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”)


Gift cards are a great alternative, when your shopping experience is suffering from a lack of time or inspiration.  You can let the recipient pick what she wants to buy; you don’t have to mess with a gift-receipt and you don’t have to shop around or worry about whether what you’re buying is actually the ‘right’ thing.  It’s no secret that retailers love to sell gift cards, because much of the money that they collect to sell the cards goes unused.  (It is estimated that in 2012, $2 Billion in gift cards will go unredeemed).  But, are they really the perfect gift?  

Let’s take a look at what kind of protections the gift card-buyer and the gift-card recipient have.  And, let’s look at what kind of obligations the company who issues the gift card has. (The company that will ultimately pay for the items that are bought with the card is called the ‘issuer’.  If you buy a VISA gift-card at Giant Eagle, the issuer is VISA, not Giant Eagle.)    

What kind of Gift Card did I buy (or get) as a gift?

Nearly all gift cards can be classified into one of two categories: Department Store (or Merchant) Gift Cards or Bank Gift Cards.  

Department Store cards can be sold anywhere.  But, they are only good at the store that is listed on the front of the card.  (such as HomeDepot, or Lowe’s, or a restaurant).  These cards almost always contain verbage that they ‘cannot be exchanged for cash.’ (But, for those of you who might not ever redeem your cards, there are websites that offer cash for unused gift cards.)   One problem with Department Store cards is that if the store goes out of business, before you redeem the card for merchandise, the card won’t be good for anything.  These cards are less likely to charge the fees that are associated with Bank gift cards.

Bank Gift Cards (such as a VISA gift-card) are usually good anywhere cards from that particular bank are accepted.  They’re useful at many different places, so having the one place that the card is accepted go out of business isn’t a concern.  But, these cards tend to lose more value as time passes, because of the fees that they can charge to the cardholders.   Bank cards are also more likely to come with an ‘activation’ fee.  It is common to charge purchasers up to ten (10) percent of the total face-value of the card up-front. (If you want to buy a $100.00 VISA card for a friend, you will probably have to pay $110.00 for the card)

How long will your gift card good last? 

Both types of gift cards must be usable for five years from the date that they were activated.  (If the card has no expiration date, it is good forever)    But, as you will read below, even though a card is good for a certain number of years, the balance on the card can be lowered by the merchant in the form of fees, as the years pass. 

Paper gift certificates are only guaranteed to last for two years.

Can the Bank or Department Store that issued the card charge fees?

Yes.  They can charge the person who buys the card an ‘activation’ fee to activate or turn on the card. But, no other fee is allowed, during the first year that you have the card.     If you are buying a gift card for someone else, ask the cashier: ‘How much is going to be on the card?’  (The difference between what you are paying and the amount of money on the card is the ‘activation’ fee.)

(HINT: the most common way to charge fees to a card is for the seller to reduce the balance on the card on their own system.  The next time you use the card, the balance will be adjusted by their computer.  It’s a good practice to ask how much is left on the card, after you use it.  Then write that amount on the back of the card itself with a pen or magic marker.  That way, you can tell if the store has reduced your balance) 

Department Store Cards must wait two (2) years, before charging you any fees.  

Bank Gift cards (and ‘multiple-merchant’ cards, such as a card good for any store in an entire shopping mall) must wait one (1) year, before charging you any fees. 

Is there a problem if I let the card sit for a while and don’t use it? 

There might be.  After the first year, sellers of a Bank Gift Card can charge you a ‘dormancy fee’, if you don’t use it for any twelve-month period.  Department Store cards must wait two years to charge a dormancy fee.  

How do I protect myself, in case the card gets lost or stolen?

As soon as you buy (or receive as a present) a gift card, write down the number that is on the front of the card and the phone number of the issuer that is listed on the back of the card.  This way, if the card is lost or stolen, you can call the issuer and ask for a replacement card.  (Remember: Unless gift cards are cancelled, they can be used by anybody)  If you don’t have the information about your particular card, there is very little that the card issuer can do to help you. There is no legal requirement that they replace the lost card.  But, in a world where banks and retailers care about customer service, it’s hard to imagine that they would not agree to give you a new card if you were able to assist them in cancelling the lost/stolen card.  (They may want to charge you a replacement fee to issue a new card)

Does any of this change if I put more money onto the card?

Some cards are reloadable cards, where you can add money to the card’s balance when it starts to creep down toward zero.  Any money that you add to a reloadable gift card must be usable for five (5) years. 

How do I make sure that I don’t lose any money from my new Gift-Card?

Use the card as soon as you can!  If you use the card in the first year, you will get to enjoy the entire balance, not matter what kind of card it is. (And remember: buy something nice for yourself!)

Posted by: Mark Wiseman