The Customer is Always Blight

Last week The Fabulous Wife took our Prius to a dealership and had an anti-theft device wrapped around the catalytic converter. (Thieves covet converters for their specks of precious metal, and sawing them off has become common here.) At 4:45 The Fabulous Wife got a call from the dealership. “We didn’t have a chance to work on your car today. Can we keep it overnight and return it tomorrow morning?”

We had no plans involving the car, so The Fabulous Wife said sure. When we picked up our Prius the next morning, whoa! The dealership had washed it outside and inside — free of charge.

Next day I saw an allergist. (If it’s microscopic and wafts through the air, I’m allergic to it.) I was partway home when the doctor called. This can’t be good, I thought. It wasn’t. “There was a computer glitch [actually human error] and we lost your test results. Could you come back and take them again?”

I returned in a couple of days. As soon as I arrived, two staffpeople effusively welcomed me — and handed me gift cards. “Wow,” The Fabulous Wife said, “that’s just like when Toyota washed our car!”

Which sent me into risk manager mode. “I wonder if businesses are getting so afraid of short-tempered customers they’ve taken to doing stuff like this as a pre-emptive gesture. Like, we’re sorry, don’t get mad at us!”

Risk managers could make a decent business case for such a strategy. If you’re a high-dollar concern open five days a week, run into two nasty customers a day, and restore good will through a $40 gift to each, that’s a $20,000 annual outlay to head off 500 confrontations that demoralize — and perhaps injure — your staff, drive bad reviews on Yelp and other sites, and potentially end up as lawsuits, just one of which would cost more than the loss prevention program.

So I wonder if that’s what the sudden generosity is about. We certainly appreciated it, particularly the interior car wash; the dashboard had gotten so dusty I felt guilty every time I sat in the car, especially after The Fabulous Wife left a handprint on the passenger side. Now that’s taken care of! (We are usually much tidier, really.)

But here’s the thing: we hadn’t been particularly upset. In both instances we were mildly annoyed, but nothing more, largely because we’re retired, so we didn’t lose time from work or any other inflexible commitment. Which makes us wonder why they were so eager to appease us. It’s not as if we berated them, or even raised our voices. Just how desperate must they be to avoid confrontations?

Actually, we know how desperate. I dealt with tons of unreasonable customers at UC Berkeley. Among the worst were parents of summer campers whose every batshit demand, in their minds, was them sticking up for their child. And for a few years The Fabulous Wife moonlighted as a “shop girl” (her term) in local yarn stores, where entitled Berkeleyans (I know, is there any other kind?) made life hell for her and her colleagues. Don’t get her started on how some customers leave the bathroom after you let them use it. So we can understand the desire to mollify potentially unhappy customers up front, before they become so enraged that a free car wash or handful of gift cards strikes them as an insult.

This is all speculation, of course. I wasn’t a private sector risk manager, so there may be factors I haven’t considered. But in light of the whirlwind businesses are increasingly reaping from combative consumers (airlines most notably), were I a private sector risk manager I’d support a program of this nature.

(And speaking of combative consumers, here’s a great article on the phenomenon’s roots, which date back to well before the pandemic.)