Last week, ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum was presented with the National Consumers League's highest honor, the annual Trumpeter award. The NCL awards this honor to people "who have not been afraid to raise their voices in support of social justice, a fairer marketplace and a safer workplace." You can read the citation by clicking here.
This is a tough time to be a consumer. That may sound like a strange thing to say. After all, we live in a consumer-driven economy. The marketplace is overflowing with an ever-expanding assortment of products and services. What could possibly be wrong? Plenty!
I receive a constant stream of complaints from MSNBC readers who are angered by shady business practices, upset by poor service and frustrated that no one seems to be looking out for them.
I sympathize with them. Customer service these days is often abysmal. Misleading advertising and deceptive sales practices are out of control. And the legislative agenda in Congress is set by lobbyists representing corporate America, not consumer groups working for you.
Whatever it takes to make the sale
I understand that the business of business is to make money. But all too often these days, it doesn’t seem to matter how those sales are made, just as long as you ring up more each quarter. Playing by the rules seems so old-fashioned when there are stockholders to please.
That’s the only way I can explain what I see happening. More and more companies — big name, supposedly reputable companies — are willing to mislead or deceive to move their product.
It is now common for food companies to use tricky wording on their packages to confuse shoppers, making a product appear to be more healthful than it really is.
Automakers use unintelligible disclaimers — tiny print flashed on the bottom of the TV screen for a few seconds or an announcer racing along at 100 mph at the end of a radio commercial — to completely change the message they’ve just delivered.
Online retailers hide important information in the “terms and conditions” section. The copy is so long that no normal human being would ever read or understand it all, even if they did click on the link.
Let’s put a little blame on the messenger
I can’t turn on the radio or TV these days without hearing or seeing a commercial for something that is clearly bogus — a too-good-to-be-true money-making scheme or a miracle weight-loss product. It infuriates me to hear these advertisements.
Media managers who run radio and TV stations, broadcast networks, and cable channels know these ads are questionable if not outright fraudulent. But as long as the company running them has not been charged with anything — and they pass a credit check — their ads will run.
No media outlet can check every ad, but some of these commercials should raise immediate warning flags. Generally, they don’t. The almighty dollar is more important. This is just wrong.
Trust me; I know what I’m talking about. I’ve worked in the broadcast media for the past 30 years. For the record – the print media does the same thing. Bogus ads are also rampant on the web.
We live in a service society that rarely provides good service any more. And it’s not just the airlines. It’s also rental car companies, auto repair shops, and big name computer hardware and software companies.
Mistakes will happen; we all understand that. But MSNBC readers complain that when something does go wrong — a mistake on their bank account, a bogus charge on their credit card, a problem with their cell phone service, or they buy a hi-tech product that doesn’t work right — they can’t get any help.
All too often, corporate America considers customer service an afterthought — if it’s thought of at all. I get a constant stream of complaints from people who’ve contacted customer service and been ignored or lied to. Many are told their problem will be solved, but it never is.
The attitude at many companies today seems to be that helping a customer figure out how to use the product they just purchased is a waste of money. This is especially true with hi-tech companies, where tech support is generally rated as appalling.
I know. I’ve been there. A few months ago, I downloaded some security software and couldn’t make it work, because the company’s computer would not recognize my registration code. When I called customer service I was told it would cost me $29 to get the problem solved. To make a long conversation short, I finally got the help I deserved for free. Is this how they expect to make me a loyal customer who will buy from them again?
I’m fed up with this shabby treatment and the consumers who write me feel the same way. Businesses need to realize that customer service isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s the right thing to do. It’s not a waste of money — it’s good for business. Costco is going gangbusters. Nordstrom is having record sales. Maybe they’re on to something.
How can we change things?
Consumers aren’t asking for all that much. We want ads to be true and companies to treat us fairly. Corporate America needs to hear the message that sleazy sales tactics and shoddy service will no longer be tolerated. We need to speak up when we are not treated properly. We need to vote with our wallets and take our business elsewhere.
We also need to let our lawmakers (at both the state and federal level) know that consumer protection is important to us, and that we want them to commit the resources needed to fight fraud. For years, consumer protection agencies have had their budgets gutted in order to balance the budget. This is no longer acceptable. These government watchdogs need to get their bite back. They need to be staffed and funded to enforce the laws already on the books in order to punish companies that use unethical business practices.
A final thought
I’ve never used a religious reference in any story I’ve ever written before. But this quote from the Bible (Leviticus 25:14) seems to make sense here. "When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor,” it says, “you shall not deceive one another." Amen.
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