Contempt For Customers (2023 Sep)

by Barry A. Liebling

I am a strong advocate of free markets. The way commerce should be done is a seller has a product or service, a potential buyer wants it, they meet (in person, by phone, electronically, written correspondence), and if the terms and price are agreeable to each of them the sale goes through. Ideally, both the seller and buyer are pleased, and it is consequential that both parties have positive regard for one another. Each is better off than before the transaction occurred. Typically when a deal goes well both the buyer and the seller say “thank you,” and they mean it.

But not every deal is optimal. In the real world, transactions often occur where a bargain is struck, but because the seller or the buyer (or both) behaved badly, the parties develop antipathy for one another. While there are lots of ways this can occur, sellers who display contempt for their customers are likely to induce the vicious circle of disrespect.

This is an outcome that is preventable. My advice to sellers is to scrutinize how you deal with your potential clients. The key is mutual respect which encourages reciprocal good feelings. And contrarily, attempts (either successful or unsuccessful) to deceive your trading partner will have bad long term consequences.

Here are three cases where I was a customer and a seller ruined the possibility that I would have any positive regard for the supplier.

Several years ago I was shopping for a multi-function printer and noticed that a famous manufacturer had a showroom where I could see and purchase its products. There was an impressive array of printers – some small and simple for working at home and some obviously heavy-duty for offices with lots of users. A well-dressed sales representative approached me and asked what my business was and how I would use the printer. I saw a few printers that I thought would be good for me and noticed that none of the machines had price tags on them. Puzzled, I asked how much the printers cost.

The company man would not give me a quote. Instead he said he would have to check with his colleague. Why did he pretend ignorance? Is he calculating how much he could charge me based on the type of business I have? Note, that I would not have been disturbed if he announced a high price, or if he admitted that it would cost more from the manufacturer than from a reseller. Then I could have done more investigating. But the policy was to delay telling me until I was ready to buy. I am never “ready to buy” unless I know the price. The result is I left the showroom and decided to refrain from acquiring that brand, permanently.

Every year I get a notice from my internet service provider. The monthly fee is “being changed.” This is a creepy euphemism for “we are raising our prices again.” I see the new higher price and am resentful. Here is advice to the service provider. It is better to say forthrightly you are increasing your fees than to make a smarmy announcement that is intended to disarm your clients (it does not work with me, and I am not alone).

So every year I get on the phone with customer service at my internet provider and negotiate the new monthly charge. Inevitably, it is lower than what the company asked for in the announcement but higher than what I have been paying. Why do I have to experience this aggravation each time? The result is I remain a customer, but I have disdain for the company. I view the business as a bad actor that will cheat me if it can. If I make a fuss, which I do not enjoy, they may back off. The end result is I realize they do not respect me, and I have no friendly feelings for them.

This next example occurred only a few days before I wrote this column. I have an annual subscription to a windows-based software security suite. Each year when it is time to “automatically renew” I get an e-mail explaining that my credit card will be charged an amount that is significantly more than the previous year. It is obvious that the company management hopes that I do notice the price and just let the charge go through. I am supposed to avoid paying to the fee and enjoy another year of service.

I know that I can buy a renewal for the security software from a retail outlet, instead of obtaining it from the manufacturer. So I check the price at a store and see that it is less than half of the “automatic renewal” fee. When I call customer service at the software firm the representative tells me he has to check with his supervisor to see if he can give me a better deal. Obviously, there is no supervisor, and the rep is putting on a show for me. After a few minutes he returns and offers to extend my subscription for less than the e-mail quote but much more than what I would pay at a store. He asserts that it is safer and more convenient to renew through his company than to go outside to a retailer. The result is I decide to cancel my “auto renew” and get a fresh subscription from a store.

When company policy is to display blatant disrespect toward me, I am inclined to reciprocate. If I remain a customer, I am on the lookout for an alternative supplier. If someone asks if I recommend the firm’s products, I caution the buyer to beware. While many businesses claim they are doing what they can to encourage customer loyalty, a lot of companies seem to be working overtime to induce their customers to despise them.

I will always be a free market enthusiast. When sellers are intentionally rude, there is no need for government intervention. The solution to the problem of companies showing contempt toward customers is for their management teams to understand how it is damaging their long term success. A business can use trickery to obtain extra income from people who are not alert. But that revenue will be cancelled by the lost income of customers who are paying attention, become irritated, and leave.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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