…And its implications for Modern Consumerism
This is a tale of how even customer service with “good intentions” can sometimes have a deleterious effect on customer approval and long-term loyalty.
I can’t blame Interstate’s customer service rep(s) for how they acted; but it would be useful for Interstate to understand why this particular customer — my partner, Josh — chose to buy an entirely new non-Interstate battery when his Interstate battery died, even though he was eligible for a free, unconditional replacement under the Interstate battery warranty.
It is also a demonstration of how consumer attitudes have shifted and continue to shift beyond the behaviours expected by classical economics.
Not long ago, Josh found his Mazda RX-8 in an unstartable condition after about a month of garaging. He quickly tracked it down to a dead battery — which was curious, given that he’d only bought the battery about a year ago. Untroubled as he had an Interstate battery that was well within their much-vaunted warranty, and he still had the receipt, he proceeded to call around to find locations that would replace his battery.
The Interstate warranty is of course a lengthy and legalistic document, but it boils down to this: all batteries bought from Interstate which fail within a certain time period (depending on type and usage of battery) will be replaced free of charge. Simply take your dead battery with the receipt to any Interstate vendor — regardless of where you purchased it — and you’ll be provided with a new one.
Simple enough in theory. But as we quickly discovered, Interstate is not actually able to enforce their own warranty.
First Josh called up a local Firestone and asked if they would replace the dead battery. Firestone informed him that they wouldn’t give him a new battery unless he paid for 2 hours of labor. Since 2 hours of labor costs about double what a new battery costs, this course of action would be patently ridiculous.
Next he called Midas to see if they’d replace it. They told him they’d only replace an Interstate battery if he were holding a Midas receipt.
Finally, Josh called the local hardware store about a mile and a half from our place. They also refused to honor the warranty in their store since the Interstate battery hadn’t been purchased through them.
Annoyed, Josh went looking for their account on Twitter, didn’t find them, and posted a public gripe about Interstate batteries that was something along the lines of, “Interstate’s battery warranty is worthless. Firestone and Midas won’t replace.” Within minutes, a user known as @interstatebatts, which turned out to be the official voice of Interstate’s customer service division, told him that his battery should absolutely be replaced, and that Josh should contact Interstate more directly to remedy the situation.
Over Twitter and phone conversations, the situation was relayed, but not exactly remedied. Interstate appeared to have no interest in trying to hold their resellers and vendors to their stated warranty.
Instead, Interstate suggested to Josh that he go ahead and take the battery to Firestone — paying them for 2 hours labor — and that Interstate would reimburse him for that labor time. End result: Josh gets his battery replaced for free; Interstate spends 3 times what the battery is worth.
We Can’t Afford to Just Be Consumers Anymore
In the classical model of economics, a self-interested consumer like Josh would readily accept Interstate’s offer, seeing no downside.
But Josh is part of a new class of consumers who understand the idea of “voting with your dollar”, and it goes well beyond which brand of toilet paper you bring to the checkout line. There are several immediate downsides to the “resolution” Interstate brought to the table:
- Firestone would be rewarded for their ridiculous 2-hour-minimum policy to change the battery.
- Interstate would continue to be unable to enforce their warranty.
- The customer (Josh) would have no reason to believe he’d be able to get a new battery in the future without all of the nonsense implied by the resolution — namely, paying for the 2 hours of labor himself and then securing reimbursement from Interstate.
Josh looked at the options and decided not to enable the vendors in their bullying of Interstate, and not to encourage Interstate to bend over for them. And he realized his time in chasing down his due was worth more than the value of the product in question.
So in the end, Josh refused the offer, and bought a brand new non-Interstate battery at a chain auto parts store, which will honour his receipt at dozens of locations around the Bay Area.
And he swears never to buy an Interstate battery again, because even the best-intentioned customer service and warranty offers mean squat if they cause the consumer more hassle than the product is worth. His decision was rooted in a certain kind of “new self-interest” wherein consumers can see the web of consequences arising from a transaction and can vote with their dollars — or in this case, with their acceptance of customer service — on whether they’d like to live in a world that continues to operate in that way.
Interstate may have written up an “impressive warranty”, but it’s worthless without a business ecosystem willing and able to fulfil it.
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