Friday, May 21, 2010

Incident at Store #521

I occasionally find myself writing letters of complaint, but I always feel conflicted about them.

Here's one I sent out a few weeks ago.

Hi. I've been habitually going to Store #521 both for fountain drinks and for gasoline since well before it was a [xxx] property, probably spending in the neighborhood of five or six hundred dollars a year.

Tonight, I walked down to the store only to be told that the cash register wasn't working, and "we can't do anything at all" The gentleman trying to fix the problem was, understandably, looking pretty stressed.

No problem, I said, all I wanted was a fountain drink refill for which I am usually charged 89 cents. I could fill my cup, leave a dollar on the counter, and they could ring the sale once the cash register was working again.

"I can't do that," he replied.

Naturally, I was surprised. I pointed out that he could in fact do it very easily, since the transaction didn't involve using a scanner. I suggested - politely, I think - that remembering to ring in the dollar later was, in addition to an opportunity for a sale, not much of a concession to a customer who had taken time out of the evening to make a trip to the store.

"I can't do it," he repeated, not quite rudely but with some heat. Well, as I say, he seemed under a lot of stress, and perhaps he was bound by a policy? I don't know, of course. He went on to suggest that I go elsewhere in the neighborhood. Having exhausted my arguments, I had no choice but to take his suggestion.

And do you know what? It turns out that not only is there a closer soda fountain to my house, but a closer (and cheaper!) gas station too. So it seems I've just been going to ol' #521 through force of habit, ignoring these other places places because, I suppose, I already HAD a neighborhood gas station.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting experience. And just to emphasize -- I didn't encounter any real rudeness tonight. Just a baffling inflexibility.

Best Wishes,

So here are my questions:

1. Is it a healthy thing that I let a frustrating social interaction get so far under my skin that I spend twenty minutes writing about it and figuring out where to send what I've written?

2. Is it possible that I'm just being a weasel? Am I a snitch who deserves stitches?

3. Is it a kind of handshake with totalitarianism, that I would essentially collaborate with the corporate overlord against the poor working stiff?

4. Or is it maybe a good idea to write in, keeping pressure on everybody in the system to keep those front-line transactions positive?

Curious what y'all think.


Yankee in England said...

I am putting together my answer in response to complaint letters but what struck me as interesting is the fact that you many moons ago maybe even as much as a year ago happily declared you had given up Diet Coke and all the evil caffeine and sugar substitues that went with it. From the fact that you were going in for a foutain drink does this mean that you are back on band wagon? Were you maybe subsituting it for a full sugar noncaffinated soda? I ask only out of curiosity and judge not as I know full well I would be living on Sonics 44oz cherry limeades right now if I was living in the US.

Elaine said...

Does Mrs. 5000 know that you sneak out for 'fountain drinks'? Did Yankee in England just rat you out?

I think this wasn't a Complaint; it was Feedback. Essentially you are being constructive-- "Here's something that could have been handled better,"-- and frankly you should get a letter of thanks in return. Usually people just vote with their feet (go elsewhere)...

I made a decision about 25 years ago to let a business or a professional know my reasons when I decided to sever the relationship or shop elsewhere. Whether they use the feedback to improve is up to them, but at least I've had my say. They may not care about my feelings, but they ought to care about the economic impact. Alienate enough people, and guess what?

Now, with the Age of the Internet, it's easier to be a Feedback Artist. With businesses, usually I receive a response (and often coupons for freebies.)

Cartophiliac said...

Mostly, I suspect your action was futile. Likely no one who can enact the necessary change will ever read it, or if he does, will not understand your intent, or grasp what really went wrong in that transaction.

It reminds me of one day when I was at an amusement park. All I wanted was some ice water. The beverage guy could sell me one. I offered to pay for the sugar water soda cup, full of ice, but asked him to "miss the cup" when pouring, and I'll go fill it at the water fountain. No can do. I didn't blame the kid, he was either under very strict, stupid orders or debilitatingly ignorant. Both worthy of pity.

The Calico Cat said...

You missed the point completely. This was a reinforcement for your not drinking any fizzy beverages.

I say keep writing them & if nothing else, post them here. (My husband does the same thing & then just sends his missive to me - I in turn critique the heck out of it & return it, by which time, his hackles have smoothed back down.)

Michael5000 said...

Yank: Well spotted, Ms. in England. I was completely clean of diet cola for more than a year. Then, I got both sick and stressed this February and let the monkey climb back on my back. In recent weeks I have tapered back down to very little intake, although I'm not yet back to clean.

