A failure to communicate

I’ve used Discount Tires for my vehicle needs for years. Like most people I first became familiar with their company through their classic, hilarious and highly-effective commercial touting their return and replacement policy. Their service and price is why I began going to them when I started to drive.

But I’m going to have to think pretty hard about going in again any time soon. A few weeks ago I went to my usual location to get a new tire, which was worn. When I went in I told the salesperson what I needed and why and let them know that was all I was purchasing that day. Getting only one tire at a time is a young man’s gamble. When you change one tire you should change all of them so they all wear evenly, everything balances right and you have no surprises a week later when an old tire fails. But I had been out sick from work for a few months and cash was tight. So I made myself clear about my needs that day

Apparently, through no fault of the employees I’m sure since they are very likely pressured to make sales from upper management, my desires as a customer where pushed aside. Before I left I received no less than six attempts to up-sell my purchase. Quoting a price, then lowering it, adding services and then discounted incentives (still adding up to more than I told them I would spend). Between my last visit to Discount Tires and this one it was like I had visited two different companies. At least at least on the front end experience. The exception being the swiftness and quality of their labor service in replacing the tire which remained great and if anything was better than before.

I understand the hard up-sell. The economy has been in the dumps for years and companies are desperate for every nickle and dime from their brick and mortar outlets as they can be (while still somehow being able to afford using private jets to fly to meetings to exotic vacation resorts). My current employer tried the hard-sells at every opportunity until they realized the customer backlash wasn’t worth it and dropped the requirement for most departments. When a customer says no that should be the end of it. No guilt trips, no acting like I just duct-taped loaded guns with filed down sears to the heads of the passengers of my car, no miming like Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the whole deal and so be it, the fiery deaths of my passengers is on my head.

The pitches that the tire crew was giving me were presented in terms of my safety. I can appreciate that message. They pointed out the others tires were worn (Meh, not so much. All four were new less than a year ago. I wanted one changed because it kept getting scraped on a curb) and that I should change them and here’s a great deal on 4 tires, etc., etc.

But the intent and sincerity perceived by the customer is important. If the pitch doesn’t come off as sincere then I would think you are playing me for a sucker. The first tell that the clerk really was only saying what he had to was that he wouldn’t look at me. Our last conversation before I left went like this:

“Have we told you that you really should replace all those tires? They are getting worn.”
“Yes. Four times now in the last half an hour.”
“Well, that shows you how important it is.”

Sure, except you were looking everywhere but at me when you said all that. It doesn’t mean he was a bad salesman, just that he was uncomfortable pushing another sales pitch on me. At least I hope that is what it was and he wasn’t some predatory huckster. Also, one thing the clerk wasn’t aware of: Their company’s email message.

During the purchase the clerk asked for and I gave my email address. I didn’t mind. This is important because that way I can receive tire recall notices, a handy and necessary service. So while seated in the lobby waiting for the tire to be replaced I did what anyone else would do: Browse the internet, check email and read some news. While waiting I got hit up again for more tires and shortly after received an email from Discount Tires thanking me for my purchase. I read it, knowing I needed to head off a barrage of emails and catalogs mailed to my house by changing my marketing preferences. It was after going to their website via the email and personalizing my visit I felt like was nothing more than a mark with a wallet.

In the image above there are several options for receiving messages from Discount Tires. This is an original, cropped screenshot with the only the customer name changed. In the initial view the message options default to sales pitches and one service reminder which would just be a sales pitch when you go in to the store. The two safety notices, really the most important part for the consumer and in the worst case scenario can mean life or death for a driver, is left unchecked by the company.

So this is the business plan? Hit me up for another sale but, in the case of the many who don’t bother to sign up, or those that do but don’t update their marketing preferences, not receive any notification that they might be driving on a faulty tire?

I guess ultimately the responsibility for checking the warranties and disposition of almost anything anyone purchases is on the buyer but only to a point. Any company has a moral if not legal obligation to inform someone using their product it may be faulty. The government regularly posts information about faulty products and recommends or orders companies to do so on their own. But if there was a recall of tires how would one find out? If they did, would I receive any notification because I did not opt in to the service? Is regular mail an option? Is it still an option if one did not opt in on the website? Would it take weeks or months to mail me a letter when email goes out almost immediately?

It wouldn’t hurt to have the communication preferences default to choose all options, none of them or prioritize the safety notifications and then let the customer decide. Hold the sales pitches and default to caring about your customers a little bit more. The front end sales pitches and the way the customer notification service may be unrelated but it looks like it is a part of a narrowly focused top-down business strategy that prefers making a sale over any other consideration.

