The Checkout

Good and Bad One-Stop Service

Recently, a water bottle leaked all over my gear and I didn't realize until too late that my cell phone was soaked and totally kaput. So it was off to the cell phone store—where I got hit with the reality of customer service-both good and bad.

I had to first visit the technical support desk where a clerk kindly let me know that my phone was beyond repair. So I had to wait (of course!) for the next sales agent who checked my account and told me I could only buy a new phone at full price because my contract didn't expire for another 18 (yes 18!!!!) days. The clerk didn't bother to see that I've been a customer as long as the cell phone company operated or that I had three lines. Nor did she bother to ask a manager if there was any wiggle room. Since her firm position meant paying $179 instead of $30, I started to walk out of the store.

Fortunately, the technical support clerk knew of my plight and quietly steered me to a customer-service phone in the back of the store, suggesting I dial the main number to see if the strict rules could be waived. Within several minutes, they were, with the phone rep noting I was a longstanding customer. No problem!

Kudos to the techie clerk!!! Boos to the sales agent—who unfortunately, got the sales commission in this transaction!

By  |  January 5, 2006; 9:29 AM ET Customer Service
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Something I've heard is that in-store clerks (at least for some cellular providers) aren't allowed to make "deals," but the folks at the telephone customer service number are. Once you get the deal from CS, have them note it in your record and *then* go to the store to have it fulfilled.

Posted by: Kristen | January 5, 2006 10:28 AM

I'm guessing the wireless company has a name that rhymes with "Smerizon." I encountered a similar situiation. After being stonewalled at the store, I contacted the main customer service line to complain. My problem was solved quickly. The phone rep let me know that the staff in stores are not permitted to deviate from their "script."

Posted by: aflapr | January 5, 2006 10:43 AM

I agree with the previous comments. Although it is hard not to get angry with the sales person, that position has less power in most organizations than the re-stocker. When I feel that I'm not getting the consideration I need, I have no qualms politely asking to speak to a manager. And higher. Especially with phone or cable companies. It is sometimes possible to get a deal that is "only available to new subscribers" if you threaten to leave if you don't get the deal.

I once got an appliance company to sell me a whole new control panel for the cost of a timer motor (the only broken part) by eventually speaking to the vice-president of customer service. Apparently, just after I was sold my appliance, they decided not to sell individual parts anymore, but my paperwork still showed item numbers for individual parts. My appliance worked for at 7 years (till I sold it.)

Posted by: Consumer | January 5, 2006 11:05 AM

Pretty routine experience, suprised at Caroline's passive response. Her column, and nearly every other consumer column worth reading, routinely advise customers to advocate on their own behalf, to ask to speak to supervisors and to regale corporate headquarters to intervene when rules and regs defy explanation.
Techie Clerk - 1
Caroline - 0

Posted by: Advocate | January 5, 2006 11:08 AM

"Kodos to the techie clerk . . ." If you really want to give kudos name names, including the company. That way your praise and the diss will carry some weight.

Posted by: Millie Mobile | January 5, 2006 11:21 AM

Concur with the previous post. If you like someone's service, jog down his/her name and write a letter to the company. It may not help him/her on the next review but it sure lets him/her know the deed did not go unappreciated.

Posted by: Baboo Boomerang | January 5, 2006 12:54 PM

How is the carrier responsible for something beyond their control? Did they put a water bottle next to your phone? How about taking personal responsibility for your actions?

Paying $179 might have encouraged you to be more careful with your phone. Now you have absolutely no incentive, due to the carrier's generosity, to take care of your electronics.

Posted by: Ken L | January 5, 2006 1:17 PM

Wait a minute here....are you saying because you were a long good standing customer that the rules should have been bent a little bit?

Well...I've been with my Car Insurance company since I was 16 and presently I am maybe I could call them up and see if I can get some kind of deal or cheaper rate. Also, maybe I should call my credit card company with whom I've been with since early 20's...and see if they can give me a better rate since I am good long standing "on time" "pay off" credit card bill at the end of the month kind of customer.

(Not going to happen)

I disagree with these kudo's you're giving, you were fortunate (I wonder why), but it seems unfair to all those customers that are the same as you but ended up paying for another phone.

The sales person was correct if you were to ask the director of sales. I think it's unfair to speak negative of the "sales person" who was simply doing their job vs. the techkie who hooked you up with a deal and being a person in the industry the techkie would have been fired if it were discovered that he/she went against policy.

Thank you.

