Take a seat honey – it’s gonna be a while (how to handle customer service abuse)

We’ve been trying to come up with what constitutes Consumer-hell. Although we weren’t there this morning, we sure were in the Consumer Twilight Zone. We have been planning on going out of town for a wedding. Since the plans that we were scheming with a local travel agent came to naught (THAT experience could be handled in a blog post of its own, entitled “So that contest prize for a free trip wasn’t so free after all, huh?”) we had to adjust to make do in other ways.

Mrs. Consumer Courage (who continually establishes herself as the reasonable member of the family) remembered that we had a age-old uncashed coupon for free travel on an airline that shall remain nameless (mostly so I can skewer them further on in this post). We tried searching for flights on the airline’s website. Unfortunately the closest we came was a message in BIG RED LETTERS to the effect: “We’re sorry, but the dates/times/flights you have requested do not exist.” The strangest thing is when Mrs. Consumer Courage called the airlines she was able to choose from many very agreeable flight choices.

We chose a flight that was convenient and (as it would happen) only slightly more than our coupon’s value. Which meant that we would be flying to our destination (and back) for about Fifty bucks per person.

Author’s note explaining the wanton boasting nature of this comment: we have a hard time standing those who have a constant need to inform the world of what they saved, when they saved it and how much more than you they saved. I’m NOT that guy. But, it is necessary for the point we have to make to tell the world that we’re only spending fifty bucks.

Is that Dot Matrix print?

At this point, it’s probably important to mention when we actually got our coupon. The first long-distance carrier we ever used was Sprint. Our first home phone long-distance contract started in 1988. In late 2004, Sprint sent everyone a letter that said

“Dear valued customer, our rewards program is going belly-up because, by now, every human has no choice but to obtain a mobile phone. Therefore, we don’t really need to have prizes for people to use our long-distance service because we have turned our efforts to fleecing the world with cell phone charges. (air-usage charges; over minutes charges; incomprehensible nameless fees……you understand). Anyway, unless you pick a prize from this list that is way smaller than the list that you signed up for in the next week-and-a-hald , your points will disappear.” (we might have paraphrased a little)

After much discussion, we opted for the two airline coupons. Fast forward a decade. As it turns out, just GETTING the coupon/gift certificate/redeemable prize is only part of the battle. By now, most people know what a con gift certificates can be. (Con’s probably not the right word. Let’s call them a passive goof. Whoever sells them will gladly redeem them. But if you forget – who’s gonna stop you?) Most gift certificates go unused. Let that sink in a while. More than half of the gift certificates ever purchased do not get cashed in. Which means that when you buy a gift certificate for somebody; odds are you are really just making a donation to the store that you WANT your friend to visit. Never was that more apparent than with our airline coupons.

We got them in 2005 – we used them in 2015. I know I know, ten years is a long time NOT to use a gift certificate. In our defense, I realized as soon as we got them that there was no expiration date. So, what’s the hurry? Well, one of the bugaboos with gift certificates is that they only last as long as the company that you buy them from. (Just ask several members of Consumer Courage’s extended family who fell in love with a certain restaurant and bought each other gift cards only to watch them go out of business)

I have to go where?

We made our plans with the help of the customer service lady at the airline. When it came time to book the flight, she said “Well, I can reserve it for you, but I can’t run the coupon. You’ll have to go to the ticket counter at the airport in the next 24 hours.” This didn’t seem like such a hassle. Even though she told us that the counter was open from “8 a.m. until 8 p.m.” I decided to go early in the morning (on my way to work) to get it done quickly. After all, how long could this take?

My first mistake

I showed up at the ticket counter the next morning as instructed.  At the time it didn’t seem so weird that I had to go to the airport to redeem the coupon.  But I soon figured out why it should have set off alarms inside my head.  The first indication that this wasn’t going to be a quick purchase was when the clerk said “Hmmm.  I have to go in the back and get my book.”  She returned with an item that was made (I am sure) before we had the internet.  It was a 3 inch thick binder that contained everything that this airline might ever want their employees to know.  Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that the tome she had in her hands was insufficient to the task.  That task being: help me buy a ticket on their airline.

