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Consumer Masochism

Topics: Lifestyle & Culture | 1 CommentBy admin | April 4, 2010

Now that it’s been established that corporations have the same rights as people, why do we choose to have such masochistic relationships with them?

If you really ARE into this kind of
abuse, I bet you didn’t know Amazon
sells all the bondage gear you’ll need.
You’ll also be surprised what people
call Sexual Wellness these days.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re a nation of masochists. Why else would we put up with the endless assault on our sensibilities perpetrated by almost every large corporation we do business with? You’ve almost certainly had some kind of interaction with a credit card company, phone company, bank, or some other product maker or service provider that left you astounded, if not enraged. I’m going to list a few specific experiences of my own below, but I’d love to hear yours. I’m honestly just perplexed as to why we, as consumers, don’t band together and address the litany of deceptive, fraudulent, and generally scurrilous practices of almost every major corporation we keep afloat with our hard-earned dollars. I mean, the list is endless. It’s not like you have to nit-pick. You go to do something simple like buy groceries, and as standard practice, chain stores place all the products no-one wants at eye level, put different brands of the same item in different parts of the store, and line all the aisles with misleading sale tags. These and other strategies are familiar tricks, but does the store really generate more sales that way? I’d love to see the solid research. My hunch is that it’s an accepted method that is assumed to increase sales, but in reality only creates more grumpy shoppers. Another common example: if your cell phone provider is Verizon, they tell you that you qualify for a free or cheap phone every two years for your faithful patronage, and when you go to collect it, they give you rebate forms to fill out and mail in while they bill you the full price, banking on the likelihood you’ll miss the deadline and will have already been billed by then. Even if you do follow their Byzantine rebate requirements carefully, they’ve essentially forced you to loan them money for the interim. Pretty clever. But we’re all familiar with the concepts behind these annoying practices, I’m just curious as to why we tolerate them. I’m going to share a few of mine from the last year below; I’d love to hear about yours. Maybe there’s something we can do. I mean something besides complain about complaint web sites on complaint web sites.

My first experience with flat out lies from a utility provider was Columbia Cable (now Comcast) in 1992, who had been denying a restaurant I had just started managing cable service for several years, because the restaurant was 300 feet from their nearest line. They claimed they would have to charge $100 per foot of new cable to install service. I called the cablecasting commission. They disagreed. We had cable a week later.

In the last year, I’ve had so many problems with AT&T that legal action is likely. At the moment, they claim I owe them several hundred dollars, and turned one account over to collection without my ever having received a bill for the account in question. In the course of the outright lies and service problems I endured interacting with them, one of their own techs even jokingly said “remember, we’re a TELEPHONE company, not a COMMUNICATIONS company“. Which inspired the parody graphic you see here. So here’s my harrowing story, if you have the patience:

