Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Consumer Used and Abused

Why can’t corporations be more flexible?  Why can’t they put a dollar value on trust, which could be engendered by being more consumer-friendly?  Let me tell you about a few different experiences, frustrations, and one triumph in my little island of consumerism.  I know the Republicans are currently trumpeting how “the free market” can do everything better than government, how businesses are the solution, not the problem, for reviving the American economy.  Let me give you my more complex view.

I love my iPhone.  It has truly changed my life, and I owe it to my sons, who converted me to Macs a few years ago.  Our family, amazingly, has four iPhones, two MacBooks, a MacBook Pro, and an iMac.  We have become avid customers, but only after Aaron and Isaac were able to awake me from my PC-Dell hypnosis.  You can’t see this, but I’m shuddering, remembering the dozens of hours wasted with PC reps trying to solve the stupidest problems.

But today I texted one of my sons, and scolded him for going over his data limit.  In about a week, he zoomed past the measly 200 MB of monthly data, the cheapest data plan ($15) offered by AT&T for the iPhone.  I’ll be paying extra for the over-usage, that is, $15 for the next 200 MB of data.  Of course, if I had originally signed up for the next highest data plan, at $25 per month, I would have gotten 2 GB, or ten times the data usage.  But then I would be paying $25, instead of $15, per month.  The company is basically trying to force you to switch to the higher data plan.

Why can’t the cheapest data plan be $15 per month for, say, 1 GB?  It seems the cheapest plan, at 200 MB, is meant to be exceeded by even the casual data user, so you’ll be trapped into paying $15 for every extra 200 MB of over-usage.  What a rip!  I feel as if I’m being used and abused by AT&T, not a customer, but an easy mark.  And I haven’t even mentioned the two-year AT&T contract imprisonment I need to endure to use my iPhone.

Again, a credit card I have owned for decades, from a major credit card company that adores the color of money and metals on its plastic, has sneakily changed the amount of time I have to pay my bill every month.  From what used to be about 25 days, to now about 8 days!  Again, another trap.  Forget to pay this credit card for a few days, and they have you by the cojones, so to Sarah-speak.

Is it me, or do you also feel besieged as a consumer?  At every turn, instead of service, another trap.  Forget to read the fine print, or just act normally, and you will be forking over the fines.  I know, some Republican Tea-Partier will say, “Caveat Emptor!  The market is king!”  But I know many of them feel just as used and abused as I do.  I know because I’ve asked a few of them in private.  But in public, at social gatherings where the walls have ears, or web cams, they must repeat their holy mantras.

My question is this: have American consumer businesses become more predatory over time?  Is there a way to measure this?  If these are not just my experiences, but part of a broader trend, why?  Have we somehow lost a social contract with businesses, in which consumers should be willing to pay good money for products and services, but also should expect these products and services to be reasonable and reliable?  Why haven’t businesses more often put a value on trust?  Trust is hard to quantify, but it is real.  Because if I trust a business, believe you me, I will go back to it, even if it makes an occasional mistake.  That’s loyalty, and it’s worth something.

Let me tell you how my trust was recently restored.  Last week, on the black MacBook I use to type this blog, the screen froze as I opened my FireFox browser.  The rainbow Apple wheel spun without point or purpose for ten, fifteen minutes.  I turned the computer off, and turned it on, but now the dreaded question-mark folder appeared on the screen.  No half-bitten gray Apple.  Nada.

I took my three-and-a-half-year-old MacBook to an Apple store in Manhattan.  Apple Genius Nicoya —I will never forget her name— told me my hard drive had failed.  Kaput.  Dead as plastic.  I told her I had AppleCare, but she noted my AppleCare coverage had expired in May, after three years exactly.  There’s no renewal.  That’s it.  I was screwed.  I must have looked puppy-dog-died devastated, not because I lost the info on my drive —I didn’t, I had backed up everything— but because I truly loved working on this MacBook.  Nicoya stared at me for a moment, then declared, “You know, you never used your AppleCare once, and that’s a shame.  Why don’t I just give you a free hard drive?  Can you wait a few minutes while I install it?”

Steve Jobs, Apple Genius extraordinaire, if you ever read this blog, find this Nicoya, and give her a big fat raise and a nice kiss.  You know, nothing overtly sexual, just a thank-you peck.  My family and I will be buying Apple products for years because of her.  That’s what customer loyalty means.