Taking Advantage of Customer Service

Cam writes in:

I got a sweater from Land’s End for my birthday with the receipt included. I wore it twice, but I just don’t like the sweater. It fits fine and is well made and everything, but I just don’t like the look. I’m thinking of sending it back to them under their unconditional warranty but it feels wrong to me. What do you think? Should I send it back and get something I want or should I give it to Goodwill or something?

For me, this is a question with an easy answer that leads to some much more difficult questions.

So, let’s dig in.

Should Cam return the sweater? Absolutely. Part of what you’re buying when you buy from Land’s End is that very unconditional guarantee. If I were Cam, I’d return it as soon as possible and pick out something I liked to replace it with.

Having said that, if Cam had worn the sweater for years and years and it was showing wear and tear from tons of use, I wouldn’t think it was cool to return the sweater at that point. Their guarantee would cover the sweater, but you’ve already received what you’ve paid for if you’ve worn the sweater into oblivion.

And that’s where it gets sticky.

There’s a cost for returning items. When companies figure out the price of their products, one of the factors they have to consider is how much the customer service for this item is going to cost. They look at factors like how often the item will be returned and how many customer service calls it will generate. Those things cost the company money and they have to directly tie it into the cost of the product.

Normal, reasonable customer service requests are usually incorporated into the cost of items you buy. Thus, when you open something and find that it’s faulty, it’s the right thing to do to return it and put it right.

Where things become more difficult is with the unreasonable requests. Most companies will do what they can to help you with your attempted returns and customer service complaints, so if you think you’re justified, you should do what you can to make it right. If the request is really unreasonable, however – like returning a very worn sweater and demanding a full refund – it alters the numbers on which the company runs.

To put it simply, if the number of unreasonable customer service requests goes up, the price goes up – for everyone.

If you’re looking at a potential unjustified return on a very small scale – just your individual return, with no one else or no future purchases considered – it’s justified to push hard against their customer service rules and get every complaint met.

However, once you back up in scale a bit, you see that there are problems with that. First, it eats up a lot of time, as many such non-standard requests eat up your time to resolve them. Second, it increases the future costs of products for you. Perhaps even more notable is that the costs go up for everyone else as well.

My solution is pretty simple: unless it’s clearly a defective product issue, I don’t bother with the customer service. The time investment, plus the potential impact I have on future cost increases, usually doesn’t make it worthwhile unless you’re talking about a very high-end item.

What’s a frugal person to do, then? The best step is to buy less stuff, but when you do buy, buy quality stuff. Items that are backed up with strong reviews, strong customer service, and a great warranty and/or guarantee on the product are what you should sink your money into.

I look at it this way. You might have a choice between a $40 enameled cast iron pot and a $300 enameled cast iron pot. The more expensive one has tons of great reviews and is backed by a ridiculously thorough warranty, while the cheaper one has no reviews at all other than a few negative comments on blogs. What’s the better buy?

First of all, my question is whether I need the item at all or whether I have something else I can use. After that, I ask myself if I’ll use the item frequently. If the answer to both is obviously yes after a lot of experiences in the kitchen and study of what the item actually does, I’ll buy the more expensive one. Why? The more expensive one will do the job better and will last longer, and if something goes wrong with the cheap one, I’m going to be thrust into a customer service nightmare – most likely, I’ll just wind up burning a bunch of time and replacing it out of pocket.

Of course, the best choice of all is to either find another item that fills your need, but that’s an entirely different story.