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2/10/2008
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In Defense Of Complaining

Complain about a company, and you'll be accused of being a whiner. But markets thrive on information, so it's every customer's right to complain, and every company's obligation to shut up and listen, says columnist Cory Doctorow.

Companies screw up. They make bad products. Their employees act badly. They deliver bad service. They make bad decisions about how to treat their customers.

Sometimes the foul-up is honest: A waiter trips and drops dinner in your lap. Sometimes, the problem is preventable: That waiter has been dropping food on diners every night for a month. Or he's been tripping over the same loose floor-tile that management is too cheap to do something about.

Companies balance their spending against their customers' interests. It's easy to find examples of companies cutting back on customer service or quality to cut costs. Taxi operators squeeze a couple extra bucks by plastering the back seat with loud video advertisements. Circuit City fired all their experienced sales staff and replaced them with cheaper juniors who don't know what they're talking about. Then the retail chain went further, slashing costs by basically eliminating the checkout staff. As The Consumerist's Meg Marco brilliantly put it: "Actually buying something is a 12-step process that involves little public library catalog kiosks that are randomly placed all over the store. Finding someone to able and willing to help you purchase your item is like finding a 1UP in Super Mario Bros., except instead of a free life, you get a sales pitch for an extended warranty. And you're just buying AA batteries."

Apple did a deal with AT&T that locks iPhone customers into a two-year contract. Lock-ins are never good for customers: a business that isn't confident that it can keep your business by providing the best product at the best price is a business that isn't planning on providing the best product at the best price.

Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and the BBC are among the companies infesting their products with DRM. They sell products that take over your PC and lock it down so it won't take orders from you, all in the name of preventing you from getting additional use out of your music, books and movies. Unlike a CD, you can't go to a used music store and sell your DRM'd music from the iTunes or Zune store. And, while you can buy a CD and load it onto your iPod, if you want to do the same for a movie you own on DVD, Apple wants you to buy it again in the iTunes store.

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