Posted by: Frankey | January 5, 2006 1:25 PM

I lost my Virgin Mobile cellphone on New Year's Eve either leaving it at a restaurant or at a gas station, the only two places I went. On New Year's Day, I revisited both places to see if some kind person had turned the ohone in. They wouldn't have been able to use it because (1) I had it locked, meaning a passsword was necessary to unlock and use it; and secondly, when I realized that I had lost it, had Virgin Mobile temporarily cut it off. After two days of checking back with each place, I decided that I was not going to see my cell phone again. Resigned to the fact that I would have to pay another $89.99 (plus shipping and handling), I called Virgin Mobile to order another. However, because the phone was less than a year old, Virgin Mobile would only charge me half-price for a new one of the same model. I was delighted with that as well as their excellent and speedy customer service. The new phone arrived two days later. The only thing I regret is that I now have to re-enter the 50 or so phone numbers in my addressbook!

Posted by: Charles M. | January 5, 2006 1:39 PM

I lost my Virgin Mobile cellphone on New Year's Eve either leaving it at a restaurant or at a gas station, the only two places I went. On New Year's Day, I revisited both places to see if some kind person had turned the ohone in. They wouldn't have been able to use it because (1) I had it locked, meaning a passsword was necessary to unlock and use it; and secondly, when I realized that I had lost it, had Virgin Mobile temporarily cut it off. After two days of checking back with each place, I decided that I was not going to see my cell phone again. Resigned to the fact that I would have to pay another $89.99 (plus shipping and handling), I called Virgin Mobile to order another. However, because the phone was less than a year old, Virgin Mobile would only charge me half-price for a new one of the same model. I was delighted with that as well as their excellent and speedy customer service. The new phone arrived two days later. The only thing I regret is that I now have to re-enter the 50 or so phone numbers in my addressbook!

Posted by: Charles M. | January 5, 2006 1:42 PM

So, let me get this straight. You're upset because the rules say that you can't get a new phone, and the person at the store can't break those rules.

Since we're saying that people are bad for not letting you break rules, what's next? Charge for a room at a hotel? Nah, just let the front desk clerk waive those fees, since he can tell you're a good customer. And why don't we let you carry a bomb on board an airplane, too, since you've flown XYZ airlines for 30 years and wouldn't do anything to hurt them. While we're at it, let's allow you to bounce your checks without paying a fee, since you've been with ABC Bank forever -- oh, wait, didn't a lot of Congressmen get in trouble for that one?

If you don't like the policy, don't patronize the company. But don't get upset and call someone a bad employee or say they're giving bad customer service when they inform you of the rules they've got to play by.

Posted by: Tony W | January 5, 2006 1:47 PM

You deserve a big boo. You broke the phone, you're the one to blame, and you're upset because the person at the store won't break a rule for you.

Cry me a river. Don't break the phone next time, and you won't have to worry about it.

And I sure as hell hope you don't use the same carrier as me. I don't feel like subsidizing your irresponsibility, and I hope the person who broke policy to make you happy gets fired.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 5, 2006 1:51 PM

One other point to add to my comment:

Bad Customer Service: Waiting a long time to get service, rude language toward the customer, slamming down the receipt and demanding your signature etc.

Good Customer Service:
A greeting smile, a fair and almost apologetic explanation of why you have to pay for a new phone.

Wrong Service:
Well our policy is this, but for you we will break the rules a little.


Posted by: Frankey 2 | January 5, 2006 1:55 PM

Yes, Frankey, you SHOULD call your insurance company and credit card company. This is a new (to me) business practice that apparently rewards those who have the nerve to ask -- and penalizes those who don't. Something made us call one of our credit card companies (I forget the impetus) and the rate was lowered substantially! We then decided to call the others with the same result. Good and loyal customers are a benefit to companies who should, and often will, reward them to keep the business. One of my pet peeves is that deals are often offered to new customers only when I've been loyal for years and years and pay more than the newbies.

One other comment: The phone company should not have put the in-store sales rep in that position. If others on staff have the authority to use discretion, all should have that authority -- or at least the authority to refer customers to the person who can make exceptions. I can't make "deals" in my business, but, rather than lose a customer, I have been encouraged to refer questions to my manager. If the answer is still "no," the customer at least feels as if they were given a fair hearing.

Posted by: On Caroline's Side | January 5, 2006 2:04 PM

Many posters here seem to be missing the point, and certainly don't understand marketing and making profits. Yes, Caroline broke her phone, but under the phone company's rules, she would have been eligible to buy one at a reduced price in 18 days. She was certainly willing to pay the reduced price.

