Consumer Power Is A Myth

As product lines grow, consumers may rejoice over the “choices,” but we end up spending more time to evaluate and search for information, with lengthened periods of indecision before finally making a purchase that may or may not be exactly what we need or want.

As the “choices” keep expanding, the consumers’ collective powers are dispersed. So, companies don’t really need to listen to consumers’ “complaints.” Only when a company becomes outrageously arrogant and pushes way too far would the masses revolt. When Bank of America planned to charge its customers a monthly fee for using their own money in the form of debit cards, it went too far. It backed down, but that doesn’t mean that the Bank won’t find other ways to impose fees here and there, and under a smokescreen of diversified offerings and differing packages, dilute its consumers’ attention and therefore power.

Hiking choices galore in my part of the world, and the pleasures are plentiful too.  Now, that's a win-win.

Hiking choices are galore in my part of the world, and the pleasures are plentiful too. Now, that’s a win-win.

I usually toss away most business mailings – pertaining to services I use — that seem to contain only promotional information. The occasional “for customers’ privacy” letters, or “rate changes” don’t concern me. It’s never to my advantage and I can hardly do anything about it anyhow. But once in a great while, for no good reason I can think of, I open a form letter and glance at it. A few months ago, I caught sight of a rate increase that made my eyes pop. American Express jacked up its annual membership fee by 100%! Since I don’t use it often (Visa works overseas just as well), I decided to cancel it…with pleasure. I wondered, though, how many people noticed the rate increase in time to avoid being caught by it.

The AE card final statement came with credit for previous annual fee prorated for the remaining time on the membership. Well… since I had already canceled it, wouldn’t the company (or, the computer program) figure out that a refund check should be issued? I had to take the time to go through the annoying gauntlet of “press 1 for X” and “press 2 for Y” before finally talking to a real person who then processed my request with, “You should receive your check between 7-10 business days.” So…what if I hadn’t called? messed up my credit. At least, the customer service agent was awfully polite (is that A behavior? or D- behavior?) and blamed it on a computer glitch and fixed it right away. What if I didn’t call?

And yes, I do have the time (though hardly the desire) to make such calls. Most people who are stressed out by their daily routines might not. Then what?

Verizon Wireless agent was terribly sweet and earnest in his sales pitch to us when we were looking into upgrading one of our dinosaur phones. For people to sign up with Verizon’s “Edge” program, they don’t have to lock in the usual 2-year contract, and they save…till you realize that you end up paying “just” $2 extra per month for the next two years, or till the phone is paid off. Some might react privately, “Oh, well…at least I can update sooner rather than later.” As if that’s a magnificent advantage. A $2 for each person might not be a huge deal; however, $2 from several million customers a month is a sweet little sum for the company. But, seriously, how much attention do we really pay to the convoluted sales pitch, especially when there are others queuing up in the store?

And then there is government bureaucracy. A friend got slapped for a parking fine. OK, she popped the payment in the mail the very next day. A month later, she got a letter informing her that she now had to pay extra for failing to pay. In order to straighten out others’ mistakes, she had to first go to the bank to request a copy of the returned check, with the endorsement shown (which usually doesn’t show up in the monthly statement) before she could argue her case with the DMV. She noticed the person behind her in the queue was also holding a copy of endorsed check. My friend was assured that DMV would correct the mistake, “Sorry, we just didn’t get around to log in your payment.” A few weeks later, my friend got another letter informing her to show up in court for lack of payment for this parking infraction! Now she had to take time off to go to court and hope that the wait would not be too long. What will be the odds for her to resolve this in less than 10 minutes?

I know, I know, these are minor annoyances. There are countless more serious mistakes, harassments, infringements…that make millions suffer a lot more, every day. But that’s my point: when will we ever get to say, “Enough, stop complicating my life! Design a system that gives me real ‘options.’ Provide me a real contact person who listens.” When everyone is so busy at work and doing their best to be contributors, don’t you wonder, “What more should we have to do, to make this society and our lives better?”

If you have any suggestions, please share.

On the positive side, Happy Mother’s Day.


Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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