Sunday, March 06, 2016

How far should a company go to keep frustrated customer happy?

Should a company do whatever's reasonably possible to keep a frustrated customer happy?

A reader -- let's call him Max -- purchased a new laptop computer last September. The company gave him a $50 gift card that he could use to buy any accessory from the manufacturer's website.

Max set up his new laptop.

After two or three weeks, he noticed that while his wireless connection worked fine when he was outside of his home, it regularly disconnected when he used his new laptop at home. None of the other equipment hooked up to his home's wireless router -- his wife's laptop, their cellphones -- had trouble staying connected to the wireless signal.

Max called the manufacturer's technical support line. The technician walked Max through several diagnostics and ended up staying on the phone more than an hour. All worked fine for a day, but then the dropped wireless signal resumed. Again, Max called support. Again, he spent several more hours on the phone.

"Could it be my router?" Max asked the technician. He was advised that before he started replacing any additional hardware, they should figure out if the problem had anything to do with his new laptop.

The problem persisted and Max spent several more hours on the phone. He again asked if he should buy a new router. He was told to hold off since the manufacturer was going to send a replacement wireless card.

A local technician installed the new card and checked out Max's laptop. After it seemed to work, he left Max's house. Before the end of the day, the dropped signal problem resumed.

Max finally decided to purchase a new wireless router hoping that might solve the issue. When he went to apply the $50 gift card to his online purchase, he was alerted that it had expired.

Several calls to the manufacturer explaining that he only waited to purchase the router because the manufacturer advised him to wait were met with little sympathy. "There's nothing we can do," he was told. Rather than spend more hours on the telephone, Max purchased the router, set it up, and has had no problems with his wireless connection since.

Should the company have honored the gift card, given that its representatives had advised Max to hold off buying the router?

While it would have been a minor cost to keep a frustrated customer happy, the company had no ethical obligation to honor the expired gift card. The right thing would have been for Max to let the technician know about the gift card and the expiration date right from the start in case that might have influenced his advice to purchase a new router. Max didn't do that, so the cost of the router is on him.

The manufacturer may have been in the right to refuse the gift card, but in the process it lost a long-time customer who had spent thousands on at least a dozen computers from it over the years. Max is determined to purchase his next laptop someplace else -- and he'll probably update his router then too. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Boy did the company mess up.
First, he received a gift card and did not use it in time. So what! An argument would be his purchase did not work so he could not. Yes he could have mentioned it but his problem was more important at the time than the certificate. He probably did not think about it or may not have known the expiration issue.
Now, he is a lost customer. So they saved $ 50 which he planned to use in their store, big deal.
Big companies spend millions to get people in, more millions to keep customers happy, and they blew it on a technicality.
As an example, I went to a hardware chain to buy something where the discount deal had changed and I no longer qualified. I thought it in bad taste that the change was not mentioned to the customers like myself who receive regular mailings and it could have easily been added in text and cost them nothing. The clerk understood and allowed it "on good faith". A simple gesture for nearly no cost which keeps me coming. A very similar technicality to the router issue.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.