Consumer IQ

Get Real! 5 Things You Don’t Deserve (So Don’t Even Ask)

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It’s time for a reality check.

Your expectations may be set a little high. For example, let’s say your flight is delayed because of a blizzard, which coincidentally is happening right now to thousands of air travelers.

My phone’s been ringing off the hook with irate passengers who wanted all manner of compensation, from free hotel rooms to lost wages. But under an airline’s contract of carriage – its terms and conditions – it owes you nothing during a weather delay.

A lot of air travelers beg to differ. If an airline accepts the responsibility to transport me from point “A” to point “B” then it should take care of me all the way, they argue.

I agree — and disagree. I think an airline should try to take care of its customers as much as possible – that’s just good service. But try this at home: Replace the word “airline” with “car” or “train.”

Would you ask Amtrak to compensate you for a lost vacation day? Would you call Ford and demand a meal voucher when the roads are impassable?

And that’s when I started to wonder if our expectations-meter was broken.

It probably is.

I can think of several other cases where people ask for something to which they’re not entitled. Here are five of the most common times when customers need a reality check.

1. When you expect Nordstrom service at Wal-Mart

Sometimes, you do get what you pay for. Unfortunately, customers often fail to draw the distinction between a white-glove shopping experience, like a Nordstrom’s, and a big-box store, like Wal-Mart. Specifically, they believe they should be treated with the same deference at both stores. This may seem patently absurd, but it happens across all industries, and I believe it stems from a lack of educating consumers about the difference between businesses – and business models.

2. When you wish for the good old days

You get this a lot from people of a certain age (alright, who am I kidding – I’m one of them) who think they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Well, they don’t. But often, people can’t see the big picture. While service levels have slumped, and sometimes to unacceptable levels, the products are also less expensive and in some cases safer and more reliable. People who say, “The customer is always right” are often either highly infrequent customers, or they are in denial.

3. When you want your company to play God

Among the most unrealistic expectations – laughably so – are the customers who expect companies to control circumstances which are essentially uncontrollable.

Those include weather (see my introduction) or even outside vendors that may have failed to ship a product, or the postal service. If the company were all-powerful, this wouldn’t be a problem. It could arrange for clear weather and 100 percent reliable vendors and guaranteed shipping. Unfortunately, there is no such company.

4. When you expect Rolex performance from a knockoff

Permit me to exaggerate to make a point. You know those street vendors that sell knockoff Gucci handbags and Rolex watches? Well, you wouldn’t dream of returning a defective product to those merchants. You paid only a few dollars for something that would normally cost several thousand. And you got what you paid for. Yet millions of American consumers think nothing of asking companies to stand behind affordable (often ridiculously affordable) products in a way that might someday make them unaffordable, if they were to have their way. It may be better to discard the defective product and buy a new one from a different company.

5. When you assume you’re covered in the fine print

Perhaps the biggest reality check comes when a customer fails to read the contract or terms of service, and only learns later that an item is out of warranty. Don’t get me wrong: I think many of these contracts are ridiculous, customer-hostile documents written by overpaid corporate lawyers. But that doesn’t let customers off the hook. If the fine print is absurd, don’t do business with a company. Instead, a lot of consumers buy a product or service and then impose their own terms and conditions. Too bad it doesn’t work that way.

I’m not saying the customer is always wrong. Far from it. Rather, that customers sometimes have unrealistically high expectations that need to be tempered by reality.

To those of you who think I’ve gone to the dark side, don’t worry. Next week I’ll tell you why companies expect too much from their customers.

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.