Consumer IQ

4 Tips to Avoid Becoming a Consumer Lost Cause

sad face

I write the words “I wish I had better news for you” almost every day.

They’re usually in an email to a consumer with a complaint and they’re preceded by a brief explanation that they don’t have a valid case against the company they’re complaining about.

Consumers usually think it means I’m telling them, “No – I can’t help you.” But it’s actually much worse than that: it means the case is unsolvable.

Unsolvable cases – not to be confused with cases I refuse to mediate – come in all forms.

This morning I wrote “I wish I had better news” to someone who wanted a refund from a business that had declared bankruptcy in 2010 and no longer existed, after telling him I couldn’t help him get his money back.

Yesterday, I sent the message to someone who was treated rudely by a customer service agent (how do you compensate someone for rudeness?). And the day before, I said it to someone whose credit expired, in accordance with the terms and conditions of his purchase.

I hate having to say it, by the way. That’s why I’m writing this story.

Here are my four favorite “lost” causes and how to avoid becoming one.

The bankrupt business.

When a company is struggling to survive, it may have a last-minute fire sale to drum up business. Tempting? Sure, but watch out. If that company folds, you may find yourself holding a service that’s worthless or a product that isn’t covered.

But you can avoid this lost cause by doing business with a company that is healthy and protecting your purchases by making them with a credit card, which can sometimes retrieve the money you thought you’d lost.

The slight.

In this “always-on” society, the idea of good customer service often takes a back seat to profits. So when readers complain to me about bad service, I’m sympathetic. But to what are you entitled when your server sneers at you or your mechanic tells you “your car will be done when it’s done?”

Nothing, actually.

You are entitled to take your business elsewhere, to a company that values it and wouldn’t dream of letting one of its employees sneer or snub you. Sadly, that’s the only solution I can recommend.

The onerous terms.

If you’re a regular reader of my posts on this site, then you know that companies try to slip some of the most outrageous contracts under your nose (and sometimes they don’t even let you read them). All the more reason to pay attention to the terms and make sure you know what they are before making your purchase. Once you’ve plunked down your credit card, it’s too late – you’ve agreed to the terms and the company policy governing it, whether you like it or not.

My advice? If you don’t like what you read, move on and find a business that offers a fair contract.

The rules you should have known (but didn’t).

I get a fair number of questions about travel visas and passport requirements. These rules can be complex, but one thing never changes: meeting them is your responsibility before you get on a plane or board a ship. I’ve seen many cases of people buying a product or service without being aware of all the rules, even though they should have.

You are unlikely to persuade a business to drop the sales tax on an item or let you board a flight without the right visa. I can’t persuade them to, either. Know the rules before you make your purchase.

The world is filled with lost causes, and every time I have to tell a consumer that theirs is one, it pains me. But these simple steps can help you avoid the worst of them.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.