Elaine: Mrs.5000 doesn't micromanage, bless her. And, I like "Feedback Artist." It reminds me of those little "Sandwitch Artist" polo shirts they used to wear at Subway.

Carto: Well, that was my working assumption too. But then I got a series of messages from a nice dude at corporate apologizing profusely, claiming that there's supposed to be a protocol in place for conducting business when the registers are down (which was kind of my point), and implying with some verisimilitude that the regional office was going to be asking pointed questions about why customers were being turned out on such and such a night. Which made me feel 1) listened to & 2) kind of queasy about having sicced corporate on a working joe. Oh, they also offered me a gift card, which I turned down.

CC: It would have been better reinforcement if I hadn't found the closer, nicer soda fountain....

UnwiseOwl said...

Personally, I don't think there's anything to be gained by this here letter. There's no real point or barb in it like there was in your Ducks one (are you back to supporting them yet?), and you have no desire for reimbursement.

Your attendant didn't have the initiative to follow through with your simple request, so do you really think a stiff talking to is going to set him on the road to being a model employee? Chances are it'll just help get the poor guy getfired or do nothing at all. I applaud the pedantry of writing the letter and sending it, but I'd prefer you sent it somewhere more useful in the big scheme of things, like to a local politican.

Elaine said...

Well, I agree that it's nice to be able to insert a banderillo in the hide of the recipient of a Letter of Complaint (per Owl) but opportunity does not always offer. In this case, mentioning that the employee had lost 11 cents'-worth of pure profit might have been fun.

However, I think it's misplaced to represent this guy as some 'poor working joe' being crushed under the hideous boot of heartless Corporate Enslavers. There ARE bad employees out there; they can either improve or exit, but they are not owed their jobs regardless of their performance.

mrs.5000 said...

I think writing the letter was a small good thing. And, because it was related to a store policy issue rather than just some small unpleasantry (e.g. that guy was snippy with me, and I didn't like it), it is just the kind of thing that the business structure really is set up to address. So even if the "working stiff" who blundered the transaction never gets it, the working stiff who answered your letter gets helpful feedback and maybe feels like the stuff he worries about all day really matters, and the working stiff who manages the store maybe also receives some helpful feedback, which she passes on...

Writing letters in support of political causes may be a nobler task, but also a more...diffuse role, at best, if you are one of many weighing in on an issue. Whereas here you were in a position to be the perfect advocate for a tiny tiny issue.

Ben said...

I agree with Elaine and Mrs.5000. I think that companies DO listen to customer feedback, especially when it is presented in a polite, constructive manner. A good manager would now have the opportunity to teach the employee about a policy that the employee was probably never aware of in the first place. I have a hard time believing that anyone would get fired over an isolated event like this, but if there was a pattern, then it serves both the corporation and the public to have the feedback.

eavan said...

I think that constructive feedback is never wasted, as long as there's some possibility it'll make a difference. Your letter sounded a bit threatening, though.

Michael5000 said...

eavan: I can see how the letter sounded threatening, although more in the sense of "I'll take my business elsewhere" than "I'm coming back armed to the teeth and angry" I hope. But the letter it wasn't actually so much threatening as literal. I really did notice closer, more convenient, and (to date) friendlier places to buy convenience crap and gas, and so haven't been back to the store in question. So it wasn't so much a threat as an FYI: here's how you lost me.

Elaine said...

Great post, M5000. That's exactly what I mean. NO, it's not 'a threat.' It's informational: I'm gone, and here is why.

We had a seriously disappointing experience at a well-known local restaurant (despite reservations that specifically cited our special occasion.) I later sent the owner a polite and specific letter describing our experience (which would have been poor even at a McDonald's.) She never responded, and we've never been back. And I tell everyone I know.

Consumers are NOT powerless unless they consent to be so. Feedback Artists are performing a service.

Jenners said...

Wait ... are you saying that you actually sent this??? This isn't just a "thing" for your blog? Well, I'm very curious to see if you get a response. I personally think the cashier was a moron if he couldn't handle it ... why would there be a policy against that? Worse case he could have pocketed the dollar.

margaret said...

Funny, I also sent out another squeaky wheel letter today. Even if you get no response (kinda depends on what franchise Store #521 is a part of, don't you think?), you feel better already, right? So it's worth it. Now, if you get free stuff in return, even better (altho I would say this is furthest thing from my mind when I'm being Squeaky Wheel, but there was that time with Baskin-Robbins...).

I remember editing an interview with a business owner once who said, "Every complaint is a gift," because someone cared enough to pinpoint an area for improvement.

Hopefully whoever owns/manages Store #521 sees your input as a bit of free consulting work, even if they did lose you as a customer.