The Customer Can Always Write

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I get the sense that I tend to spend an unusual amount of time exercising my "right" as a consumer to provide feedback to the companies and organizations from which I buy products and services. The general trend in "consumer action" these days when a company is providing poor customer service or substandard products seems to be cursing a bit under one's breath, perhaps having a tense exchange with The Manager, but otherwise letting it go...and usually returning again soon to patronize the same business without a memory of frustrating experiences of the past. Whatever the reason might be for this trend - reduction of our shopping choices, general consumer apathy, or something else - it's exactly what many businesses are counting on from all of us so they can keep their bottom line where they like it. I have a different sense about how we should act in the face of poor service and products.

If I have a frustrating or disappointing experience at a store that feels systemic (as opposed to exceptional or circumstantial) in nature, I usually take the time to write a letter. Sometimes it's a twenty minute exercise, sometimes it takes up a few hours of my life, depending on how hard it is to find the correspondence address, what kind of response I get, how unhappy I am about it, etc. I don't do this out of any sense of entitlement or thirst for justice - usually, I'm just appalled at the customer service practices of the majority of these places, and think "my gosh, someone there has got to want to know about this problem with their product/service/staff/organization."

And in general I find that most entities welcome this feedback and respond positively. In the average case, I get a generic "thanks for your time, we'll note your observations accordingly" and a few gift certificates for use at their establishment. In some cases I get no response. In some cases they take the time to defend their poor practices and diplomatically ridicule me for bothering to write. And in some cases I see actual changes in their practices as a result of my comments. So it's a reasonable balance of the outcomes you might expect.

But what I find fairly unintuitive is why more people don't take the time to provide similar feedback of their own experiences. Especially in a small town like Richmond, the population tends to develop a collective opinion of places they shop at. "That restaurant has good rolls, but their service sucks." "That place never gets my order right the first time, but I get such good service." And so on. At a larger scale - regional, national, international, etc. - there are certainly practices of certain businesses that everyone encounters and that everyone wishes were different. But in most cases, there's no action taken. We come to accept these qualities as normal, reasonable, the status quo we can't do anything about. But maybe those places don't even know about those problems!

In reality, as much as they may hate to admit it, most companies still live and die at the hand of public opinion about their products and services. They *must* read and respond to the feedback they get. They must pay attention to public perception and the expectations of the communities they do business in. This is why places that sell even the most obscure parts for even obscurer products still (for now) invest the resources to have a 24-hour 1-800 consumer service hotline. They know that to ignore their customers` opinions is to risk extinction.

But as consumers, we so often give up on our end of that bargain. We fail to hold these companies - big and small - responsible for their actions. We assume that someone else will report it, that it was just that one time, that no one will listen to what we think anyway. But in doing so, we let them get away not only with treating us unfairly the first time, but also with not taking any responsibility for it. Worse, the companies who actually do care about quality and customer service miss out on an opportunity to improve.

So, all that goes to say that if you have the inclination and means, I say "it's worth it" to write a letter, drop an e-mail, call a hotline about the experiences you have at the places you shop - positive and negative both. You may be surprised at the impact you can have. More importantly, you're putting your "purchasing power" to use to make your own life better.

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