Consumer IQ

What Consumers Can Learn From Their Mistakes

When Kurt Kirchwehm’s mother switched long-distance carriers six years ago, she assumed her old account would be closed.

It wasn’t.

He discovered the problem recently, when he found his mother had been auto-paying for a phone service she hadn’t used since 2006. He called the company, asking for a refund of the $2,500 she’d spent on nothing.

“They offered a $70 credit,” he says. “A supervisor said they couldn’t do anything more and hung up.”

Ah, failure.

We deal with it every day as consumers and we don’t have to be told how common it is, because it happens to us more often than we’d like to admit. Whether it’s an unsuccessful price negotiation or customer service gone horribly wrong, you know the feeling of striking out.

I do, to0. Let me be perfectly honest with you: 2012 hasn’t been my year. I’ve experienced my fair share of disappointment, and we’re only a few months into it. But, as I was feeling sorry for myself today, I thought, “Wait a second, this doesn’t have to be all bad. There are lessons to be learned here!”

True. And there’s hope, too. Although Kirchwehm’s battle is ongoing, I helped fix another similar problem recently – this one involving a 90-year-old who overpaid for his phone in almost the same way.

Not all failures are permanent, thank goodness.

What can be learned from failure? Plenty, it turns out.

Failure makes us better consumers.

I was inspired by an article in last year’s Harvard Business Review by Amy Edmondson, a management professor. She suggests failure is necessary on an institutional level because we learn from them. “Failure is not always bad,” she writes. We’re afraid of failure because admitting to it usually means accepting blame for it. Her research almost certainly applies to the individual consumer, too. When you fail to find the best price or the right product, you learn. You become a better customer.

Failure builds character.

“Success builds character,” New York business consultant Dave Checkett once said. “Failure reveals it.” But it may be the other way around – that, in fact, failure builds character. Failing as a consumer means that you’re getting ripped off, taken advantage of or at least taken for granted. It’s painful. It can reset your instincts, making you more careful and skeptical. That kind of character development is actually good. It keeps you from making stupid mistakes and becoming a victim again.

Failure improves your sense of humor (and it rarely kills you).

As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal.” I’ve found that these consumer setbacks, while often agonizing, don’t lead to the demise of consumers. But they are giving us a much-needed sense of perspective, and at times even something to laugh about. I’m tempted to tell a joke right now, but I’ll resist. If you can’t see the big picture in a bad purchase, then you’re missing an important lesson.

I see failure every day, and I experience it myself. But knowing the secret that failure can make you a better consumer, build character and improve your sense of humor, can help when you get that credit card bill, and you realize you’ve been scammed.

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 at by email.