Thursday, February 4, 2010

No, You are NOT Powerless!

There are always lots of "voices" in my head.

Whether I'm a certified nut or not is not the issue, here-- I'll just explain this by saying I have lots of "inner conversations" with myself about things: Life, Love, People, The State of the World, and so forth. Some of my friends merely characterize it as "you just think too much!"

Maybe I do.

The past couple of weeks have been very busy, inside my head (well, outside, too... but that's not what this is about). As I've wandered through life, and through the weirdness of the WWW, I've become more and more aware of a pervasive sense of ("perceived") helplessness in the world.

As I look closer at that, I have grown increasingly aware of the fact that those who are "in power" want YOU to believe that you are powerless. And through clever marketing and strategically placed "societal messages," there is this deep (and alarming) subtext in our lives... it sounds something like "Yeah, I know this is BAD, but *I* can't make a difference; *I* don't have enough power."

The truth is that (most of the time) you DO HAVE the power... but "the man behind the curtain" has hypnotized us into believing we are powerless. I can't pinpoint the exact "how" of this trance, but I know some of it has to do with the misperception that in order to change the status quo of the world, you must be a multi-national corporation with a team of Ivy League attorneys at your side.

In other articles, I have written about how people often give up hope and lapse into apathy because they believe that "to make a difference in the world," they must (figuratively speaking) "invent a cure for cancer," or perhaps "end world hunger." I'm not blaming anyone here... it's easy to look at the sheer scale of the problems facing out world, and feel insignificant and powerless.

But there's empowerment in knowing that every positive action you take does change the world. It may not feel that way... but truth be known, most major changes in the world are the result of millions of "tiny adjustments" at a grassroots level... not the result of someone "inventing a cure for cancer." Our misperceptions about change are perhaps born out of the fact that the media will create a huge circus when the "cure for cancer" is announced, and some researcher gets his/her 15 minutes in the limelight... and we go "Wow! This person changed the world!" There is no news report that goes "A million consumers decided to buy organic lettuce today, providing a boost to local organic farmers."

See what I'm saying?

"Yeah, but I still feel powerless.... what can I actually DO?"

Gandhi once said "BE the change you wish to see in the world."

My suggestion for a "starting point," is that every time you reach a choice point where you feel in some sense "wronged," you take power over your rights... as a human, as a consumer, as a parent, or whatever... instead of "letting it slide."

This does NOT mean "being a rabidly militant asshole," either. And it can be something as little as NOT "letting it slide" when the box of cereal marked at $2.79 on the shelf scans at $2.99 at the checkout counter. Or it can be bigger things...

Last year, I had a "fight" with the company who services and fills my propane tank. Now, I get their quarterly newsletter, and they are all on about "conserving energy," economy, being green, reducing emissions and stuff. Minimizing fuel use. Great.

So then I get a statement in the mail, with a random $299 charge. WTF?

Of course, I get on the phone, wander through 47 levels of voice mail jail, get instructions in Swahili and Urdu... and eventually talk to a human being.

"I'd like to know what this $299 charge on my account is about" I say.

"Please hold."

Jeopardy music plays. Crickets chirp.

"Sir, that's an inactivity fee. You didn't order two fill-ups last year, so the company charges a low usage fee."

You... WHAT????

"Let me get this straight... there's an energy crisis, you're actively advising people to conserve energy and use less gas, we're worried about global warming... and you're charging me $299 for NOT using propane?"

"Well, it costs us money to keep the account active..."

At this point, some people would probably feel resigned to being powerless in the face of "Big Business." Others would perhaps rant and rave and get nasty with the person at the other end... who'd feel abused and respond by doing nothing. Some might demand to talk to a "manager" or a "supervisor," and probably not get very far, either.

Large part of not being powerless is not only "knowing your adversary," but knowing what motivates your adversary. On the surface, you might say "that's MONEY!" but that's only a half-truth. Bottom line is, they are typically motivated by shareholders. And shareholders "leave the building," if an investment becomes... "risky." Companies that get bad publicity are seen as risky... and "bad publicity" doesn't just mean that someone makes air filters with asbestos in them, it can also mean a company engages in business practices that run contrary to current trends in societal values.

Getting back to my conversation with the gas company, I said that I was sorry about their policy and sorry that they couldn't remove the fee, and I realized that the person I was talking to didn't make the policy. I was completely pleasant and cordial.

Then I added that the policy of an inactivity fee seemed to me to be out of touch with current market trends of efficiency and economizing fuel use... and "I think this might make an interesting story for the local Seattle TV news crew who does that 'Troubleshooters' program on the five o'clock news."

The fee was "miraculously" waived, within minutes.

I'll tell you one more, and then leave this.

A friend bought a fairly expensive laptop computer from a major computer manufacturer. Spent about $1200. Within a couple of days, a problem developed... the computer would spontaneously reboot, every twenty minutes to couple of hours. Clearly not acceptable.

On the OEM web site (OEM = Original Equipment Manufacturer), it clearly stated that a FULL REFUND was available if the machine was returned within three weeks from the invoice date.

However, all calls to customer service were fielded with the statement that they would REPAIR the defective computer. And that there would be a "restocking fee" of 15% if the computer was returned.

I took on this challenge, because clearly the company had a policy of trying to buffalo consumers out of seeking a refund.

Now, many people would argue (a) that individuals have no power in the face of a giant corporation and (b) that their time is "worth more" than being on the phone for hours with some recalcitrant customer service rep whose "script" revolves around making it all but impossible for the consumer to get a REFUND.

But... again, it pays to examine the "chain of logic" and the motivation of the OEM, or any other large company. And it will show you that *I* actually have the upper hand in the equation, NOT the giant corporation.

My "investment" in the situation is $1200 I want back, as a refund. If I spend six hours engaged in jumping through hoops, getting the return to happen, I'm saying that my time is "worth" $200/hr.

The OEM? They have my $1200, sure... but on a "net" basis, the sale of that computer is probably worth $100 to them in profits, IF that. I worked with the computer industry, and it is VERY competitive, and margins are razor thin. I also worked with some of the people who "took calls" (this was before they were outsourced), and I know that these CSRs were trained to "resist," but they also had internal "timers" that would alert them when their time spent with a customer was getting to the point of "costing too much for the company." At some point, they start losing more money through me tying up their phone line than it's "worth" to them to balk at the return.

Diligence pays off. So does "paying attention." In the above case, I also ended up catching the company trying to "get around" the problem by creating "duplicate tickets" (work orders) for my problem... and then insisting that certain things had NOT been discussed. There was always an "uncomfortable silence" when I'd say (perfectly patiently and pleasantly) "well, try looking at ticket number 4562354X instead."

Eventually, the "timer" ran out, and the return authorization for a FULL refund was issued.

Still... had the compnay continued to hold out, my next step would have been a screen shot of the web page stating the return policy, send to the Attorney General of that state, with a transcript of the phone conversations contradicting it.

Now, there are still those who'd state that they "couldn't be bothered." I'm not going to argue for or against... but I WILL ask... "Why are you agreeing to let yourself be fleeced?"