In 2008, I had to move a few times because of some financial problems with my home-based business. First, I moved from one unit to another in the same building. AT&T’s representative informed me that I could no longer use the DSL service they had provided me for nearly ten years, because they were introducing Uverse. I’ve actually owned a small telecom company, so I knew this was utterly untrue – they need only “pull a pair” through a wall for me to keep the service – but after wasting a couple of hours on the phone (much of it on hold) trying to contest their stance, I relented. They charged me an extra hundred for the proprietary digital modem I didn’t want, and started billing me separately. Because although they’re apparently not a monopoly if they SELL phone and DSL service on the same sales call, they are if they BILL the items together. A mild, but notable annoyance. A few months later I had to move again, still in the same small town I live in. Guess what. Not only could I not keep my new Uverse service in this neighborhood (right across town), I couldn’t even keep my PHONE NUMBER. You expect this in a city like San Francisco, but not a small college town. Well, at least I got my DSL back. And now had a stylish black & silver paperweight otherwise known as a Uverse modem. A few months later I moved to a location two blocks from the first location. I assumed I’d lose my number again, and have to return to Uverse. Guess what. I could keep my number going the other direction, but Uverse was unavailable. Two blocks from that first location, where it was MANDATORY if I wanted AT&T broadband. So then, it became really unpleasant. The company misquoted the installation and service costs, and bungled the installation dates. I have call logs, and in the 4 weeks I waited to get DSL service, I spent over 9 hours on the phone before a supervisor figured out what the problem was. I suggested that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an AT&T customer any more, and she offered a month’s free service. I said that wasn’t adequate. She offered two. I accepted reluctantly. She said it would be credited on my next bill. Guess what? It wasn’t. At this point I got a little delinquent on my bill for a couple of months. Not into the dreaded “SHUTOFF NOTICE” zone, but regularly a few days late. The third month I did this, they shut off my DSL and voice mail with no notice. I called, they said it was standard procedure, I paid. I didn’t ask them to re-activate anything, I just paid the bill. Guess what. They “re-installed” the DSL I was no longer using (my understanding was that the service was terminated), and BILLED ME FOR INSTALLATION. And shut off my service a month later unexpectedly. That was a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t even call to see why they shut it off, because around the same time, I started getting collection calls on my VERIZON CELL PHONE about 6 months of Uverse service I had never used, and for which I never received a bill. Interesting that they couldn’t get the bill to me, but could apparently track down my cell number from all the hours of customer service calls. I’m still deciding what to do. Anybody know a good broadband provider?

This inability to use the US mail successfully also tortured me for a few months with my bank. I keep a no-frills expense account with a small regional bank. The account is often drained down to a few cents for brief periods of a week or two. At one point a couple of years ago, I received an urgent notice (by mail) that my account was overdrawn and had accrued three overdraft charges, totaling over a hundred dollars. This was odd, because I hadn’t used the account, and it sees so few transactions that it’s almost impossible for me to make overdraft mistakes. I looked closely at my statements, and sure enough, their was a series of ten dollar “statement handling fees”. Even the branch manager didn’t know what that meant. She called a main office and found out that it referred to statements that were returned to the bank by the postal service. Why their failure to get my mail to me was something they billed me for perplexed me, but we checked all the account info, I made calls to the post office to make sure my address and mailboxes were correct and properly labeled, and the manager deleted the charges. This charge popped up repeatedly for six months. It became a friendly joke between me and the manager (she’d always just delete the charge), but inside, I didn’t really think it was terribly funny. Finally, I ran into an old friend who was a former postal carrier. He suggested the stripe code might not match the printed address. Voila! In spite of repeated calls to the post office and bank headquarters, it took just one retired carrier to solve the problem. Thanks Walt, wherever you are!

I’ll wrap it up with some quick irony. The best customer service I’ve ever experienced was with a tobacco company. I smoke (yeah, I know) Dunhills, and have never smoked anything else. I mean, tobacco-wise. A couple of years ago, I noticed their quality dropping off rapidly. A short time later their box and logo design changed, and the box suddenly said “Made In Singapore” instead of “Made In Switzerland”. The quality of the cigarettes remained really awful, and I started to joke that I’d finally have to quit. Then I called the 888 number inside the box. The raspy-voiced American rep in one of their British offices acknowledged that the problem existed, and explained that there had been a fire at their main operation in Switzerland, and they had hastily set up new facilities in Singapore. She asked how many packs I had been unhappy with. I really didn’t know. I said maybe six or ten. She said “Let’s just call it ten. We’ll send you a check for $120.00 for your inconvenience”. I assumed she meant some redeemable voucher. 3 days later I received a cashier’s check for 120 bucks by certified mail. Guess what. I still smoke Dunhills.

Read Comments

  1. Posted by Best Of 2010 at dissociatedpress.com on 07.18.10 1:57 pm

    [...] completely aware of the impending demise of their ironic hipsterism, they still seem to be pretty clueless, masochistic consumers who are always too busy to just hang out, or at least trying to look that way so they can stay [...]