The marketing game: Wise shoppers know how to whine AT YOU SERVICE

November 25, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

From the outside, the red pepper looked mouth-wateringly perfect, the ideal complement to the quesadillas my husband was preparing. Once sliced open, however, the vegetable revealed a dark brown stain at its core and a rancid smell. A taste confirmed the pepper was inedible.

Automatically, I gathered up the pieces in a plastic bag, announcing: "I'll have to take this back to the store for a refund." My husband asked plaintively: "Can you wait until after dinner?"

Hey, no one said it was easy being married to the Avenging

Consumer.

By nature, I am an easy-going type. I was 18 before I saw someone return a steak in a restaurant.

But in recent years, powered by the checkbook from my `D DINK-POP household (Double Income, No Kids, Plenty of Pets), I have started demanding fair play in the marketplace. I roam the city, overcoming slights and righting wrongs. I drive 10 miles out of my way to get eye contact at the hardware store. It's sort of like a TV show starring Lorenzo Lamas, only he has better hair.

So today, as the Christmas shopping season kicks into high gear, it's a good time to review "The Art of the Squeal" -- how to get a fair shake in the marketplace.

Rule No. 1: Ask questions.

NTC In some cases, all you have to do is identify your objective -- a refund, a price reduction, an apology -- and explain the situation as succinctly as possible. In others, you must keep asking questions until you get what you want.

Why? Because as long as you're asking a question, any question, they have to keep talking to you. What is your policy? Can anyone help me? Do you ever give refunds without a receipt? Are you sure? Is there someone else I can talk to?

Years ago, in San Antonio, Texas, my cable was knocked out in a windstorm. Power was restored quickly, but cable service was blacked out for more than a week. The company didn't want to provide refunds, claiming it was out of its control.

True, the storm wasn't its fault. Failure to respond to the storm's damage was. I tracked down someone in management and plied him with my dry, white whine. Where did an act of nature end and an act of neglect begin? Did they want me to cancel my service? Who made the policy? Why? Why? Why?

"Because, because, because," the man replied. Patiently, I started over. You see, as long as I was asking questions, or protesting that I didn't understand, he couldn't hang up. If I used ultimatums or profanity, he would have been justified in hanging up. Questions kept him on the line. Finally, he agreed to deduct a portion of that month's bill.

Hint: It helps to be as obtuse as possible in these situations. Faced with explaining things over and over again, an employee may decide to give you what you want in the interest of expediency.

Rule No. 2: Take names. Take notes.

When someone finally agrees to make a special accommodation for you, get his or her name, title and jot it down along with the date and time.

I learned to do this fairly recently, after becoming embroiled in an epic struggle over a mail order shipment. The first person I talked to was charming, cheerful and totally inept. As a result, my package was sent to someone with a slightly different name at a non-existent address.

Three weeks went by. I alerted the company to the problem. Employee No. 1 assured me that, once the package was found, the company would ship it via overnight mail, no expense. Employee No. 2 told me: "The package has been found, but I don't know who told you it would be shipped overnight. We never do that. We can get it there in two days." Five days later, Employee No. 3 said: "Who did you talk to? You know this is really your fault." Thirty minutes later, Employee No. 4 said: "Someone who works there said that? I can't believe it? Did you get his name?"

Finally, I talked to a supervisor, a lovely woman who agreed to waive shipping and special handling. ("I just don't feel as if I've received any special handling," I had insisted to Employees 2 through 4.)

Hint: Don't browbeat minimum wage employees for the sheer sport of it. They really may not have the authority to help you. Move on to the manager. Don't complain about the employee unless he or she was gratuitously rude.)

Rule No. 3: You deserve a break today.

You know how some fast food places train employees to ask: "You want fries with that?" When you're kvetching, you might want to use the same technique. "May I have fries with that? For free? As a goodwill gesture?"

When a company messes up, quid pro quo might not be enough. Value your time. Chances are, no one else will.

Let's say you rent "White Christmas" from Very Large National Video Store and the crackling fire is drowned out by the snap, crackle pop on the distorted tape. Or you lug home the long version of "Once Upon a Time in America," only to find you have two copies of the first part, which means you have to sit through the opium den scene twice before you figure out something is wrong.

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