Editor’s note of searing irony: that I was having trouble buying an airline ticket at the one location on the planet that has as it’s reason for existence to help people buy airline tickets didn’t make it any easier for me.

What followed was a series of conversations between the clerk who was helping me and the folks on the other end of the line who worked for HER AIRLINE.  (to be fair, it wasn’t ALL conversations that I witnessed.  Most of what I saw was this woman sitting on hold, actually WAITING to be helped by a faceless customer service rep in some far away place)  As much as I wanted to look at her, smirk and say “Not so fun is it?  waiting to be helped on the phone by someone who could be on the moon and in no hurry to help you?  Been there…”   (Just between you and me, if the thing I was waiting on wasn’t REALLY cheap tickets for Mrs. Consumer Courage and myself I would have been a lot less pleasant…)

As it was, it seemed like I was in a sit-com.  Here are some of the things that the I heard the clerk say during the TWO HOURS (!) I sat and watched her be in her own customer service penalty box.

  • [to the rep on the phone] “Yeah, I have no idea what to do either.  No idea”
  • [to another rep] “I know. I haven’t seen one of these things for years”
  • [to too many customers in line] “Can I help you sir?  I not doing anything but sitting on hold”
  • [to her c0-worker] “I’m gonna be another half-hour. AT LEAST”
  • [to me] “It’s not me.  Nobody wants to take responsibility for this. Nobody wants to sign off on this and maybe get in trouble”
  • [to another co-worker] “I don’t know what Sandy’s problem is today.  She can’t get into the supply closet.  Sure, like there’s nothing else to do around here but go get pencils!”
  • [to the rep on the phone] “Oh go ahead.  I’ll still be here.  I don’t have anything else to do this morning” (both of them laughing)
  • [to me] “you see, our system is new and it doesn’t know how to talk to the old system.”
  • [to her co-worker]  “This is so weird.  It will only let me plug in ‘cash’ or ‘credit card’ as the form of payment.  There is no box for ‘coupon.”

You read correctly.  I spent my entire morning in customer servicer purgatory because the geniuses who designed their computer system forgot to put an “other” category in the ‘form of payment’ field.

Editor’s whole other problem:  one of my peeves in this technologically-advanced world of ours is when a company blames the horrible way they treat you on the fact that “our computer system is so big that we have trouble interfacing with the rest of the company.”   The funny thing is: if you didn’t pay your  bill or owe them something or fail to keep alive some benefit that you should have coming – you can be sure they’ll keep track of THAT.

Two hours after I walked into the airport to buy my tickets (and after countless text messages to my wife about how I was considering railing somebody behind the counter) I finally go my tickets.  What happened?  They got “Paul” from the back. (he should be blessed, Mr. Paul)  He banged on the keyboard for 10 minutes and made it spit my tickets out.  “We used to do these all the time, ” Paul said.  Which made me say “Where were you two hours ago?”

What have we learned from this?

  1. Call them anyway.  No matter what the we says.  If you have success if you don’t have success, call and talk to an actual living person.  We can’t remember how many times the web said “we cannot find the item you are looking for” only to be told by a human being that “yes, we do have that item.”  And, every once in while you can get a better deal by asking for a better deal again and again over the phone.  Try the web and then build from the sweet deal you were able to find.
  2. Love that expiration date.  Coupons are nice.  Coupons that you can actually use are twice as nice. You could have the best coupon in the world.  If it’s past the due-date, it’ll have much better use at the bottom of your birdcage.  The first time you get a coupon (gift card, gift certificate…whatever) find the expiration date and write it down.
  3. Use them early anyway.  Have to years to spend that coupon? Great! Use it quickly.  They could go out of business or worse, get a new computer that doesn’t know how to redeem said coupon.
  4. Make sure they can help you.  Have a separate conversation with somebody about how to redeem that coupon.  Pretend you’re Consumer Courage and say  “This has happened to me before.  I had a coupon and they coudn’t redeem it.”  (you can do this. They have no idea who you are”)  Have them do some research about how the redeem process works.  That way, if there is some hidden trouble you’ll get them to figure it our for you sooner.
  5. Do your part right away.  Don’t waste any time.  We shudder to think how long we would have been standing at that ticket counter if we waited til the end of the day as the first rep suggested.  Luckily, since we showed up at the beginning of the day, there was a supervisor there. (and who knows what would’ve happened if Paul wasn’t there to save the day)
  6. Nothing left to do but Smile, Smile, Smile.  This is always good advice.  But when you are trying to get help from customer service, it can get a lot worse.  You should hear how the clerks talk about the people who even have a teensy bit of attitude once they walk away from the counter.   It’s not kind.   You have to make them WANT to give you good customer service.  If you have an attitude, they’ll give up and tell you to come back tomorrow before you know it.  Like we always say “There’s no such thing as Righteous Indignation.  There’s only Indignation (and it isn’t pretty to watch).”

