Rudeness now has the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval!

Nobody likes to get fleeced, or even pay more than they should for an item or service. There are plenty of websites and publications where bargain-hunters are able to find new ideas for saving money. Message boards and coupon code sites abound. Recently, though, a trend has popped up among magazines. They’re publishing the usual articles on how to save a few bucks, but the methods they’re advocating basically translate to, “Be a big pain in the ass to save 10%!” The writers of these articles are telling you to haggle, be condescending, make a scene, and do everything else you can to make a customer service person’s life miserable.

We’ll start with Good Housekeeping’s article called “Bargaining For Beginners”. Now, this one was published way back in September of ’05, but it sets the tone nicely for the more recent publications. The author tells us that bargaining is acceptable everywhere! You can haggle them down on the price of everything to slightly damaged items to opened boxes to watches that you just don’t want to pay that much for. She even gives you handy little scripts to follow, under the assumption that every shop is going to follow the other half without stage direction. Here’s one such gem:

You: I notice there’s a makeup stain right here, on the collar.
Them: I’m certain that will come off with a little club soda.
You: [Blink rapidly, say nothing.]
Them: I’ll ask the manager what we can do about it.”

I have two problems with this. First and foremost, the “blink rapidly, say nothing” is, quite bluntly, an asshole move. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s meant to intimidate the lowly little associate into bending to the customer’s will. It’s an attempt at the Jedi Mind Trick. Most of the customer service associates that I know would be more than happy to play along, by blinking back and also saying nothing. Unless you get somebody who’s new to the game, it’s just not going to work. However, secondly, I’d LOVE to see people try this one. Some middle-aged bargain-hunter trying to get a discount at her local WalMart by using this tactic probably isn’t going to be quite as versed in the nuances. So there she’ll be, blinking rapidly and saying nothing, which will probably prompt the associate with whom she’s speaking to say something along the lines of, “Are you okay? Is there something in your eye? Contact lens solution is in Aisle 3, if you need some.” Definitely something worth watching. Destined for failure, but fun to observe in action, I’m sure.

The author also advocates asking for a discount on open-box items. This isn’t really all that unusual, and most stores will, in fact, charge less for a package that’s been opened, despite the fact that all of the pieces are there and functional. Ten percent off for doing the store the favour of taking that box full of germs and functional merchandise off of their hands. This, however, has led to interesting actions on the part of customers. Many times, I’ve heard/seen this exchange:

Customer:Can I open the box to make sure all the pieces are there?
Associate: Sure! Here, let me do that for you. (opens box, inspects contents)
Customer:Great. I’ll take it. But can I get a discount? The box is opened.
Customer:Okay, great. But I don’t want that one. The box has been opened. Can I have the unopened one right next to it?

Both of these things really and truly happen, and often.

But let’s move on, shall we? Readers Digest put out an article a few months ago titled, “Don’t Pay These New Hidden Fees”. Sure, there’s good information in there, mostly about cellphone charges, and how to talk to a human being when you call a customer service line. He also makes the distinction that people should make reasonable requests, and talks about customer abuses of an overly generous company (in this case, Sprint). But he also relates a tale of total failure when he tried to book the Omni Tucson National Golf Resort & Spa. Apparently, he didn’t want to pay those sneaky “resort fees” that they MUST have tacked on simply to add profit to the back end (they certainly wouldn’t use those proceeds to help maintain the two hot tubs, tennis courts, fitness center, two pools, etc.). The hotel refused to remove the fees despite his compelling argument that “I’ve got a lousy backhand. What do you say we forget the tennis and call it even?” Denied.

Most recently, we have another Good Housekeeping article, this one in their June issue, titled “Don’t Get Hooked By Hidden Fees”. Under the sidebar titled “Make A Scene”, the author’s advice is to do exactly that. Raise your voice, especially if there’s a line behind you. It seems as though those dirty proles that you have to deal with will cave much more easily if you are loud in front of an audience. Hotels are targeted, partially because they try to maintain a calm, tranquil environment in their lobbies. You should ruin that to avoid a $12 resort fee. He even quotes a person who says that they’ve stood at three different hotel desks and argued his way out of fees.