So what the phone company did was allow her to buy the phone at a reduced price 18 days early. If they hadn't done that, she would have probably gone to another company -- customer lost, and no airtime fees from her. I should know: I just did that with my phone service.

The phone companies DO NOT make money on the phones. They make their money on the phone service. How long would it take them to make up the $149 difference pro-rated over 18 days? If it's a year contract, that works to $7.34. I'm sure they make more than that off of each customer in less than 18 days.

If any of you posters actually want to make money in a service industry, you'd better learn that "rules" are supposed to work in your advantage, and are contrived by companies to do just that. If your "rule" loses you business and profit, you aren't going to stay in business. On the other hand, you can actually generate a lot of repeat business by "breaking rules".

And in this example, yes, Caroline is thrilled that the phone company "bent" its rules, but she is troubled that the store representative couldn't do anything to help. The store rep was the "face of the company" for Caroline, and their inability to help reflects poorly on the company. If the company knew its business, then even if the store rep wasn't allowed to make deals, they should be allowed to call the phone rep and find out if deals could be made.

Posted by: ConsumerKing | January 5, 2006 2:12 PM

Re. Frankie's comments: Actually, you CAN get a lower rate from insurance and credit card companies by being a longtime customer in good-standing. It takes a few phone calls, perhaps, and sometimes even the threat of dropping them, but I've personally knocked a few hundred off of insurance and dropped a few percentage points in my card interest rates by doing this.

Let's face it - in our capitalistic society we have lots of choices regarding the companies to which we give our hard-earned money. Loyal good-standing customers SHOULD be given some incentive to stay with a particular company. Otherwise, why not take your business elsewhere where there's a sweeter deal?

Posted by: bobbieb | January 5, 2006 2:19 PM

Consumer king:

Bravo! Your exactly right, all this woman wanted was a phone now that she could get in 18 days. Credit card companies waive fees for good customers also. It only makes good business sense to keep good customers happy because their going to make more money on that then to drive customers away.

Posted by: right 100 | January 5, 2006 2:24 PM

I had two responses and both discussed the same thing, so I'll kill two birds with one stone (so to speak).

Ok, first I am fully aware of the long time, good standing customer thing...(which I have done)...however in this case she based it on "just being a long termed customer" and felt she definitely should be given a deal. If this is so, then it should be across the board not certain customers, if it's about keeping the customer happy. There are more new customers than there are older customers so this should be applied to all customers, if it's about keeping the customer.

So what a person leaves one company, there are many other cheaper or better business options, so the point of keeping me as a customer is void. I'm talking fairness, why does a person have to ask, good service automatically takes you there, which represents the company not the sales person who simply follows the policies of the company.

Just imgaine if we could do this with all the businesses we deal with? How about a in good standing customer with a gas card, you think they'll give a deal for cheaper gas, no. This would in turn hurt our economy if this was across the board.

The point was customer service which I think she definitely received both from the techkie and the sale person, it's the company policy she's having problem.

Posted by: Frankey's Response | January 5, 2006 2:38 PM

We should start another blog and the discussion should be "when a person tells another person "your missing the point".

I think it's an egotistical comment when one says such a if I were unable to comprehend.

This is clearly a written debate on a particular subject for which two parties disagree.

So using the term, missing the point, is not improper it's insulting.

I fully comprehend the story. It's the expectations and the negative comment toward the person who was only doing their job and the praising of the other only because they offered a possible against policy illegal deal.

I am happy for her she was very lucky that day!

Posted by: Frankey (Missing the point) | January 5, 2006 2:46 PM


Unless I'm missing your point, your original post was about it being unfair for Caroline to give kudos to one employee and to speak negatively about another who was following strict company policy. That's certainly a valid point, but not one that I was attempting to address in my earlier post.

Your later post questioning the fairness of giving rewards only to those who ask for them is a very good one and deserves discussion on its own merit, but again, this is not the topic I addressed.

No insult was intended or implied to you or anyone else.

Posted by: Consumer King | January 5, 2006 4:52 PM

Frankey, if you've been with one car insurance company for that long and you haven't gotten a discount for being a long-term customer, then you're with the wrong company. AllState gave me a reduced rate after 5 years without me even asking, it was simply company policy. I think Geico does the same.

The truth is that there is a lot of "unfairness" in the world of business. Is it fair that I get a better mortgage rate because I have a higher FICO score? Well, yes, I think it is. And I think it's perfectly fine that I got a better credit card rate because I asked for one. It's also "fair" that when I returned to a tour company in Arizona the second year, they gave me a 10% returning customer discount.

