My employer provides a benefit that, I think, is similar to a health savings account. I got a new card for it in the mail but needed to activate it by calling a special number.
I promptly called and entered the many digits demanded by the robot voice. It didn’t work. Robot voice said I should try one more time and, if it failed again, I would be transferred to a help line. Failure after failure followed. I could find no way to reach a non-robot voice also known as a human — not through the website or any other publicly available phone number.
On the verge of going postal, I had an epiphany. One of the robot voice’s first commands is that account holders should press “1” and all others should press “2.” I had been dutifully pressing “1” because I was an account holder. This time I pressed “2.” I got a real person — a nice person — in seconds.
My understanding was that people who pressed “2” were potentially new customers and new revenue. People who pressed “1” already were account holders who could only cost the company time and money.
I have no evidence this was an intentional scheme.
But it definitely was a manifestation of an invisible force every consumer in America battles. I call it the Middle-Finger Economy, or MFE.
The idea is that once you have a captive customer with limited options, you don’t offer good services, you torture them; you spend the least possible money on them and try to get the most money out of them.
In the MFE, the customer is seen as an enemy to be defeated by extortion, psychological abuse or brutal marketing.
It seems we have an advocate for MFE in the Oval Office now. If a company has a plan to build a factory in Mexico, threaten them punitive tariffs. If a citizen criticizes you, insult that citizen on Twitter. If a country won’t pay for a border wall they don’t want, threaten to cut-off relations and trade.
Lesser mortals in consumerland face lesser perils, though obnoxious they are.
Telecommunications companies are notorious. Several years ago, I decided to switch to a new cable and internet carrier — a penny-wise, sanity-stupid move. There was no way to cancel my old account online. In this case, I had to talk to a human and that, of course, entailed being subjected to dropped calls and long hold times. Then the human tried to talk me out of switching. It was crazy.
Shortly after that, I wrote a little item about a tech writer named Ryan Block who actually managed to record a Comcast “customer service rep” berating him for trying to cancel his account. It was a smoking gun of MFE and his story went viral. Millions of innocent customers have been tortured trying to switch carriers.
Airlines are perfecting the MFE. Their special genius is realizing they could degrade every level of service to such a degree that customers would be so miserable they would pay dearly to alleviate any suffering they could. By scrunching seats closer and closer together, airline companies could not only cram more human cattle onto a plane, they could charge some of them extra money for two inches of extra leg room or an aisle seat. They starve you and then try to sell you junk food at pirate prices. They charge you for checked bags and then charge you to get at the head of the boarding line so you can be sure there is room in the overhead bin for your unchecked luggage.
I expect airlines will start charging soon for not spilling coffee on you or adding a surcharge if your flight arrives on time.
I detect a similar but subtler predatory impulse in tech and online businesses that are popular and have great reputations for customer service — the Apples, eBays and Amazons of the world. The trade-off consumers make for these incredible services is that our personal data becomes a commodity for sale and we become sitting ducks for targeted, relentless marketing. Maybe that is a fair deal, but it smacks of being MFE-lite.
In my consumer experience, the worst culprits are still insurance companies of all sorts, cable and internet providers, and airlines, but I am curious what others think.
I suppose the smart, capitalist response to MFE is to become a better, wilier consumer and a more vigilant guardian of my data. But that is exactly how I do not wish to spend my allotted time on the planet.
So I am trying to become a more Zen consumer, limiting my choices and casting away as many commercial desires as possible. I’m on hold for the results.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC (www.newsnet5.com/decodedc).
Readers may send him email at email@example.com
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