Demand an Explanation!!!

Demand an Explanation!!!

Demand an Explanation!!!

Slate comes to the rescue of oppressed consumers.
May 14 1999 3:30 AM

Demand an Explanation!!!

But, in the event of a shopping disaster, settle for an apology and a big gift certificate.

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Greetings, pissed-off consumers. It is I, the great Shopping Avenger, who has toiled without pause this past month (all right, I paused) to right the wrongs inflicted on the buying masses by the dark forces of turbocharged capitalism.

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Before writing the first installment of this column last month, the Shopping Avenger had no idea that so many people would have so many complaints about so many different companies. The Shopping Avenger also had no idea so many people read Slate. The complaints, as Alan Simpson would say, have come pouring in over the transom. I received somewhere around 2.7 million e-mails from Slate readers asking for help in the battle against poor customer service. Perhaps it was fewer than 2.7 million, but not by much.

Only one correspondent was hostile: "You're probably just running a scam to collect a bunch of upscale e-mail addresses," he wrote, dyspeptically and inaccurately. I checked out his e-mail address--it's not upscale at all.

But most of you turned to me in good faith, and for this I am thankful. Alas, I am but one superhero, and could not come to the aid of all who beseeched me. So, for those of you asking highly technical questions concerning the operation of your personal computers, let it be known across the land that the Shopping Avenger still writes on papyrus. And for those of you who contributed not complaints but wacky observations, such as "I find it amazing how people will drive many miles out of their way to buy gas that is 5 cents cheaper," I thank you for your commentary.

Now, though, a few observations of my own, about the complaints (the understandable ones) I did receive.

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1) The American consumer believes that the telephone is the instument of the devil.

2) The people who answer 1-800 lines are spawn of the devil or, at the very least, incredibly thick.

3) The typical corporation would much rather blow smoke than actually apologize for doing wrong.

4) American corporations do not yet understand the true power of the Shopping Avenger.

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As an example of all four phenomena, I refer you now to the complaint of K., who is chagrined by the errant behavior of the U-Haul company.

"I signed up a truck from Friday until Monday two weeks hence," K. explains. "A week later, I called the local number to confirm, and confirm they did: They confirmed that my reservation was for Sunday. Not only was it not Fri.-to-Mon., indeed, it couldn't be Fri.-to-Mon., because U-Haul policy is not to rent trucks for more than one weekend day. ... Hey, no problem, a fine policy. But let's supplement it with: DON'T TELL ME OTHERWISE WHEN I SIGN UP."

Though I am not one to endorse the use of CAPITAL LETTERS TO MAKE A POINT, I believe K. earned that right here.

K. goes on to state that he canceled his rental and sought out a truck at Ryder, where the saleswoman, an ex-U-Haul employee, told him that it was U-Haul's policy never to turn down a reservation, no matter what. Overbooking is the norm, she said.

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So, I called U-Haul to inquire about its rental policies. What I got was, in technical terms, a runaround.

U-Haul International's spokeswoman, Johna Burke, told me that her company would never behave in such a way. Then she blamed the customer for misunderstanding what he heard. This, I am learning, is standard operating procedure across whole industries: I've heard variations of "the customer didn't understand our phone prompts" three times already, leading me to the conclusion that there's a real problem out there with deliberately obfuscatory phone prompts.

Then Burke yelled at me for having the temerity to even suggest that the ex-U-Haul employee K. quoted might be right. The Shopping Avenger can take the heat, however. I asked her for the U-Haul policy concerning weekend rentals, but Burke said she could not cite policy, because individual U-Haul operators set their own policies. She asked me to identify the state in which the rental was to occur, which I did. Then she suggested that K. merely thought he made a reservation but actually only asked about prices. This seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but I checked with K., who supplied me with his actual reservation number. He also confirmed that he placed a deposit for the truck.

Once again, I called Burke to ask whether U-Haul is in the habit of changing confirmed reservations behind the customer's back, but Burke, even while knowing that the Shopping Avenger's deadline approached, did not call back.

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The Shopping Avenger has himself been a victim of the reservation shuffle, and so he sympathizes with K.'s complaint. And K. should know that the Shopping Avenger will not rest, except at night and on weekends, until he shakes an adequate explanation out of U-Haul.

But let us turn now to a Shopping Avenger victory.

Our correspondent A. wrote the Shopping Avenger to complain of his treatment on the Ticketmaster Web site. As he explained, he had logged on to the site in order to buy tickets to a Bob Dylan-Paul Simon show. Everything was going fine until he clicked to confirm his order. The screen read, "We will now contact the Ticketmaster system to complete your order. Please wait to see a response from the system with your confirmation."

"I waited and waited," A. wrote me. "Finally, a message appeared telling me to try later; the gateway was not functioning. ... So there I was wondering what the hell had happened to my credit card information. Even worse, the phone number they gave me to call is long distance. Needless to say, this was frustrating. ... I picked up the phone and called the long-distance number. It was busy. In fact, it was busy for the NEXT THREE HOURS"--there are those capital letters again. "Even worse, when I finally did get through, I was put on hold for 20 minutes. Let me emphasize: That was 20 minutes of my long distance, on MY phone bill, to find out what they had done to MY credit card number."

A. then writes: "Ironically, while on hold, Ticketmaster shamelessly plugged its online system, finishing with, 'Buying tickets has never been easier.' "

Ironic indeed.

To add insult to injury, when A. finally spoke to a "live" person (you will soon see why the word "live" is in quotation marks), he asked to have the $5.50 "convenience" fee waived for each ticket he planned to buy. "After all, I was making a long-distance call and they had bungled my initial attempt at a purchase."

The operator, a certain "Nola" from the misnamed "customer service" department, told him he should have called his local service provider. Of course, no one had provided A. with the local service number. He eventually bought the tickets anyway, paying the "convenience" charge.

All this was too much for the Shopping Avenger, who swung into action. Actually, the Shopping Avenger swung into action even before he knew of A.'s plight, since A.'s girlfriend had secretly forwarded A.'s Shopping Avenger complaint to Ticketmaster. Soon after I made inquiries, A. was refunded $11 in "convenience" charges.

But $11 wasn't enough. I wanted an explanation and an apology for A., which he got, sort of.

In a letter to A., the executive vice president of Ticketmaster Multimedia, Robert Perkins, explains, semi-grammatically, that "[w]hen tickets goes on-sale, it operates through telephone lines that may become busy." He also explains, "Dozens of variables may determine the speed and continuity of your Internet connection are in the hands of your local phone company."

Perkins does say he's sorry, in a fashion: "Please accept our sincerest apologies and we hope you will continue to offer your comments as our site evolves in the future."

A. can accept the nonsensical apology, he told me, because Ticketmaster is also offering him a $100 gift certificate for his troubles. Ticketmaster has shown the way: When you screw up, apologize, make material amends, and get the Shopping Avenger on your side.

Score that: Shopping Avenger, $111; evil-but-contrite corporation, 0.

Next month, the Shopping Avenger hopes to focus on the evils of the pest control and airline industries. Don't ask why, it's too complicated to explain. If you have complaints about these industries--or any other, for that matter--e-mail the Shopping Avenger (with as much detail as possible) at shoppingavenger@slate.com.