Happy coupon redeeming.  And remember.  The phrase “you have to go to the office to process this transaction. Because my system is not set up for it,”  is code for “Take a sandwich and a crossword…It’s gonna be a while.”

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who wants a T-shirt that says “I stood in line for two hours and all I got was a lousy blog post”)

Why don’t you just give me 100% off? Coupons that don’t really help much

A few weeks ago, I went to Staples to buy some printer paper.  After I found what I was looking for, I walked to the register.  “Can we e-mail you the receipt?” the sales clerk offered.  “Why Yes!”  How convenient could THAT be – to have my receipt in my e-mail, instead of lying on my kitchen counter for the next three weeks? “How awesome that Staples wants to help fix my record-keeping deficiencies by e-mailing the receipt,” I thought.  (silly me) 

What they REALLY wanted was to be able to send me a gazillion e-mails touting sales and discounts. (or, what I call “almost discounts”)  The very next day, I got an e-mail with a Staples coupon. Then (on day 2) I got an offer on the Staples purchase I was to make after THAT.  It soon became apparent that the new Staples sales strategy is to pepper me with e-mails offering a discount, until I submit and buy something.  Soon after that visit, I ran out of toner.  “Beauty,” I thought.   Toner is way expensive.  But, I have a coupon from those awesome folks at Staples, I’ll just use that.   

Are we in a relationship? 

Normally, a company is not allowed to send you unwanted e-mails.  According to Federal Law (the CAN SPAM Act to be specific) companies are not allowed to send you unsolicited e-mails, unless the two of you have what’s called an “Established Business Relationship” (EBR) with them.  If you want to read the act itself, click here.  If you want to read what it actually means, click here.

To be sure, there is very little that you need to do to get yourself into an EBR and sometimes you have one without knowing it.  If you fill out an application online, enter into a contest, do business with one of their affiliates or sister companies – you have an EBR.  It’s silly to think that just by saying hi to these people, you have started a relationship.  But, that’s the law.  Getting out of the relationship is easy though.  You don’t have to come up with some “It’s not you, it’s me,” speech.  That’s because  every e-mail that you get with a business offer – whether you have an EBR or not – should have an area at the bottom for you to “click to unsubscribe.”  Once you do that, they have to stop sending you e-mails. (they can take a week to do it, but they’ll still stop)

When I first went to Staples to buy the paper, I created an EBR.  Once I gave them my e-mail I was in for it.  But, they’re gonna send me coupons so I don’t have to spend so much money on toner? “woo-hoo! I’m in!”   (Famous last words……..)

Is it good for ANYTHING?

Here is the coupon that I got from Staples:    It offered me 25% off of any “office supplies” that I was going to buy for more than $75.00.  Sweet!

