Brace yourselves, dear readers. The Haggler has some news, and it isn’t happy. This is his final column.
Yes, after eight years of pestering corporations and executives on your behalf, after several thousand contentious phone calls and emails with publicists and vice presidents, he is hanging up his fedora and any other apparel you imagine a seeker of consumer justice might wear. He is retiring.
Perhaps you have some questions.
Q. Why are you retiring?
A. That is none of your business.
The Haggler’s work here is done. His relentless intercessions have caused every company in the United States to radically rethink its approach to service. There is nothing left to complain about and thus no more work for the Haggler.
The dull and windy boob whose byline you see in this space has taken a new assignment with The Times in London. The Haggler will not work there. Uh-uh. He can’t abide funny accents or crumpets. So he is staying in the United States, specifically in the Humbly Furnished Home for Ex-Consumer Columnists, a gated community with an unpublished address and good broadband. He will be griping on his own behalf into his dotage.
What have you learned about the state of customer service in this country?
Asking the Haggler this question is like gauging the nation’s mood at a suicide prevention hotline. Nearly everyone who writes to the Haggler is in distress, and this profoundly skews his sample. If all you ever read was the Haggler’s inbox, you would think that the service economy was at war with Americans. That is plainly not the case.
Worth noting: Consumer culture in some other countries is much worse. Try renting a car in Brazil. Try opening a bank account in England. Visit Russia.
Can you say anything about why things go wrong when they do?
Generally speaking, the Haggler has divined three different categories of troublemakers. The first is the rarest. Let’s call them Weasels. These are people who are scam artists with various degrees of skill and ambition. The Haggler quickly recognized these characters because they were either difficult or impossible to contact. Maybe they were running a wine Ponzi scheme, or, as in one memorable case, threatened to maim their online customers in the hope that outraged postings to complaint sites would improve their search engine results.
Then there are the Borderliners. These are companies that aren’t breaking any laws but have built their business model around a gimmick that annoys and fleeces customers. On purpose, apparently. Like SAS Group, which sells As Seen on TV products for, say $20 apiece, then tacks on about $58 worth of shipping and handling fees.
Far more common are what the Haggler would classify as Unwitting Incompetents. These are companies that have every intention of doing right by customers but don’t have a system to achieve that end. What’s missing is a mechanism to deal with exceptions. The typical Haggler complainant has a story with a wrinkle in it, a hitch that makes it unusual.
But people working for Unwitting Incompetents have no power, and their supervisors are often hamstrung, too. Great companies know exceptions are inevitable. They give employees the latitude to improvise, or they create a place to send anyone in need of an improviser.
Which type of company was the most fun to haggle with?
The Borderliners. Because they often vigorously defended themselves, usually with a righteous indignity — easily the most entertaining type of indignity.
Are there are any companies that get this whole customer service thing right?
The Haggler has never received a single complaint worth investigating about Walmart. He also heard almost nothing about Amazon.
Have you ever considered taking the knowledge you have collected as the Haggler and using it to create the single most awful and impervious company in American history?
Not until you asked that question.
Did writing this column sometimes have the paradoxical effect of making you sympathize with companies?
Yes. About a quarter of the complaints sent to the Haggler were from customers who did not have a legitimate case. They wanted a refrigerator fixed free, for instance, even though the warranty ran out a few years ago. They needed a bully. The Haggler is not a bully.
What will you miss most?
Any unfinished business that you wished you’d finished?
Lots. Taxi TV still exists, even though the Haggler has been ranting about that abomination for years. American Truck Group of Gulfport, Miss., is still writing contracts that enrage and beggar truckers. Global Tel Link is still charging exorbitant rates to inmates and their families who want to keep in touch by phone. The list goes on.
Oh, dear. This makes you sound a bit defeated.
The Haggler tends to dwell on losses rather than victories. And he has always been armed with nothing more than the power that comes from the glare of illumination provided by The Times. This is a potent weapon, and it usually suffices. But it does not work on the shameless.
Let’s wrap up. Would you like to sign off with something pithy and epigrammatic? Here’s an idea: “Old Hagglers never die. They just get placed on hold.”