I need to talk for a second on resort fees. In two different articles now, they’ve been brought up as the root of all evil. In the Good Housekeeping article, the example given is for a room rate of $69 a night being brought up to $85 or $100 a night, pre-tax. Seriously, any hotel that’s charging a measly $69 a night probably isn’t charging you a resort fee in the first place, okay? I mean, maybe some of the hotels in Vegas, but other than that, I’ve never seen the Motel 6 Resort & Spa. If you’re that worried about resort fees, don’t stay at a resort hotel. It’s that simple, really. If you really want to stay at a nice hotel with those features, pay for them. Now, I don’t own a bathing suit, so it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be hitting the pool at any hotel, but who knows? I might obtain one and decide that a soak in the hot tub is precisely what I need. I might utilize the steam room, or the fitness center. If I expect the hotel to have the most up-to-date equipment, and to have that equipment maintained, then I expect to pay for that service. If I’m not going to use any of those things, I’m still willing to pay the fee, for a very simple reason: They have no way of knowing whether or not I’m using it. Until the hotel can say, “The resort fee is optional, but should you choose not to pay it, you will not be able to access any of those services or facilities during your stay.” The honour system doesn’t work. Most of the people who think they can get out of a resort fee by bitching up a storm at the check-in desk will be the same people who will head on up to their rooms with a satisfied grin on their face, and change into their swimsuits to have a wallow in the pool, secure in the knowledge that they’ve saved themselves fifteen whole dollars, ruined a desk clerk’s day, and probably stressed out half of the lobby who had to stand there listening to the shrill harangue of the mighty Bargain Hunter. If the hotel made it optional, people would NOT pay the fee and STILL complain that they can’t get into the pool. If you’ve never worked in customer service, you probably don’t believe me. But if you’ve done any time behind a counter at all, you’ll know that I speak the truth.

The author of the latest Good Housekeeping article, Bob Sullivan, however, gets special attention from me. You see, a lot of people in customer service have read this article and/or have already had to deal with the fallout from it, and they chose to write letters to the Editor. Good for them! Well, those notes were duly passed on, and the author was kind enough to write back to every single one of those people. Awesome, no? No, actually. He did it with a form letter that not only backpedals but also shows just how far removed he is from the idea of what it’s like to work in any arena of customer service. His letter said:

“Good Housekeeping forwarded your message about my hidden fees article
in the June issue. I really appreciate you taking the time to criticize
the story and put your thoughts in writing.

If I am reading the tone of your message correctly, I think you are
ultimately saying that consumers should always treat clerks and others
with respect, and on that I wholeheartedly agree.

I think we might disagree about what that means when it comes to
vocalizing complaints, however. I believe it is acceptable to raise
your voice and to show genuine emotion in order to make sure you are
heard, particularly in environments where you are being ignored. In
fact, I would encourage all consumers, men and women alike, to quite
literally “speak up” when the situation calls for that. I do believe
that colloquialism speaks for itself.

I think cultural and local etiquette has something to say about this
subject. I grew up right outside New York City, where people who cannot
or will not raise their voice might as well be invisible. I know in
other parts of the country that would be considered strange behavior. In
Seattle, where I lived for 10 years, no one ever raises their voice.

I also believe there are many shades of gray between yelling and
speaking softly. I believe there are ways to speak a bit louder than
normal to demand respect and attention that don’t involve screaming and
intimidating other people. And I believe there are times when that is
absolutely appropriate. And I think it’s impractical to suggest keeping
emotion out of such confrontations So while I would agree that yelling,
screaming, or being outright disrespectful are rarely productive or
justifiable, I would beg to differ on the notion that raising your voice
is never acceptable.

Finally, if you are a front line employee at a company who must endure
these kinds of emotional reactions from consumers, I think it is
entirely appropriate for you to forward on the consumer to management.
People who own the company should know that their policies are sparking
that kind of response; you should not be called on to insulate owners
from angry consumers. Few things motivate change in corporate culture
like the meeting of an owner or upper manager with a genuine emotional
reaction from a customer.”

This smug little missive does precisely NOTHING to address the concerns of the people who wrote to him. Sure, he says, I think you should raise your voice, but that’s not yelling. Yet, his article contains the quote, “Just gradually raise your voice until you get what you want”. Really? Like, really really? That doesn’t translate to eventually yelling? In what language, precisely?

