regular flights. Their new slogan, I guess, would be UNITED AIRLINES . . . FEWER FLIGHTS TO FEWER PLACES, BUT IT BEATS OUR BEING ON STRIKE, DOESN'T IT?
So you are a United Airlines customer and you want to lodge a complaint. You've had a lousy flight. Are you going to make a phone call and get the "Press 1 for domestic flight information" runaround? No sir. Now you have been empowered to go to your computer and log into Scaryletterhead.com. There you will find a menu giving you a choice of over 10,000 legitimate letterheads, each designed to throw a scare into even the most callous corporate type.
For a bad airline flight may I recommend you download two of my favorites. The official FAA inspector letterhead, and my own personal choice, the Goldman Sachs letterhead featuring those three tiny terrifying words, "Airline Industry Analyst," strategically placed on the left side. The letterheads will cost two for $5 and, of course, when you figure out that every day there are over 10 million Americans walking around grumbling about something, you can see that I have one hell of a nifty financial plan for Scaryletterhead.com.
Now here is a warning: You must never attempt in your letter to say that you are employed by the firm whose letterhead you are borrowing. Here's how you can get around this. Suppose you are using the FAA letterhead. Perhaps you should start your letter this way:
"Ever since I was a small child I have had dreams of working for the FAA and cracking down on airlines who close their doors 45 minutes before they actually take off and who employ flight attendants who spill hot coffee on the crotches of innocent passengers. Let me tell you about a recent flight on your so-called airline . . ." etc., etc. Notice you claimed nothing but hinted at everything. If you want to go the financial terrorism route, then the Goldman Sachs letterhead is a winner. Again, claim nothing, hint at everything. A Goldman Sachs airline analyst could probably financially ruin an airline if he was seen grilling 12 sweating United Airlines vice-presidents in a Goldman Sachs conference room.
"Gentlemen, I would like to invite you to my home for a conference about the terrible flight I recently had on your airline. My door will always be open and hot coffee will be served in cups instead of spilled on crotches as I recently experienced on my last, and I mean last, flight on your airline."
I can't speak for the rest of the dot.com economy, but I will say this: The financial future of Scaryletterhead.com is assured as long as there are unhappy costumers who want to get even. And there will always be unhappy customers who want to get even.
A final note: If you have any complaints about Scaryletterhead.com and you have a few hours to waste pressing the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 on your phone, feel free to phone my Consumer Relations Department.
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