Just because you've never thought to speak up and ask for a better deal or a bargain price, doesn't mean it's not fair that someone else dared to do so and got what they wanted.

Posted by: Anne | January 5, 2006 6:49 PM

The people who say you should follow the rules, take personal responsibility for breaking the thing and pay full price for a new one--are a lot of losers. The world is divided between those who can accept nuance and improvisation and those who doggedly insist on towing the line BECAUSE THOSE ARE THE RULES. Inspiration versus perspiration. Give me inspiration every time. I think it might be a Democrat vs. Republican thing.

Posted by: Dave | January 5, 2006 8:03 PM

Your point is taken, but your showing off is totally not necessary.

Please look at yourself in the mirror and better your personality.

I have asked and received but I don't expect anything from anyone which includes you. So go on with your perfect little life.

Posted by: Frankey to Anne | January 6, 2006 12:17 PM

None taken, just be careful with your words but I still hold my position and I must say I think you don't understand my point.

Posted by: Frankey to Consumer King | January 6, 2006 12:19 PM

First, I was surprised when I read this column, to hear that the author was going to walk out without asking to talk to a manager. Extremely passive approach! I agree that the sales clerk should have taken the initiative, but in the end, it's always our own responsibility.

Second, I'm shocked to hear people say the author should not have gotten a deal on the new phone. It's called capitalism. Supply and demand. If this company won't meet her needs, she'll go to another. That's what keeps competition healthy. It costs a lot more to recruit a new customer than it does to keep a loyal one. It makes business sense to ensure a current customer does not abandon you.

Posted by: shocked | January 6, 2006 3:11 PM

If you can't play by the rules that are CLEARLY OUTLINED for you, you're too damn stupid to be my customer. Go somewhere else.

And before you say that's bad for business, know what Southwest, which is the only major airline making money, does when people complain too much?

They send them a letter with the numbers of other airlines, and say go bother them. Don't fly us anymore.

The customer is not always right. In fact, the customer is usually wrong. Why nobody's got the balls to say this, I'll never know.

But if I'm a business, I am NOT losing money to keep a customer who's a freaking crybaby happy. Leave. Go to some other company who wants to deal with your crap. Buh bye, and don't let the door hit your ass on the way out.

Posted by: tony w | January 6, 2006 3:18 PM

For consumers who are making the "play by the rules" argument against Caroline - us companies LOVE YOU. THANK YOU. Not because you are actually playing by our rules, but, because you are falling for our thinly veiled marketing ploy.

Look, companies know that consumers love deals. What makes a consumer more happy than being told "sorry - you have to pay $178 for your new gizmo" by a sale clerk, then have the consumer ask if there is any wiggle room, and then being told "why yes, there is, you get a discount?"

Not only does the consumer feel empowered, but they walk out feeling like they're safe in the hands of a bunch of compassionate consumer advocates. It is all an illusion - just something to make you think is there, when it really isn't.

This has already been explained by previous posters, but, it costs companies MORE MONEY to attract new customers than it does to keep the ones that they already have.

Yes, marketing research shows that it costs at least five times more to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one, and existing customers are more profitable.

To quote something that the American Marketing Association agrees with:

"In addition, studies have shown that fewer than 10% of dissatisfied customers repurchase a product, while these individuals relate their dissatisfaction to others at a rate five times that of satisfied customers."

So why would a company risk losing a customer and gaining a bad reputation over a silly rule ? The rules are there to keep consumers like Frankey, Ken L., and tony w from getting the products at prices of what they SHOULD be. And it is easily waived if you ask and are informed as to what you want, as long as you have a legitimate reason.

And finally, as previously pointed out, the company is NOT making or losing money off of their phones. They make it off of the service - the airtime, additions, contracts, etc. This only works when the product is not the main focus of the company.

Would Hoover lose money if they started selling their vacuums at deep discounts?? Yes, and that is called haggling. But when the product (phone) compliments the service (2-year contract + additions), then the company can risk losing some money on the product as long as they regain it on the service.

Posted by: KJ | January 6, 2006 4:52 PM

the phone company did the right thing by cutting ms. water-phone some slack. there are a zillion models out there that show great customer service -- making every single customer feel like you're breaking the rules for them -- creates (1) incredible loyalty, the source of much-coveted recurring revenue, and (2) word of mouth marketing, the cheapest way to win new customers, the other source of revenue.

it's great business -- the company benefits, and if they do it right, so do ALL their customers -- those who drown their phones, and all the rest of us. once one company starts treating their customers really, really well (no one in the mobile telecom industry does it yet), others are forced to follow.

southwest airlines is successful because they're on time and reasonably priced, but more importantly, because they treat customers well. it's NOT because they tell them to take a hike.

