When I was working on a recent diet scam story, I heard from Lilly. She'd been hooked into a "free trial" for a bogus product and ended up losing $50 on her debit card when law enforcement closed down the company. Adding insult to injury, Lilly's bank refused to compensate her, saying it had paid money at her request.
She was furious and asked me what I thought she should do.
"Nothing," I told her.
My reply didn't make Lilly very happy. After all, I make my living telling folks how to deal with bad customer service. Why would I go against my own advice and tell her to take a loss and get over it?
Because chasing down the website owners or battling with the bank would cost Lilly more in time, effort and energy than the $50 she'd already lost.
Lilly's story is an example of why an important part of being a smart consumer is to know when to quit.
Sure, it always stings to lose money or be taken advantage of, but not every marketplace misstep is worth your time or effort to fix. For example, it doesn't make sense to run all over town to collect $1 lost in a soda machine.
Correcting a problem has to be worth your time. Usually, resolving customer-service situations eats into your personal time: the hours you would spend playing with your kids or indulging in your favorite hobby. That's time money shouldn't buy. In fact, I value my personal time twice as much as my work time. If you earn $20 an hour at the office, an hour of your personal time is worth $40.
So if your dry cleaner fails to come clean on a damaged blouse that cost you $30, and you've already spent the better part of an hour hassling him or her, it's time to move on. Find a new dry cleaner and enjoy the rest of your day. On the other hand, that $300 error on your cell phone bill may be worth several hours of effort.
But, you ask, "What about principle?" In most cases, forget it.
Fighting for principle is a different battle than trying to get honest value for money you've lost. I absolutely believe that a company should be taken to task over poor customer service. But that's an entirely different matter than whether or not a particular problem is worth your time.
Beating up on a company may feel good, but in the end, the satisfaction will be minimal. It's highly unlikely that your complaint would bankrupt a company or get somebody fired. Even a letter of apology from a faceless, soulless corporation rings hollow when you take into account the time it would take to get it.
If you decide that a problem isn't worth your time, you don't have to feel totally unsatisfied. You might feel vindicated knowing that companies with poor records of customer service probably don't have much life left in them.
In Lilly's case, the business was shuttered. Sure, she lost $50, but she can be sure the bogus website's owners lost far more.
Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.