The Southern California Edison customer was mad, really mad. So she threatened the company.
"She told us she was going to unscrew all the light bulbs and let all the electricity run out," recalled Carol Heinz-Dooley, a consumer affairs specialist for the Rosemead-based company. Heinz-Dooley said her office was able to calm the elderly client, persuade her not to carry out her threat and answer her complaint.
"A good complaint is better than a wrong payment," Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote --and consumer affairs representatives hear some good ones. The 1,400-member Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP) is holding its annual convention this week in Century City. Those on the receiving end of the disappointed consumer's wrath are attending meetings on marketing, listening to lecturers on such topics as "Dealing with Difficult People" and, of course, swapping stories of outrageous complaints. For example, Southern Californians love their cars, and when a new car doesn't work properly, the manufacturers' consumer affairs representatives are usually among the first to hear about it. "We had a gentleman who wrote to us who said the seat in his car made his underwear creep up," recalled Sharron L. Jackman, consumer communications manager for Irvine-based Mazda Motors of America. Tempted to suggest new underwear, she ended up encouraging the customer to ask his dealer about buying another car seat.
Another customer became convinced that his car was possessed, and attracted such roadside metal objects as hubcaps whenever he went for a drive, Jackman said. Yet another, "said the truck rode so rough, the only thing it would pass was kidney stones."
"In this business, you deal with people who may be a bit off, a little out there in Lala land," she said.
Consumer relations experts who handle customer complaints were virtually unheard of two decades ago, but have since become the rule rather than the exception at the nation's largest corporations, SOCAP president Nancy R. Noeske said. A recent study found that customers change suppliers more often because they feel ignored than for any other reason, she said. "A company that doesn't respond within 24 hours to a customer complaint isn't doing a good job."
The old rule that the squeaky wheel gets the grease--meaning that the customer who complains most loudly receives attention--is less true now that consumers have someone at a company to whom they can readily complain, Noeske said. If a company refuses to reply, however, consumers should still go to a consumer action group or the appropriate government regulatory body, she said.
A few squeaks can still help. Johan M. Gallo, a consumer affairs regional analyst for Firestone Tire & Rubber recalled a recent case in which a Los Angeles resident had the engine of his car rebuilt and then took the vehicle to a Firestone service center to have the oil and oil filter changed. A friend then drove the man, who was blind, to Shreveport, La., where the engine burned out because the oil had drained out. The man took the car to the nearest Firestone garage, where he was told that the engine had been poorly rebuilt and Firestone was not liable.
The man called four area television stations and announced that Firestone's decision had left him penniless and homeless, and would force him to sleep on his jacket in a parking lot. "This guy's laying out in the parking lot . . . the cameras rolling," Gallo said. Firestone ended up paying not only for the engine's repair but also for the man's stay in a nearby hotel.
Triplet's Credit Woes
The cost of responding to other complaints can be cheaper, but sometimes requires more ingenuity. Employees of Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises, which operates the ocean liner shown in ABC's "Love Boat," are accustomed to misdirected comments about the television show's plot. But the company's consumer affairs representatives nonetheless were taken aback when a customer wrote to complain that none of the television show's stars were shown in a promotional brochure's photos of the crew.
"She said, 'Do you think I'm going to sail with strangers?' " recalled Jane C. Riddle, director of passenger relations. Riddle's reply: The woman should travel when the television show was being filmed. (Production of the show has since been discontinued.)
Some of the more bizarre complaints can lead to the most surprising outcomes. TRW Information Services, an Orange-based company which collects and sells credit histories, recently received a letter from a man who claimed to be a triplet whose credit rating had been ruined by his two identical brothers, said consumer affairs administrator Mary M. Rex.
The names of the triplets, according to the complainant, were Ken, Kenny and Kenneth. All shared the same birth date, all shared the same home address when they began using credit and all bore similar social security numbers because their mother had submitted their applications at the same time.
"I thought, 'Oh, sure, this is another story,' " Rex said.
But a brief investigation revealed that the entire story was true. The man's credit rating was restored.