Sponsored By

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.

Cory Doctorow

February 10, 2008

5 Min Read

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.

At this point, there is a small legion of people -- vocal and angry -- looking around to figure out how to e-mail me to tell me I'm an idiot. I know this, because every time I post about this subject -- or any other instance in which a company is behaving badly -- I get a flood of messages telling me:

  1. That it's not [Apple|Microsoft|Amazon]'s fault, it's [AT&T|the RIAA|the MPAA|the publishers'] fault.

  2. If I hate those products so much, why don't I just buy someone else's products and shut up already? It's a free market, after all.

I'm always astounded by this reaction. Companies aren't charities. They're businesses. It doesn't matter why they're offering an unacceptable product -- all that matters is that the product is unacceptable. Companies aren't five-year-olds bringing their fingerpaintings home from kindergarten. We don't have to put on a brave smile and tell them, "that's just lovely dear," and display their wares proudly on the fridge. I don't care if Apple adds DRM because Lars from Metallica has incriminating photos of Steve Jobs, I don't care if Sony BMG put a rootkit on its CDs because they were duped into it by a trickster spirit that appeared to their technologists in a dream. I care whether their product is worth my money. It's the market -- there's no A for Effort.

Even weirder is the idea that companies shouldn't be criticized because in a market, you should just take your business elsewhere. Free markets thrive on good information. For a market to function, customers need to have good information about which goods are worth buying and which ones should be avoided -- that's why we complain in public, to help companies make better decisions.

Companies do dumb stuff (add DRM, lock their handsets, etc) and then shrug and say, "The market demanded this." But "the market" isn't what companies demand of each other. The market is what customers are willing to buy. If your partners won't let you develop a worthy product, that's your problem, not ours.

When corporate apologists say, "Well, it's a free market, shut up and buy someone else's product," or "Well, it's a free market, they're a commercial company, they have to make a profit," they're not really talking about a free market at all.

They're asking for the kind of market where companies get treated like charities (at best) or like promising toddlers. If you're in business to turn a profit, you'd better make a product we want to buy. If your partners won't let you do that, get better partners, or a better line of work. It's not our responsibility to buy your halt, lame products because you can't do a better job.

Cory Doctorow blogs at Boing Boing, and is also a journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer. Read his previous InformationWeek columns.

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like


More Insights