By the way, guys? Don’t bother to contact me with offers or that “you are sorry I wasn’t satisfied with my experience” or even as I know happens on occasion…threats. The tire service was great, the annoying hard up-sells were not. I know you won’t change the front end sales pitches because if you did, let’s be honest, sales would drop and that’s the reality of business. In my experience few respond to those ads and instead search for the best deal they can through the internet going to their favored supplier first, based on their past experiences. Instead, just think about maybe changing the set up of those initial customer communication options.

Consumer Demands

Spent half the day getting my car smog certified (failed the first time due to a gas cap that wouldn’t seal). Then two hours at AAA getting my tag. The unusual wait time was because a printer was inoperative. The folks at AAA suggested anyone waiting could drop off their paperwork and their tags would be mailed that night and received by Monday. Good think I opted to wait because the payment I made to the DMV a week ago by debit card still had not cleared. The way the universe works if I went with the plan to wait for the mail it tuns out the AAA could have not processed my paperwork and I would have been pulled over by the cops and had the car impounded. So I waited, paid my registration fee for the second time and now have to contact the DMV to get my first payment refunded. You can apply to get a refund online but the DMV doesn’t have an option for “You paid twice because we suck.” In spite of 5 hours of waiting to get smogged and getting my tag and the frustration it was still better than going to the DMV. I’ll take a migraine over an embolism any day.

While I’m not a fan of fast food anymore my wife needs something on occasion first thing in the morning after she gets off work so she can take medicine. So she or I will visit a drive-thru when I pick her up in the morning. Here is content of a letter I faxed to Del Taco concerning a recent visit.

This letter concerns a visit to Del Taco #949 in San Diego, CA on 8-29-2010, at about 7:30 am. My wife and I are frequent customers to your establishment in the morning. It is a place that is conveniently located and serves fresh, quality food. However our experience on our last visit was far from what I found to be typical for your restaurant.

On the visit of August 29th we ordered two breakfast meals. The employee at the window, Shift Leader [Name Redacted] handed me two orange juice cartons along with our meals. They were frozen solid. I discovered they were frozen when I tried to push the straw into the carton and the straw would enter only about a 1/4th of an inch before hitting solid ice. I handed them back and asked for some replacements. [Name Redacted] told me there were none available as they were all frozen. I then asked for some replacement drinks, like coffee. [Name Redacted] at first refused, then offered coffee as a swap for the frozen drinks. She then stated she would only trade out one drink because the other was opened. For the record, the carton was “open” only at the straw aperture.

She continued to refuse to trade out the one drink. My position was that one carton was opened and found to be unusable because it was frozen. We did not eat 95% of a meal then demand a refund because we were not “satisfied”. I work retail and am well aware such a situation can occur with some customers. [Name Redacted] stated she would not accept the carton because she would get in trouble. I know this is not factual as distressed or damaged items can typically be returned if there are quality issues. A frozen carton is definitely a quality issue. I ordered the food and intended it to be eaten at that time, not a few hours later when it thawed. [Name Redacted] stated there was no problem with the juice and it was only a little frozen. I had to demonstrate the extent to which the carton was undrinkable by squeezing the carton very hard, after a few moments producing a small slushy stream of chunks of orange ice.

At that time I handed back all the food I ordered and requested a full refund. [Name Redacted] refused, then agreed in part as she still refused to refund the “open” orange juice. The discussion continued a few more minutes. [Name redacted] also declined to let me speak to a supervisor or tell me the name of the manager.

Eventually I asked if a refund would be refused if I found egg shells in a egg and cheese burrito, which I could only detect after I had opened it and bit into it. [Name Redacted] allowed that I would get a refund or replacement. I had to point out there is no quality difference in the quality in the burrito and the juice. After that she refunded the order in total. The entire visit was about ten minutes.

I was very disappointed in the entire experience and no longer feel comfortable as a patron to that location, though I have happily since visited other Del Taco locations since then.

While it is true that a company survives or fails in part on how they treat their customers there are also a number of terrible, terrible customers out there that can make some work a miserable experience. I usually enjoy my job in retail as it is high pay, there are fun people around and it is the least amount of work I have done in 25 years. Yet the small percentage of the crazy, the thieves, the greedy and the grifters discourage me.

Typically what I receive is rage way out of proportion to what is happening.

Some people lose their minds when they can’t return purchases made with food stamps (it is illegal to do so). A tantrum, like being sweetly and sickly nice, is one of several methods of getting a refund as the clerk wants the person to go away with no fuss.

Over a certain dollar amount a receipt is usually required as this stops wholesale receipt fraud.