Posted by: shane | January 6, 2006 5:08 PM

Only problem, KJ, is that you're just plain WRONG.

Southwest, who tells PITAs go away, fly someone else, is making money.

The other airlines, who bend over backwards to make whining crybabies like you happy, are not.

Figure it out.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 6, 2006 5:10 PM

It's clear to me that the people writing about how this study, that study, and the other study show blah, blah, and blah probably have never run a business.

I have. Know what? I have zero problem turning away someone who is a pain in the butt.

I've since sold the business, but I tell you what. First thing I told anyone who worked for me was that they should throw that "the customer is always right" nonsense right out the window. I told them let someone else deal with difficult customers, because we don't need them. They cost US money and time that could be better spent with customers who are not a problem.

Whoever invented that "the customer is always right" bullcaca ought to be shot. The customer is usually wrong, and businesses should not be shy about telling them that.

Seems like the people here have this aura of entitlement and think it's never my fault. Well, it is. And quite honestly, my job as a businessman is to make a profit off you, and if I can't, I don't want you setting foot in my business.

Posted by: Tony W | January 6, 2006 5:18 PM

TonyW, if you built a thriving business by being nasty to your customers, which it seems you're suggesting, then you're a genius. i certainly wouldn't buy from you, but clearly others did.

i don't think anyone's suggesting that companies should forego making money. i work in the service business, and sometimes we do, in fact, have to "fire" customers who are just too painful to deal with. but it's rare.

ultimately, i have to believe that treating customers well (not letting them walk all over you) is the path to success. pretty much every business text out there agrees.

Posted by: shane | January 6, 2006 5:39 PM

Actually, the in-store employee cannot make changes to prices and such. I figured that out on day 1 when they told me they couldn't make any changes to the price. BUT what the employee could have done, which the techie did, was point you to the phone number to call to get your cheaper phone. It's all about Customer service. Heck, ifyou wanted it cheaper, call up the 800 number, ask for customer retention and state your problem and case. They almost always bend over backwards to keep you on. Be it extra minutes or cheaper phones, they want YOU and can make the needed price adjustments that the local store employee and the first line employee of the call center.

Posted by: Joe D. | January 9, 2006 1:00 PM

I had a similar situation at Verizon - sales clerk told me something similar but then stated that phones have a 30 day return policy so I could have bought the phone and then returned it within the 30 days.

Posted by: Fairfax Girl | January 9, 2006 1:30 PM

I just wanted to thank all you nimrods who say companies don't owe anyone jack for subsidizing my discounts. When I'm unhappy, I complain, and if it bothers me enough, I take my business elsewhere. Sometimes a nice, thoughtful explanation is enough to make me a more loyal customer, but sometimes I just want to get the best price, and if my current vendor can't provide it, I'll give someone else a chance for a while. Unless it's my credit union, which sends me a CHECK when auto claims are lower than projected (and to be safe, they always project high, so I always get back about $50 a year in addition to paying rates that make other people's jaws drop). Credit unions are the only way to go. Basically, the customers ARE the shareholders.

The only thing Caroline did wrong was to give the commission to the unhelpful sales rep. I would have asked that someone else ring me up, even if it was someone totally new. Now that sales rep has learned that she can be as helpful as a canker sore, and she will still get a commission.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | January 11, 2006 1:35 PM

wow, some of us are very obsessed with rules, aren't we? I don't think Caroline was terribly unreasonable in requesting a little bit of flexibility in exchange for another 2 years of monthly fees and customer loyalty. Both at work and home, I have sales people offer discounts for either loyalty or in exchange for something all the time whether I ask for it or not, so what's wrong with asking for something when you *really* need it. I'll almost always be the happy customer of someone who doesn't nickel and dime me over another company. Nobody is saying that businesses have to give up their profits, but the old saying that sometimes you have to spend money to make money is very true.

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Posted by: Allison Trump | May 23, 2006 2:06 PM

Would you be interested in my sad tale of a Bosch washer and the labyrinthine rules for qualifying for warranty coverage? Obviously designed to deprive owners of legitimate warranty coverage.

Posted by: Robert E Beers | July 12, 2006 6:38 PM

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