How Failure Can Make You A Better Customer

04/05/2017 02:06 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2017

When people say you learn more from your failures than your successes, William Seavey is the first to agree.

He bought a Samsung top-loader washing machine, recommended by Consumer Reports, at Sears. “It turned out to be a lemon,” says Seavey, a consultant based in Cambria, Calif.

The washer made “horrid” noises when it spun, wouldn’t drain water well, and had electronic controls that were indecipherable. Before it was recalled, Seavey invited Sears technicians to visit the ailing unit to make it work better. When they couldn’t, he tried asking Sears to replace the unit. It refused.

“We appealed to the company for months,” he remembers.

It looked as if he was stuck with the failing Samsung appliance. That’s a place far too many consumers find themselves in, and not just when it comes to big-ticket items bought from a department store. One in four American homeowners said that they would not buy their house again if they had to do it all over, according to a 2014 Harris Poll survey. Nearly 75 percent of consumers in a Creditcards.com survey have made an impulse buying decision, and half of those regretted it.

And with essential government consumer protections crumbling around us in an unashamedly pro-business administration, our failures as customers are becoming all the more irreversible. But there’s hope. Failure can strengthen your resolve, teach you important lessons and even show you the way out of a bad purchase ― if you’ll only listen to its lessons.

“Failure always teaches you something,” says Lynn Zakeri, a clinical therapist. “It builds resilience. Every time.”

So what is that something?

Assume nothing When things head south, it’s not always the result of corporate incompetence, say experts (although it sometimes is). Rather, it’s a lack of communication. A review of the case correspondence between businesses and consumers usually reveals that one or both parties concluded something they shouldn’t have about a warranty, a service or a product.

“Most business failures are the result of errant assumptions,” says David Corbin, a consultant and author of Harnessing the Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “They’re also the result of an inability or lack of willingness to confront issues, concerns and challenges head-on.”

The problem is that, when not clarified, the issues “often multiply like mushrooms.” Misunderstandings beget even more more misunderstandings. So the first lesson of failure often is: Assume nothing. If you don’t have something in writing, get it in writing.

The right attitude counts The way you approach failure determines what you learn from it. No, that’s not pop psychology mumbo-jumbo. If the company wins ― if you’re stuck with that broken appliance for good ― and you accept your fate, then companies will have their way with you the next time, and the next time.

Danny Zoucha, author of the book Happy Rich, recalls one such pivotal event. After receiving a cell phone that was defective, he says he felt “defeated” and accepted the carrier’s insistence that the phone was out of warranty. But Zoucha didn’t accept it the next time. A few years later, when faced with a similar problem, he politely pushed back when a representative tried to do the same thing.

“What I learned was a change in attitude,” he explains. “What I learned was that when I walk in, I’m not dealing with a big, bad company. I’m dealing with a big, bad company’s representative, who is just a human, and totally faking it to get by. Most people are.”

You can hurt them as much as they’ve hurt you Wronged consumers quickly realize that they have the power to hurt companies as much as they’ve been hurt. Power doesn’t just belong to those who can buy full-page newspaper ads or who employ an army of reputation-management operatives. And it isn’t something that can be legislated away from customers. This is one of the key lessons of failure.

“Word of mouth is something no regulatory body can take away from consumers,” explains Michal Strahilevitz, a visiting professor at Duke University. “While it does not always work, mentioning that you will discuss your negative experience with a marketer in detail on social media can be helpful. They don’t want bad publicity, and thanks to social media, we all have the power to spread the word when we are unhappy with a marketer.”

Strahilevitz says consumers pay more attention to negative information from friends than positive information from friends, and her own research suggests that this is particularly true of female consumers. Or, to put it into the vernacular, hell hath no fury like a female consumer scorned.

These three key lessons of failure each deserve to be remembered and studied. Certainly, Seavey learned them when he ended up with a lemon from Sears. He assumed, incorrectly, that the Consumer Reports recommendation meant the appliance would be problem-free. But Consumer Reports ― which, the last time I checked, was staffed by humans ― makes mistakes, and it had just done so.

Seavey also learned the importance of having the right attitude. Because he didn’t accept Sears’ “final” word on his washer. He kept fighting, even contacting Sears executives (I list the names, numbers and emails of Sears’ top executives on my consumer advocacy site). In the end, he threatened to park in front of his Sears with a big lemon sign. And that did it.

“They gave us a credit on a new washer,” he says.

Consumers shouldn’t have to learn any of these these lessons, of course. Companies should take care of their own customers because it’s the right thing to do. But in a world where government support the rights of corporations to exploit their customers over protecting the citizens they’re supposed to represent, it seems inevitable that we’ll be learning a lot of these lessons in the next few years. Let’s hope we remember what we’ve learned.

Christopher Elliott specializes in solving seemingly unsolvable consumer problems. Contact him with your questions on his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google or sign up for his newsletter.

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