Yet a lot of these rules stores follow are not arbitrary. They come from the City, State and Federal Government and Health and Safety agencies, not to mention the company. Like not accepting returns of baby food or perishable items. There is no guarantee of how the items were stored once they leave the store. Who would want to go to a store that accepts meat that sat on a counter overnight or baby food forgotten in a trunk for a week then brought back and placed on the shelf because the customer said they didn’t want it? I once refused a refund on someone who bought a large brick of cheese “just now” and lost the receipt in the last few seconds and decided they didn’t want it. The cheese looked okay until you turned it over and could read the word DUNLOP imprinted in the underside of the food. Apparently, the cheese was left in the trunk of a car on top of the spare tire. The customer put in the fridge so it would feel cold before attempting to return it.

The thing is, if he didn’t try to grift me (and if successful, possibly make the next person who purchased it sick if they didn’t notice the cheese was stored improperly) I’d swap it out for a fresh one. We can usually distress damaged items, that is, return them to the vendor for credit.

One customer became unhinged when a register opened up and he wasn’t first in line. He ran from several check stands over only to be told by the customers who got there before him (from the adjacent register) he would have to get in line behind them. He claimed he was sick (the customers didn’t care) and he abandoned his spot in a check stand (reserved for the disabled, by the way) in order to run down and try to force his way in front of the other customers. Somehow I was at fault for it and he ranted to the manager the next day (the video shows me motioning him in to the line right away anyway). I speculate because he was not first he was angry about being second or third.

Another customer complained to corporate that I did not smile enough. Of course, I got tag-teamed by the managers about it for a good twenty minutes. They were paralyzed speechless when I asked why I didn’t get any support from them for what was a ridiculous complaint. I was absolutely going to get a memo in my file until that point.

So a few spurious complaints over the last couple of months made me decide to put a few people on notice. What is unfortunate about the retail business is that often the first resort of a scoundrel is to say an employee is rude. This is the one thing that is sure to make someone in an office sit up and take notice. Not to say rude, terrible. hostile and incompetent employees don’t exist. I run into them regularly. Companies rarely, in my experience, drop the hammer on the customer, though I have seen it happen if rarely. Also, it has been my experience that companies will sometimes take administrative action against an employee based on speculation and hearsay. Sometimes these things happen but there are ways to resolve them for the most part.

Truthfully jobs can be lost due to some vengeful, angry customer who didn’t get what they wanted. One store manager I knew received numerous complaints, demands for action, demands for punishment and censure in an ever-escalating litany of revenge-minded complaints going up the corporate rungs. Of course, the customer never once said anything factual. What the opening statement from the customer, were they honest, should have been was “I was attempting to return items for cash I purchased on food stamps over the last several months. I knowingly attempted to defraud the State of California but the store manager said I could not return the items.” Oddly, if the customer was truthful and then her complaints took the exit to crazy town she probably would have gotten what she requested and been able to keep the food.

Sadly the results of whatever (if any) investigation into the truth is typically the result of someone’s opinion and not fact. This affects livelihoods. If Management doesn’t actually take action then at the least a number of spurious complaints will negatively associate that employee’s name in someone’s mind.

This is where I’m considering small claims litigation against anyone who damages my job and reputation over merit-less complaints. I wonder if somewhere other employees have successfully fought back against such complaints and I’m actually surprised I don’t hear about it happening more often. I have a family to support, the job market is tough and I will aggressively protect my way of life. Maybe if enough people fight back the stupid stuff will become minimized.

One thing about complaints though, and rightly so, is that they may as well be anonymous. To get a customer identity would require a subpoena, if their identity is even recorded (and they rarely are for minor complaints). It wouldn’t do to have some wacky employee hunt down and punish a customer for a real or perceived slight. On the other hand that perceived anonymity makes people brave, mean and sometimes evil, just like the internet does for trolls. We know how well that works out.

Honestly, if most of the things people said we did at a check stand actually happened they would be all over the video hosting sites. Just about everyone has a phone with digital recording capabilities and no compunction about using it even if it was just for the lulz and pwnage.

One of the main complaints by consumers is that they perceive they are treated like criminals. Rather, retail fraud is a billions of dollars a year industry and stores and companies take it in the shorts. Someone is stealing and it isn’t always the employees.

A good part of my day is dealing with people who are trying to work the system. The cheap, the frugal, the thief and the grifter all make the innocent person trying to return a box of damaged plastic spoons feel like they are trying to scam a store of a bunch of cash in order to buy crack.

Ask any customer service clerk how many scams they deal with everyday and the backlash from angry grifters. Most of the baddies get away with it because the fight isn’t worth the potential damage to an employees job from a vengeful scammer and the usual lack of support from the company they work for.

Many people complain that industry-wide they are checked for receipts when leaving at the door. In particular one electronics chain and a discount store received the largest share of complaints. I don’t mind, some people do. Fact is if stores didn’t have a greeter at the door acting as a deterrent to crime they would get wiped out and have nothing in the registers for it. The majority of retail crime is accomplished by simply filling a cart to the brim and walking out the door. Not a day goes by that I don’t catch at least one person who abandons a cart with a felonious amount of unpaid goods in it, deterred only because the cart wheels lock up if you don’t pay for your stuff.

