Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Crafty Consumer

Maybe I’m cursed with high expectations; or perhaps I am blessed with Nancy Drew-esque observation…or maybe, just maybe, I have a peculiar knack for selecting faulty goods from a store’s shelf. In fact, my less-than-ideal encounters have not been limited to store products alone, but also extend to services I have received falling well below par.

In the past 5 years alone I have been disappointed / clever enough / led by fate to purchase/pay for:
  • mouldy fruit strings;
  • a coneless Trumpet icecream (kersplat, in my lap);
  • stone-like muffin bars;
  • fermented sports water (it tasted carbonated…when it was meant to be still);
  • cold, tin-like tasting $40 “gourmet” pasta;
  • a movie starting at a time 15 minutes earlier than its website listing;
  • a 4-pack of EasyMac containing (gasp) only 3 sachets; and
  • 2 litres of unpalatable orange chocolate chip icecream.
For each of these I have written a letter. I have come to relish the discovery of something amiss within a freshly-opened box. I look up over my prize to meet Haki’s gaze, who will then prompt, “You’re going to write a letter, aren’t you?” I’m quite certain my eyes have a cartoonish twinkle in reply. I also leave grinning when we receive rude treatment somewhere - I am happy, because they have given me cause to write.

Because I desperately want to avoid being thought of as a whingey sort, I lean away from a tone of, “Your product could have made my stomach rot”, and more towards that of, “I write in case my efforts may enable you to recall an entire batch of ill-made goods that will spoil your great, grrrreat reputation”. That bent seems to go down well.

In fact, how the letter is received is what it’s all about. While the free goods and refunds I’ve enjoyed have been notable, what I truly revel in, are the replies. You see, I like to think that my letters or emails are special. I picture the “Customer Support Officers” in their uncomfortable uniforms on swivel chairs, processing screeds of painful, ill-spelled, boring emails; I imagine them stamping “We’re Sorry” vouchers with wide, zoned-out eyes, and folding “We’re Sorry” form letters to slide into envelopes. I know they wince as they glance at the “The customer is always right stickers” adorning their cubicles. As they run the stack of sealed apologies through a franking machine I believe they think of how horribly dull the complainants’ lives must be for them to afford time to write their painful, ill-spelled, boring emails about such trivial things. And then comes my email – a bright ray of over-thought, self-conscious, meticulously-constructed tactful light. Oh happy day.

My favourite reply to date came from one such entertainment-starved employee at Tasti foods. We’ll call her “Sally”. I write an email with the subject, “Geriatric Snack”, accompanied by a message and photo reporting an “An unfortunate bar that was all doubled-over, in dire need of a chiropractor”. Sally replied in similar satire with words akin to these:

“We are so sorry to learn of this poor muffin bar’s condition. I’ve heard a massage can work wonders. We understand in his current state he’s of little use to you, so while we attend to the needs of other elderly bars here, please accept the voucher we’ve sent so you may seek a team of bars in better health.”

Bless Sally and her willingness to personify.

Although Sally was truly a gem, Lone Star has taken the cake of late.

Episode 1 (November 2006)
  • Sonya, Paula, Anne-Marie, Sue and I go to the Lone Star.
  • Paula orders a medium steak.
  • Paula complains to the table she cannot even cut her uber-tough steak.
  • Sue raises a hand and requests a chainsaw for Paula’s steak.
  • The apologetic waiter hastens away to remedy the situation.
  • Paula receives her meal for free.
  • The waiter insists Paula also order dessert for free.
  • The Maître'De furnishes Paula with a $60.00 Lone Star voucher upon her departure.
Episode 2 (January 2008)
  • I visit the Lone Star website to say, “Hey hey! I’ve just received a well-travelled and tattered postcard reminding me of the wondrous opportunity I have to eat free at Lone Star this month. Its redirection and late arrival has alerted me to the fact that my address is still listed as my old place with you folk. Is it possible to have my address changed so that future arrivals will be timely, tidy and ripe for the spending?”
  • A young lad called "Cam" replies to say he's changed my address, is happy to supply another voucher if needed, and wishes me a swell birthday.
  • I write to assure him my current voucher will work a treat, and he needn't go the trouble, but I'm impressed by "the super-fast and super-efficient response". I close my message with "You are cool".
  • Cam replies (verbatim), "Thanks for that! For being the first person to call me cool for 2008 lol i'll send you and your hubby a Lone Star T-shirt each just let me know what sizes you need and I'll get them on the courier for you asap. Cheers Cam."
  • I email to supply sizes and praise Cam's timing at the same time as illustrating how weird Haki and I really are by revealing that 5 years ago to the day we had dined at the Lone Star on our wedding day.
  • Cam writes: "lol nice work! Just because your a big Lone Star Fan i'll chuck in a coulpe of other Lone Star goodies for you both. Have a great day. Cam."
  • We receive a $60.00 meal voucher, 3 T-shirts, a Die Hard 4.0 Cap and drink-holder, and a rugby ball by courier.
  • I email upon receipt of goods to say "We are fans ;) ...and now you've ensured our promotion from 'big' to 'die hard' fans."
  • I almost die over my wittiness.
Episode 3 (September 2008)
  • I commence teaching a social studies unit aptly titled “Crafty Consumers” geared towards educating young spenders on their rights and responsibilities as a consumer (in a nutshell). One objective is to ensure students understand the Consumer Guarantees Act, and what happens if they receive a good or service that “does not match its description”.
  • I use Paula’s Lone Star concrete steak experience to illustrate smart company policy. The students delight in how clever Lone Star was.
  • Haki and I treat Jeremy and Yvonne to meals at Lone Star for Yvonne’s birthday.
  • I write Cameron in true "ray of light" fashion to let him know we were charged, according to our receipt, for Yvonne's "free birthday meal" and that I figured writing to him would be faster than going in to solve it, since he was such a super hero at making us happy last time I wrote.
  • I report this incident and my letter to my class and invite them to behold the consumer experiment unfold.
  • Cam replies: "Thanks Angela i dont usually get called a super hero but i'll take it lol Probable the easiest way from me to solve this mix up is just to send you out a Lone Star pack including a Lone Star ruby ball or soccer ball (your choice) a Lone Star Tee and a $50 Lone Star voucher. If you do want just the straight credit though i can arrange the guys at the store to fix this just let me know? Let me know what you'd prefer and i'll make it happen. Thanks for taking the time to write."
  • I read Cam's email to my class, who look on, amazed...envious...and educated.
  • I reply, as dictated by my eager students, "This feels a lot like "The money or the bag?"! I'll take the prize pack of wonder from you - that's awesome! Also, you should know that we're studying Consumer Rights at school (I'm a teacher), and I gave Lone Star as an example of treating customers well when things go wrong. I read your email out to my students today. They think you're awesome. The soccer ball will be used in my classroom, as a constant reminder that Lone Star is good to its customers. THANKS!
  • Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's CAM, replying YET again! "My pleasure Angela, as the ball will be used for classroom activity i better make sure i have all the sports codes covered so i will send your class a netball, soccer ball and rugby ball. Enjoy the rest of your day, its always a pleasure to hear from customers like yourself.*"
  • I reflect on Cam's affirmation that I indeed have a special and noble place in the NZ food chain and within Customer Service Officers' lives everywhere.
And for this cause,
a) I forgive Cam for failing to italicise his restaurant’s name, capitalise “I” or put an apostrophe in “its”, distinguish between your/you're, and for repeatedly typing the ghastly "lol"; and
b) I feel Lone Star deserves every one of its 13 links within this post.

I can't want to see what a "Ruby ball" looks like!

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