When It Comes To Service, Definitely Think Local

A week amidst the holidays turned out to be a week of consumer hell, and a reinforcement of why we should do all we can to patronize local businesses in our communities that know about service.

It started when I found the used car I had been hunting for, a BMW 325xiT with manual transmission. It’s a rare car as far as getting awd in a wagon with a stick. The one I found was in Framingham Mass. I booked a flight to get the car on US Airways. Turns out I mis-booked on Orbitz.com. I called to re-book a day later, fully expecting that I would have to pay a $100.00 or $125.00 change fee. Though I find this fee to be insidious and unfair, I was resigned to pay it. What I was not prepared for was the extra hubris on the part of USA. The flight I booked was cheaper than my original flight by about $50.00. USA, Orbitz told me, does not apply the difference to the change-fee, requiring me to pay the higher original price plus the change fee for the cheaper flight. It’s a joke. The airlines are drunk with power because of the way fare and route structures are set up. This is the sort of usury-style purchase rule and arbitrary consumer screwing practice that should be in the screen of the next Congress. But let’s not hold our breath.

Next up. Verizon. While I was in Mass., I lost my Treo. I went to a Verizon Wireless store to see about a replacement. Here was the process. I was insured. But instead of Verizon replacing my phone, I had to wait for a third-party to send me a replacement phone to my home address. I was driving back over two days to Michigan, and didn’t want to be without a phone. The solution was that I pay for a cheap Samsung phone, which I could return to a Verizon store in Michigan. This was the best solution? Instead of having phones on site that they could give to replace my lost phone, I buy a new phone and return it a week later? To be resold as new? Yipes. Genius.

And as long as I was in need of a new phone, I decided to look at Blackberry, as I was frustrated that I couldn’t use a Treo overseas on Verizon’s service. But no Blackberry at Verizon, I was told, comes with a camera? How is this possible, I thought. So…I can’t get a Treo through Verizon that works overseas, and I can’t get a Blackberry with a camera. Can the number of Verizon customers who want an international smart-phone with a camera be that small? Again…Verizon…Idiots.

The answer seems to be to switch to AT&T cellular in March when my contract is up, and upgrade my phone. Great going Verizon!

Now, as for local businesses. I was shopping for a new snowblower over the break. At Sears, whose customer service has been going downhill faster than an Olympic skier, wanted to sell me a Craftsman snowblower in a box that I’d have to assemble. The local seller in Ann Arbor I chose sold me an Ariens snowblower, assembled with oil and gas in it, and the check-out person filled out my warranty card before I left the store. If it needs servicing, I can take it back to the store. At Sears, as I found out with a washing machine that went bad in less than two years, it would take a series of appointments perhaps spread out over three to four weeks.

Another local business in Ann Arbor, Zingerman’s, is so good at customer handling that they have spawned a business called ZingTrain, which are customer service training sessions attended by other businesses. Apparently, though, Verizon, Sears and US Air haven’t sent anyone.

My takeaway: Think Local! Buy Local! And write your Congressman to take up the fight against airline abuse of consumers.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.