Assertiveness Training

My assertiveness is largely dependent on my surroundings…and what I’m saying. It’s easy for me to speak about certain topics rather than others. Among the topics I’m not particularly strong at is negotiation. I don’t like the thought of twisting another person’s point of view even if it might be beneficial. I can be persuasive, but I can’t go into a conversation with what I perceive to be an ulterior motive, even if that motive happens to be the right one.

This affected me when I worked in retail, but it’s really become a problem as an adult consumer. I emphasize conscientious consumerism so much on this blog and in my reviews because I truly need to fix my thinking when something is being sold to me. I also need to work on being assertive when a product I’ve bought fails to live up to its basic function. I don’t like storming customer service, demanding to speak to a manager, and telling them, in no uncertain terms, that I would like my money back. Even if, again, the product was unfit for sale in the first place.

A big part of this is some recognition that the person I’m speaking with very often has nothing to do with the product’s manufacturing. I’ve worked retail. I’ve been that person who has to apologize and apologetically refer a person to store policy. Policies put in place that, regardless of how an employee feels, must be abided to the letter. It’s a hard knock life for people in retail, and I do not want to make that life harder.

But then my suitcase broke.

That-dude-I-married and I have talked about buying new luggage for years, and I finally decided to pick up at least one piece in preparation for my recent trip. I knew I would be dragging this suitcase across most of Vancouver, parts of the GTA, and Regina. I needed a suitcase that was easy to move but rugged enough to carry my clothes and cosmetics. We went to Winners thinking we would find a deal, and we did: a mid-size suitcase, four sets of wheels, lightweight, and drop-tested. Perfect for dragging around busy city centres and running through terminals at airports.

I had this suitcase packed up and in fabulous condition. Checked it aboard my first flight. I disembarked at Vancouver International and arrived – miraculously – as it was rotating on the carrousel at baggage claim. My happiness quickly turned to disappointment, though, when I noticed the fraying edge of a seam. The suitcase had torn open near the top, and upon first inspection, it wasn’t debilitating, merely irritating. However, as I was riding the Skytrain into the city, I noticed the damage wasn’t quite so simple. The whole side panel had ripped from the rest of the suitcase near the top. This wasn’t airline carelessness; this was a bag not capable of withstanding the basic pressures of airline travel. A bag that was designed to be checked luggage, by the way. I couldn’t imagine what another trip would do to it, let alone the third I had planned at the end of the month.

My husband said that we would take care of it when I was back home. That was where the receipt was after all. However, I was nervous, again, about carrying my things in an ailing bag. So I put on my big girl hat and I called Winners Customer Service.

I’m a nervous personality. I mentioned I don’t like negotiating. Well, I really, REALLY don’t like telling people what I need. It’s not their responsibility to make sure that I’m taken care of, and who the hell am I to proclaim that my needs are more important than their policy?

…except companies do have a responsibility to consumers to stand behind the product they sold. I’m going to say it again, because I need to let the thought sink in: companies do have a responsibility to their consumers to stand behind the product they sold. Winners’ policy states that no returns or exchanges will be issued on products that cannot be resold, a fact that was reiterated to me on my phone call to their customer service. However, as I mentioned, this was a product that really oughtn’t to be sold in the first place, a product that was damaged doing exactly what this product was designed to do.

I was referred to the company that made the suitcase and told to pursue matters through their warranty, and I think, had I been at home, had I been comfortably settled, this might have been the end of the conversation. But my flight on Thursday won’t wait for a warranty policy, and frankly, I didn’t want to have the suitcase replaced with one from the same company that produced my broken one.

For once in my sweet life, I actually communicated all this aloud. I think I even went so far as to use the word “unacceptable,” a word I don’t use outside of conversations with my students, because I’m generally the sort of person who finds everything acceptable. But I would not be getting on the plane with a gorilla-taped suitcase. I simply would not.

At this point the conversation turned to my receipt, which is back in Saskatchewan. Customer service asked if I had a TJ Maxx card; I replied that I do, but I’m not registered. Well, if I was registered, I would have a digital copy of the receipt. Once more, I can clearly see the version of me who would have thanked this person for their time and left it at that, but the thought of flying with this suitcase terrified the hell out of me. I simply said it was a shame that I didn’t have the receipt, and that we – oh, my goodness, I dropped a plural pronoun – we needed to find a solution to the problem that didn’t involve me checking a ripped bag on my next flight.

The customer service rep asking for more information about my purchase and said she would call me back. She did, within an hour, and said that she had not only found my receipt but had also e-mailed it to the nearest Winners in Vancouver. I was to take the suitcase there and speak to a manager, who would resolve my case.

I lugged that ripped suitcase back across West Van, fully intending to accept an exchange. I’d troubled them enough with my phone call (no, this was actually going through my head. I’d troubled them). I would state my case plainly, apologize for the inconvenience, and if they refused to give me an exchange, I would leave that suitcase on the counter, damn it. I would march right out and never shop from Winners again.

The manager looked at the print-out of the e-mail. “Welcome to Vancouver,” she said, and before I could launch into the dramatic ultimatum I’d practiced in my head, she gave me a full refund.

I know that not every experience with a company’s customer service will go this way. I know that. I’m incredibly grateful to Winners for handling my call and helping me get the product that I paid for, the product that saved me from worrying about my belongings on my next flights. But I had to share this because I can’t be the only one who breaks into a cold sweat at the thought that something I’ve bought isn’t right for me. I can’t be the only one whose stomach starts churning and body starts humming anxiously at the thought of calling a manager and negatively criticizing a product or service I’ve received.

So for all of you out there who need a little bit of assertiveness training, here’s a few things that helped me:

  • Review the company policy for exchanges. This will help you navigate the conversation with the customer service rep and, if necessary, prepare rebuttals for your argument. For instance, Winners did not offer returns on items that could not be resold. I therefore framed my argument around having exceptional circumstances and emphasizing that the product really shouldn’t have been sold in the first place.
  • Be polite to your customer service rep. They had nothing to do with manufacturing the product you’re talking about or the person who sold it to you.
  • Clearly and reasonably define your expectations. I wasn’t asking that Winners supply me with additional benefits. I wanted a way to safely transport my belongings on my next flight. Whether they exchanged the suitcase for a new one or provided me with a refund to shop around was their choice.
  • Listen to the rep and acknowledge the options they are giving you. They are following store policy. Again, this helps you structure your argument. When I called, I was told to contact the company who made the bag I had purchased. Rather than rage about the inconvenience, I calmly outlined my travel plans and how pursuing the warranty would not be a productive measure at this time. Hence, my phone call to the company where I bought it rather the company that made it.
  • Cooperate…within reason. I wish I could outline what reasonable cooperation is, but I’m still learning that one myself.
  • Be grateful. This person is helping you solve a problem.

It is reasonable to expect that companies stand by the products they sell. I need to say that more, to believe it, so that if something like this happens again, I can get back on the phone or speak to a manager without getting panicked again.

Huge thank you and shout-out to Winners for handling my literal case! All my belongings made it home safe and sound.

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