Listen, I love educated consumers. I try to be one myself. And bad service is definitely something that happens. When it does, I definitely do my part to address the issue, though I usually go directly to a manager for such things. I use “genuine emotion”, but even the manager is most locations isn’t setting the prices or instituting fees, and in many places, any discounts given are scrutinized by those higher-up. I rarely have cause to raise my voice in any fashion.

” I believe it is acceptable to raise your voice and to show genuine emotion in order to make sure you are heard, particularly in environments where you are being ignored. ” Bob? You’re not being ignored. You may not be getting what you want, but you’re not being ignored as long as somebody is still talking to you, even if they’re saying, “No.” to your demands. They are different things entirely. It may be a subtle difference, and I understand if it’s difficult for you to see that, but it’s a difference you should learn. We hear you, and we hear you loud and clear. Repeating yourself as you “gradually raise your voice” doesn’t change your words, and many times, it won’t change the response you get, either.

He contradicts himself when he says, “I believe there are ways to speak a bit louder than normal to demand respect and attention that don’t involve screaming and intimidating other people.”. Sir, when you advocate raising your voice, especially when there’s a queue that the clerk is trying to move through, you are advocating an intimidation tactic. I’m not sure what you thought it was, really, but that’s what it is. And no, it won’t “demand respect”, even if it gets you attention. Respect went down the tubes when you decided you had to yell, oh, I’m sorry, raise your voice loud enough so that everyone in the line you’re holding up can also hear you.

I’m cognizant of the basic facts, one of which being that your front-line customer service representative has no control over prices, often is not authorized to give discounts, and will probably be disciplined if they do. Telling them that “I think it is entirely appropriate for you to forward on the consumer to management” is no balm to them. In fact, the most common reaction to this statement is, “Thanks a lot, Captain Obvious.” I’m glad that the author thinks that most front-line people are so dim that they wouldn’t get that basic fact. Of course it’s appropriate. However, many times, the customer is so incensed and screaming that it’s difficult to get a word in edgewise, and if we walk away from them mid-rant, they scream even MORE. Yes, scream. They do that. And now, they’re doing that with Good Housekeeping telling them that it’s not just okay, but encouraged.

“People who own the company should know that their policies are sparking that kind of response; you should not be called on to insulate owners
from angry consumers”. This is where he really shows that he’s clearly never experienced life on the other side of the counter. We’re THERE to insulate owners from angry consumers. If the owners wanted to really get into the consumers’ concerns, they’d be in the shops and at the front desk. They’re NOT. They hire us to take the abuse. They don’t want to know about it. Trust me on this, if business owners and upper management had to deal with what happens on the front lines every day, there’d be no more of this “The Customer Is Always Right” bullshit that they so glibly bandy about. Don’t tell US that people who own the company need to know about negative reactions. TELL THE OWNERS OF THE COMPANY. You’ve already acknowledged that we shouldn’t have to deal with your whiny ass, and that we should pass you on to our managers. Guess what? Our managers can tell the higher-ups about your reaction all day long, and it won’t matter a bit. YOU tell them if you’re so angry about it. You are, after all, The Almighty Customer.

Customers will scream, insult, and lie to get what they want. You may not believe this, but it’s true. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen grown adults act like tiny children, throwing tantrums over not being able to talk us into a discount, or honouring an expired coupon. The difference now is that they can add, “GOOD HOUSEKEEPING TOLD ME TO DO THIS!!!” to their arsenal. So thanks. A lot.

He really also should have ended his final sentence a bit earlier. “Few things motivate change in corporate culture like the meeting of an owner or upper manager with a genuine emotional reaction from a customer.” No, sir. Few things motivate change in corporate culture. End of line. Full stop. Your delusion is showing. I’ve been a disgruntled customer before, and despite multiple attempts to get my complaint to the proper people at Victoria’s Secret, my “genuine emotional reaction”, as it were, I’ve been thwarted for over a year. Owners, CEOs, upper managers couldn’t give a tin damn about my “genuine emotional reaction” or anyone else’s. If you want to exact change on a grand scale in a company, make it known by your spending habits, and get people to do the same. Write a letter or make a phone call stating why, and then stick to it. But raising your voice at some hapless associate who probably doesn’t even have the authorization to cave in to your snotty little demands isn’t going to do anything but give that poor person a reason to drink heavily at the end of their shift. Don’t you feel better now that you’ve taken your frustrations at a company out on somebody who had nothing to do with the decision in the first place?