Customer-complaint winner announced!

How to protect your pockets.
Jan. 21 2011 5:16 PM

Griper of the Year

We have a winner in the customer-complaint contest!

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It's certainly been exciting watching reader votes pour in for our customer-complaint-letter contest. At the front of the pack was Keith Bertrand, who seized an early lead with the sad tale of his wife's defective wedding ring ("We each occasionally reach over to the other and click our rings together. … These rings are not a piece of jewelry to us. They are our very real symbol to each other and to the world of the vows we made"). Nipping at Bertrand's heels were A.B. Crowder (expired condom) and Norman Walker (commercials at the cineplex). Just a whisker behind this pair was Elaine Van S. Carmichael (cockroach in a hotel shower). Coming in a distant fifth was Gayle Knutson (bone in the soup), whose parody of Joyce Kilmer's poem "Trees" was, I felt certain, poised for a last-minute surge.

The surge never came. Bertrand was a hardy competitor and kept pace to the end. When I called time on Jan. 21 at 4:14 p.m., he was the winner with 6,352 votes. I phoned Bertrand to congratulate him and marveled that he had managed to seize an outright majority of all votes cast. Bertrand thanked me and then displayed rare scruple by pointing out that while he certainly won a plurality of votes cast he did not seize a majority, even though Slate's pie chart said he did. At 4:14 p.m., the pie chart said Bertrand had won 64 percent of all 24,769 votes cast. But 6,352 actually represents 26 percent of 24,769. Bertrand said that should be fixed, but he hoped it wouldn't be fixed too soon.

Ahem. It would appear Slate's been given some faulty software. Fortunately, I know just what to do.

In the meantime, here, once again, is Keith Bertrand's winning entry:

Benchmark Inc.

Attn: Customer Service

Dear Sir or Madam:

My wife Jill and I have matching Benchmark wedding rings ("Bamboo" style). A while after getting the rings, my wife noticed that her platinum outside ring moved slightly on the inner 18K ring. Eventually the platinum would do full rotations over the gold. She had a jeweler look at it about 2002; he told her not to worry because it was just like a "carousel ring." Over time, the platinum got looser until finally it seemed in danger of falling off of the inner ring. This happened with only normal wear. The ring never had any unusual handling, and no alterations were ever attempted to it. She checked with three local jewelers this month, all of whom said that they could not repair the ring.

Next Jill took the ring to the ValuExchange forty miles away in San Francisco, where we had originally bought it. Harold Apfelbaum at the ValuExchange identified the ring as a Benchmark. He said that no registration policy was in place at the time we bought our rings, and assured us that Benchmark stands behind its rings, saying "Benchmark is the best." We were further encouraged by looking at Benchmark's web site, particularly the "Lifetime Guarantee" and "Our Mission" sections of the "About Us" page. Harold sent the ring off to Benchmark to be repaired, and we felt confident that Benchmark would make it right.

We next learned from Harold that the ring was not reparable and Benchmark wanted $450 to replace it. We found this news surprising, to say the least. Harold indicated that Benchmark seemed to be under the impression that the ring had been altered in some way. Harold said there was nothing he could do, so Jill called Benchmark directly. Neither Sheila nor Sonya at Benchmark were able to help us. They didn't even seem to want to talk to us, and felt they should only be talking to Harold. They did give us a reference number to track the ring (PTECF256007).

Jill and I have found this very upsetting. It took me a while to figure out exactly why it was so upsetting to us. It is not in any large measure the money, though $450 is a significant sum. Certainly, the implication that we are not being honest when we say that the ring has never been altered, nor had any treatment other than the very normal wear that a ring receives when on a woman's finger, plays a part. Jill and I both take our integrity very seriously, and our word is our bond. The ring has never been altered, or received any unusual handling of any kind.

The most upsetting part of this, though, has been something that it took me a little longer to put my finger on. I hope that I can explain it adequately.

Jill and I chose our wedding bands together on March 8, 1995. We had decided we wanted matching rings, to symbolize the bond we would have with each other. After looking at many patterns, we chose Benchmark's Bamboo style. When the rings arrived, we felt they were the most simple, elegant and beautiful rings we had ever seen.

Our wedding was on April 23, 1995. We exchanged rings, saying, "with this ring I thee wed".

At first, we were very conscious of the rings on our finger, just as we were very conscious of being newly wed. Over time, though, our rings became a part of ourselves, just as Jill and I each increasingly felt ourselves as half of our greater whole. We each occasionally reach over to the other and click our rings together, which is our unspoken way of saying "I love you". These rings are not a piece of jewelry to us. They are our very real symbol to each other and to the world of the vows we made to love, honor and cherish each other, until death do us part. I know that nowadays not everyone takes their wedding vows seriously, but I assure you that we do.

What is so upsetting to us about this process is that it could change what these rings mean to us. When we look at these rings, we want to be reminded of what we have always been reminded of, and what we were meant to always be reminded of: our commitment to each other. We don't want to look Jill's ring and think of it as just another piece of defective merchandise that we had to pay for twice because the company that made it was unwilling to stand behind it.

Over the years, some of my friends have become quite cynical. They roll their eyes when I say that I still have faith in basic human decency. I know that, in the stress and rush of our daily lives, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of what is really important. But I also know in my heart of hearts that most people don't say things they don't mean, don't try to wiggle out of their commitments, and will do the right thing when they are given the chance. So all I ask is that whoever receives this letter pass it on to a person at Benchmark who is in a position to uphold Benchmark's principles, as stated in the Benchmark web site (copied by me below). I'm confident that they will do the right thing.

Lifetime Guarantee

Every Benchmark piece is backed by a Lifetime Guarantee that states:

  • If your ring is ever damaged during normal wear, Benchmark will repair or replace your wedding ring free of charge.
  • If your ring finger size ever changes, Benchmark will re-size or replace your wedding ring free of charge.

Certain types of wedding bands (two-tone bands, patterned designs, diamonds) are difficult, if not impossible, to size without damaging the ring. At Benchmark we will make sure that your Wedding Band is taken care of properly. If we can't fix it, we will replace it.

Our Mission

Our mission is to promptly manufacture the highest quality wedding bands and engagement rings in the industry, continuously focusing on satisfying our customers' needs and constantly striving to exceed their expectations. We will achieve this by maintaining practices that stress long-term relationships between our company and our customers, the integration of technology, human resources, and a strong commitment to helping our team members reach their full potential.

Benchmark was founded on three basic principles: Value our customers; love our team and satisfaction for a job well done. Teamwork is more than just a mission statement at Benchmark. It is a way of life that assures each customer individual attention at every level. Our team makes a commitment to you.

There is a passion derived from knowing that as a company, we make products that touch so many lives. Few industries can offer products that elicit such love that represents a lifetime commitment.

I can be reached at work, home, or by email [personal info withheld from publication].

Sincerely yours,

Keith Bertrand

Result: Bertrand received a phone call from the company president, A.J. Tosyali *, who replaced the ring free of charge.

Correction, Feb. 1, 2011: An earlier version of this column misspelled A.J. Tosyali's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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