Consumer IQ

Are We Teaching Kids To Be Problem Customers? 5 Ways To Know

photo: mdanys

In most schools, the term “conflict resolution” is used to describe the art of dealing with interpersonal disputes – specifically between students and teachers or students and parents.

That’s a shame. When most kids grow up, they will probably spend a good amount of time hashing out their differences with corporations and government bureaucracies.

“I don’t think that kids are being taught how to be savvy consumers at all,” says Vivian Scott, author of the book “Conflict Resolution at Work For Dummies”. “When it comes to resolving a dispute with a company, I think there’s too much ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’-type messaging coming their way.”

In other words, when corporate conflict resolution is taught in a meaningful way, it’s often to encourage kids to act like spoiled brats until they get their way.

Not always, though. Frank DiLallo, who teaches conflict resolution classes in the Diocese of Toledo, says some curriculums are going beyond encouraging hissy fits. His methodology removes the focus on the parties and mediators and makes it a group initiative, which is precisely what works in the real world.

“In our district, these skills are taught in social studies and economics classes,” he says.

Still, many more students are well on their way to becoming problem customers. How do you know if they’re being taught the wrong thing?

1. You’re a problem customer

If you spend hours at a time on the phone, yelling at customer service representatives, then there’s a pretty good chance your children will grow up to be the same way, too.  If you use words like “demanding” and “discerning” to describe yourself as a customer, perhaps the problematic behavior in your child can be traced back to you. Don’t be offended: I’ve taught my three kids some behaviors that I sincerely regret, as do most parents. But teaching your child to be a good customer always starts at home.

2. Their attitude toward business is wrong

“Kids — and adults, for that matter — should start by believing that the company is interested in resolving issues,” says Scott. “It’s the exception, not the rule, that a business or organization is the spawn of the devil.” She’s right. If you start by assuming the best, you have a better chance of working your way to a satisfactory solution. But if your children believe corporate America want to take advantage of you at every turn, you’re off to a bad start.

3. They’re afraid to speak up

Problem customers enable bad corporate behavior, so people who remain silent when they receive a substandard product or service are, in some ways, just as problematic as the ones who freak out. Children who are taught to comply and obey without questioning will allow the companies of tomorrow to sell them less for more. Good customers are capable of critical, independent thinking and don’t blindly accept everything a company tells them.

4. They don’t understand how business works

“The younger generation appears to be void of practical education on real-world money,” says Kyle Shelley, founder of All In Education, a financial site for college students. Indeed, it’s difficult to become a savvy user of a system you don’t understand. Fortunately, there are opportunities to remedy that, including Washington’s Money Savvy Kids Curriculum and, of course, Mint.com’s new online Math and Money program, developed in partnership with Scholastic, which teaches good money management skills. And there are thousands of economics teachers who are teaching basic business principles to middle school and high school students.

5. They don’t know the value of research

If students don’t do any due diligence before heading to the store – making impulse purchases instead of well-reasoned buying decisions – then you’ve got trouble. Deborah Brown, a licensed psychologist who has taught at Florida Atlantic University, says a class on critical thinking, which shows kids how to become informed customers, shouldn’t be skipped.

“These courses are best taught when people are young,” she says, “Before bad habits are formed.”

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.