When I wrote a recent post about trialing different meal delivery companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh with no realistic expectation to continue the service after the initial promotion, it made me wonder: What obligation do we have to companies?
I know what obligation I have to God (Mark 12:30) and to government (Luke 20:25) and to my fellow man (Mark 12:31), but what about corporate America?
When he was running for U.S. president in 2011, Mitt Romney got into trouble by saying “Corporations are people, my friend,” in response to a heckler. Legally, I’m sure there’s an ounce of truth to the statement, but politically it was damaging, and you can see why. Companies comprise employees, but they’re far from human. Citizens United notwithstanding.
If there is a dispute between a consumer and a company, our culture typically provides knee-jerk support to the consumer. Corporations are considered faceless monolithic entities that are out to rip off consumers if they can get away with it. The response of most people: Hit them back and get what you can.
It’s not hard to find evidence to support the Greedy Corporate Actor Theory. Smart phone apps that secretly and unnecessarily collect data that they can sell, Wells Fargo fraudulently opening millions of unauthorized accounts in their customers’ names, Volkswagen cheating emissions standards.
But like with people, you tend to hear about the fraud and not the good. Lots of companies do good, and not just non-profits. The companies I’ve worked for try to do the right thing, while also maximizing profits. That’s not incompatible.
And contrary to popular opinion, most companies aren’t rich. In 2012, 99.7% of U.S. employer firms qualify as ‘Small’ (less than 500 employees). Unlike with a Morgan Stanley or Apple, there’s typically no stock options, big cash reserve, or golden parachutes. Instead, there is paltry pay, meager benefits and the constant worry of running out of cash and not making payroll.
In that light, we need to recognize that our actions as consumers can have a deleterious effect.
So, I’ve created three “Taking Advantage of Companies” buckets that reflect the spectrum of how we as consumers might interact with corporations, from ‘Benign’ to ‘Bad to the Bone.’ These categories help guide my actions, perhaps you’ll receive some benefit as well.
My mom once counseled me to feel no obligation to a company that distribute freebies, that that’s their choice. She was referring specifically to one of those solicitation mailers that included a pack of return address labels, but the same has to be true for coupons or discounts or the like. I had no intention of continuing with Blue Apron after the initial trial and they probably knew that, but they figure their product is so good that they will win over some converts anyway.
Read about when $10 dropped out of my junk mail.
My sister-in-law Krista is expert at getting what she wants from companies. She once ordered a birthday ice cream cake from Friendly’s for pickup at 3:00 PM. When she arrived at 3:00 and it wasn’t ready, she got an upgrade to a better cake and a personalization, then harassed them into giving it to her for free.
My mother-in-law is similarly gifted in the Gray Arts (a step up from the Dark Arts, if you were wondering). She’ll win $1/gallon off at a gas station, then conjure the Gray Mark in the sky so that she and a couple friends can meet at the station and all gas up on a single discounted pumping. Not sinister enough to trigger an APB from the Order of the Phoenix, but definitely questionable.
(So you know, I’ve also been known to engage in questionable behavior in my company interactions.)
Bad to the Bone
My brother Grant bought a battery-powered Milwaukee Sawzall from Home Depot. When he got it home, he opened it and discovered its batteries were worn and totally spent – they could no longer hold a charge. Someone had probably bought it, swapped out the good batteries for bad ones, then returned it. Not shoplifting, per se, but just as bad.
It’s no wonder that L.L.Bean recently announced that they were considering discontinuing their long-standing free-shipping policy due to too much abuse.
Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.
Queen Mum says
I agree that there is a fine line between enjoying corporate come-ons meant to lure customers, and taking such advantage that it ruins it for everyone. Your mother rightly feels no responsibility to anyone sending thousands of people an unsolicited offer in the mail; that’s a marketing ploy she can accept or ignore. Only the sender has taken any positive action. It’s when we interact that it gets dicey. So I can understand that L.L.Bean might reconsider its liberal returns policy if people are sending back articles they’ve had for 10 years and still want their money back. The Golden Rule is not a bad standard for some of this.
Yes, good thoughts, thanks for sharing.