As I approached the cash register, I figured out what 25% off would be.  I’m not the Rain Man or anything.  But, the official Dad of Consumer Courage is a CPA after all.  So it’s in my blood.  (Hey Pops!)  Anyway, I proudly held up my phone so the cashier could scan the coupon and give an official count on how much moola I was going to keep, when she said “Uh. I don’t think that covers ink.”  Hmmm.  I looked at the screen and started to scroll madly.  Then I came across this (in lighter and smaller font as a matter of fact):

Valid in Staples® U.S. stores only. Excludes
Food and Breakroom Supplies,
Janitorial Paper,
Chemicals and Cleaners,
Appliances & Housewares,
Safety & Medical Supplies,
Facilities Supplies,
Ink & Toner,
Ream and Case Paper,
Flash Drives,
Furniture and Postage Stamps. 
Limit one coupon per customer, nontransferable. Each item purchased can only be discounted by one coupon, applied by cashier in the order received and prior to tax. Coupon not valid if purchased or sold and must be surrendered. No cash/credit back. Not valid on prior purchases or purchases made with Staples® Procurement or Convenience Cards. Expires 1/17/15.

[The wacky spacing of what is NOT included was done by me, by the way – for effect] 

I read it out loud to myself. (strangely enough this list looks even longer when you are reading it on your phone).  I actually asked her “What CAN I buy?  This looks like everything in the store” Her reply? (I’m NOT making this up) “Well, you can buy some pens.”  (My well-reasoned complaint to the manager wasn’t any more satisfying, by the way) 

Are they allowed to do this?  In the words of the late Myron Cope   “You betcha.”

Editor’s wanton smart-alecky comment: I’m thinking about contacting Jeopardy and asking them to create a category called “Name that Staples Product™” Alex Trebek can read the exclusions in the coupon and contestants can try to name a product that the coupon will let you buy.    

Exclusions rule

Many advertisements have that are specifically NOT included, even though you would normally think that they are covered.  Those are called “exclusions.”  The company that makes the ad is allowed to have exclusions.  What the law cares about most is whether it is easy for the consumer to figure out which items  are NOT included, without being fooled?  In Ohio, the exclusions have to be obvious.  The actual rule states that the language must be stated “clearly and conspicuously [and] in close proximity to the words stating the offer.”  For example: If the ad says “FREE,” anything that is NOT free has to be listed in language that is as big as the word FREE and in a place where you don’t have to go looking for it.  Footnotes are not allowed.  

Editor’s legal-beagle-mumbo-jumbo note: Although the rule that covers advertisements doesn’t say so, it’s pretty clear that it applies to coupons as well.  If you’re bored, you can look up Renner v. Procter and Gamble,  and see where the court treats it as a foregone conclusion that the exclusions rule includes coupons as well.

So, how are they doing? 

From a “You’ve got to be kidding me” perspective, they are all wet.  I mean C’mon Staples!  As far as I can tell, the only office supplies that I can buy and still qualify for your discount are the aforementioned pens and the candy that you have attached to the register. 

How are they doing as far as the letter of the law goes?  We’re not so sure their coupons pass muster.  The exclusions language was in a smaller font, a much lighter color and at the bottom of the ad. (Remember, the language that tells you what is NOT included in the ad needs to be “in close proximity”) 

Are they alone? 

Not hardly.  It seems as if sending out coupons with a shocking number of excluded items is normal.  Dicks had a coupon with a list of exclusions that looked like it might have been award-winning, so did Macy’s. Just for fun, here are some other coupon SNAFUs.  Some that are Jay Leno-worthy . And one that was issued by a golf course in Wisconsin which (as far as we can tell) was the worst idea for a promotion in the history of …well….history

…..But back to our story.

What you can do about it?

Read the coupon before you leave the house is the first thing.  This might not increase the amount of times that you qualify for a deal. But, it might save you a trip.  Once you are at the register, you might be too uncomfortable to rethink your purchase (especially if there’s a line).  You can try to talk the manager into giving you the discount anyway.   Be warned though: getting the cashier at your grocery to ignore the exclusion on your coupon might go over a lot better than getting them to do it at Staples, where (at least at the store where I went) they don’t seem to be too concerned whether or not I become a repeat customer to their establishment. 

As with any consumer statute, Ohio’s law says that you have the right to ask for $200 in damages, even if you don’t lose money.  But, it seems to us that filing suit over a coupon exclusion might fall into the mountain-out-of-a-molehill category.  Whatever the case, be careful if you plan your shopping trip around a coupon.  You might end up buying a lifetime supply of pens.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who at one point in his life probably COULD have eaten $75.00 worth of Reese cups)