The most common response I get when I ask for a receipt? “My wife has it. But I don’t want this s**t anyways.” Then they calmly walk away leaving the cart behind. I hope one day to be so wealthy I can just abandon $400 worth of un-bagged meat and beer at the door of a store because I can’t be bothered to have my wife hang around 30 seconds after the purchase to provide her receipt.


“Hello, is this the complaint line? I’d like to make a complaint.”
“Yes, Ma’am. How can we help you?”
“I want to report one of your employees. He was very rude and unprofessional.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Go ahead.”
“Well, last night SATAN, THE ALL-POWERFUL LORD shattered the dimensional wall into your store and Bob was very rude to him. Satan asked what aisle the human babies were on and Bob wouldn’t help him.”
“I see.”
“Satan needed a baby to sacrifice to bring about the End of Days and Bob told him to leave the store. He wouldn’t help him at all! This is unacceptable and he was unprofessional and very rude. I won’t be shopping at your store anymore after this! I’m also telling all my friends not to shop there.”
“I’m sorry your experience with us was not to your liking. We at Great Big Grocery value you as a customer. We will report Bob’s behavior to the district manager. We are interested in keeping you as a customer, too. Would a $100 gift card to Great Big Grocery let us keep your business?”
“Yes. Yes it would!”

Two days later, Bob was fired.

I dress okay. My wife does, too. She’s hot. I’m average-ish. Certainly not the elephant man. We stay clean and don’t over-do the perfume and cologne. We behave in public. Don’t act snotty, don’t act street. Not all rude and coming off like people from Maryland do. Yet I always feel like I get screwed over wherever I go. Anyone else feel like this?

If I leave my name I get missed or they don’t write it down or my order is wrong. I keep asking for a spoon and I don’t get it. We don’t see a server until long after people that came in after us do and we won’t get our food in the same manner. Yet you still have to tip them well because next time you visit you are “That ahole-oid” and they maybe do something to your food or make it more casually and sloppy. Same reason I can’t go back to Del Taco #949.

I can sit in my car in the driveway for 20 minutes and never see one vehicle yet the second I begin to back out there appears a never-ending stream of cars and it takes me another 5 minutes and risk of death to get out of the driveway onto the street. I check 30 DVD packages to make sure no one cut the plastic and slipped out the disc, pick one only to get home and find that the disc is seriously warped and flawed and won’t play. And then the store acts like I deliberately took a torch to it and gives me grief about a refund or swap for a working copy.

Whatever electronics I buy only allow proprietary peripherals, even though everything looks the same, fits together the same, has the same specs, the device I bought is hardwired to only accept their expensive accessories.

I recently had confirmed that a 40 waist and 2XL shirt mean something different between brands and stores. My wife throws away receipts and cuts tags and labels out of clothes usually by the time she reaches the car. So when something doesn’t fit it is difficult to return. Also, there are a lot of good-looking clothing on the racks if you are under six feet tall. All the large sizes that fit my height are weird off-colors, patterns and styles that would get me beat up by socially awkward math nerds half my size.

I can imagine some guys in a factory realizing they have 2000 yards of unused kitchen mat fabric and deciding to make a bunch of 2XL and 3XL shirts out of it because we have no choice other than to buy whatever we can find in that size. Oh, and for an average two dollars more per shirt.

If I didn’t know the universe was just a collection of matter with no intelligence behind it, I’d think I was getting picked on and singled out for getting crapped all over.


Me: Hey, there.
Couple at table: Uh, Hi. Can I help you?
Me: Can you do my wife and I a favor and take our picture?
Couple at table: Oh, sure.
Me: Here, I set it all up so just push this button. CHEESE!
Couple at table: There you go.
Me: Hey, thanks. I really appreciate it.
Couple at table: No problem. Glad to.
Me: Oh, hey.
Couple at table: Yes?
Me: One more thing. Can I get your email address?
Couple at table: Uh, why? No, why?
Me: Well, you and your companion were staring at us for so long, I thought maybe you would like to get a picture because it lasts longer.
Couple at table: F**k you!
Me: Okay. So that’s a “no”, then.

People seem fascinated to the point of intrusiveness when my wife and I communicate using Sign Language. People get so wide-eyed, still and open-mouthed as their minds try to process what they are observing that you’d think they were staring into the abyss and the abyss stole their sanity and soul. I used to see something similar in Maryland when a huge crowd would gather to stare agog and whisper at a family that would be speaking Spanish.

Maryland sucks, though