Adriana @MoneyJourney says
I partially agree. Except with your mother, that attitude I agree 100% with!
Freebies are a great way to attract new customers, especially as a new company. But that’s their marketing strategy of choice, no one has any obligation to follow through.
I partially agree with your questionable examples as well. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to take advantage of ‘loopholes’, although the customer is always right.
If a bakery says a cake will be ready at 3, they should have it ready and wrapped to go by 2:45! However, if that would ever happen to me, I’d probably be the one to apologize for coming to pick it up so early 😀
Yes, I’m too embarrassed to make a scene even though I know that can get results.
Thought-inspiring post. I do try to support local companies as much as possible, especially becasue my wife & I are self-employed & I used to work for a Fortune 300 where I was “just a number.”
Now, I will buy from Wal-Mart, eBay,Lowes, etc. because sometimes their ability to scale makes prices & selection too hard to beat.
Yes, it is hard to beat the price and selection of the big retailers. But, like you, I’ll make an extra effort to support local non-chain businesses, because I want to support them and I know how tight their margins are. Thanks for the input Josh!
Dan @ Stocktrades says
I’ve had a few friends in my lifetime that seemed to love to take advantage of big corporations, mostly because these corporations abide by the “customer is always right” theory. My one friend is the type of guy to take his order from a fast food joint back through the drive-through and demand it for free because he asked for 2 ketchup packages and they gave him one.
I couldn’t stomach doing what some of them do, but to some people, big corporations are the devil. It’s honestly impossible to not shop at these big retail stores anymore because the prices are unbeatable. I shop local for some things, but the large majority is spent where the price is cheapest.
As far as freebie methods given by companies, I have no guilt for not following through with them. These companies know that the end result of giving away these freebies will be profit. For every 5 guys who take advantage of the freebie, there will probably be one who sticks around, and I am sure they factor that in when determining if the giveaway will be profitable.
Just my two cents! Keep up the great work on the blog. I’m always looking to read and interact with other personal finance bloggers.
Thanks Dan, appreciate your perspective!
Finances with Purpose says
I agree – companies definitely feel little to no obligation to you, and ESPECIALLY big companies. Your mom & pop might know you and might treat you better (though some don’t!), but for large corporations, good luck. And I’m not anti-corporate either; that’s just how things are.
By the same token, we have an obligation – both moral and ethical – to refrain from cheating and stealing. If they offer you something, then go for it. Fine. They even know many won’t stick with them. I have no problem taking freebies. But I draw the line at deception: I won’t promise I’ll continue being a customer to get a freebie, I won’t lie to get one, and I won’t try to guilt them into giving me things that I have no other right to.
Great question/post though.
Yup, there is def an ethical line that most people know where is, thanks for the input!
Willow @ Miter Saws and Mary Janes says
I’m on board with the freebies because I view them as part of the company’s marketing strategy and budget.
What I can’t get behind is dishonesty or fraud. I knew a woman who repeatedly would call into customer service numbers and make bogus complaints about food, cleaning products, you name it. She was a master at getting rebates, refunds, coupons, and free things all from making false claims. I couldn’t do that.
I also like the idea of supporting small businesses whenever possible. Sure, those big corporations can offer huge price savings which most people need in terms of their budget. But the small stores need some love, too.
I do have a special place in my heart for small, local, non-chain businesses, and I try to support them as much as possible. I know there is a real person, or two, behind the business.
Troy @ Market History says
I think the reason why companies get such a bad rep is that when you think of the word “companies”, you think of the massive faceless corporations that dominate the business world. You don’t really consider the local mom and pop shop to be a company.
When it comes to the local stores, I like to do my shopping or spending with them. It supports the local communities. But regarding the megabrands, I couldn’t care less. To them, I’m just $10 out of $10 billion in annual sales.
That’s true, although Sears/Kmart is really taking it on the chin now. No doubt a lot of their own mismanagement, but size doesn’t necessarily equal strength.
Troy @ Market History says
I was actually reading a pretty interesting article on why Sears is dying. The current owner is running it to the ground. He structured his investment so that even if Sears dies, he walks away with a profit (by stripping Sears of its real estate and other assets). Pretty nasty stuff.