Are companies getting meaner?

sharkAre companies getting meaner? In a word, yes.

While I don't have any scientific proof (just a growing pile of anecdotal evidence), it does appear as though an increasing number of companies are taking classes at the Ebenezer Scrooge school of business and becoming more cheap when it comes to dealing with customers. And in this day and age of thinning wallets, cheap often translates into simply being mean. As my WalletPop colleague Vera Gibbons correctly observes, "The days of 'the customer is always right' are long gone."

I recognize, of course, that many companies have had to cut back in order to stay in business. And they may feel they have much less flexibility than they did in the past when dealing with, say, their financially-strapped customers. But some industries and businesses out there are becoming downright stingy. What do I mean, exactly? Here are a few examples:

Utility companies. Not that I'm proud to admit this, but I was recently behind on my electric bill, enough so that last month, I needed to pay it on the due date or risk being disconnected. As a freelance writer in a dodgy economy, it's a situation I've become used to. Last month, I called my utility company, Duke Energy, to inform it that a magazine I occasionally write for was finally sending me a paycheck on the very day my electricity was scheduled to be disconnected.

I asked if it would mind moving my disconnect time from 8 a.m. on Sept. 20, the earliest point I could be disconnected, to later that afternoon or even the following day to ensure I'd have enough time to get my check, cash it and pay the bill.

Nope, I was told. I asked to speak to the supervisor and once again was told that they couldn't budge. The supervisor conceded that my request wasn't ridiculous and that in the past, they would have given me some wiggle room, but that the policy had recently changed.

As it turned out, my power was still on when my mail -- with the promised check -- was delivered on the afternoon of Sept. 20. I immediately paid my electric bill, and all was well. Still, my experience left me with an unpleasant sense that some companies, just when customers most need flexibility and a little kindness, are taking a tougher stance. And while I'm empathetic to Duke Energy to a point -- power companies have bills to pay, too -- I doubt they're ever worried that their power will be turned off.

Airlines. It's no secret that most airlines are charging travelers for having the temerity to bring baggage with them on their flights. Last year, in fact, airlines raked in $2.7 billion in baggage fees. (Kudos to Southwest Airlines for being one of the few airlines that proudly boasts no baggage fees.)

But the U.S. Department of Transportation recently proposed that airlines return those baggage fees when they lose a customer's suitcase, which seems, well, perfectly reasonable. But the Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents the nation's biggest carriers, vehemently disagreed with that idea. It wants airlines to be able to decide for themselves if they should refund the baggage fee. While it's understandable that they don't want government interference, ultimately, to lose a customer's bag -- even if they find it several hours later -- and not refund the baggage fee...well, it seems downright petty.

Cell phones. Maybe because we're all accustomed to cell phone carriers slamming us with $35 activation fees, $2 to $4 directory assistance charges and locking us into year-long or longer contracts, this category is hardly worth bringing up. But one of the newer sneaky fees on cell phone statements is a regulatory fee, a charge that can range from cents to several dollars that carriers pass on to their customers to help defray the cost incurred when they collect government-mandated taxes and fees related to their service.

In other words, cell phone companies have apparently never heard of the "cost of doing business" concept and are simply passing on this cost to their customers.

Buses. No offense to the good folks at Greyhound, the national bus service, but I think we can all agree that if you're traveling Greyhound, you aren't rich and probably can't afford any extra, "surprise" fees. But as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, if you buy a family member or friend a ticket for a Greyhound bus, you'll be charged an $18 gift ticket fee. Greyhound's spokesperson told the Times that it was an anti-fraud measure and a handling charge since the person being given the ticket has to pick it up at a Greyhound bus depot. But if it's anti-fraud, pointed out the Times, why only charge the someone giving the ticket as a gift and not everyone? (Not that we want to give Greyhound any ideas ... ) Sorry, but this policy is just mean.

Newspapers. I"m kind of sympathetic to the Los Angeles Timesand hate to slam it after it did us a favor by sharing the news about Greyhound, but one of our WalletPop editors and writers, Ann Brenoff, who is based out of Los Angeles, pointed out to me that "the TV listings used to be included for free. Then they discontinued them, saying, 'No one really wanted them, they're too expensive to print, you can read them free online.' And now, this week, they reinstated it and said we'd be charged."

And that charge would be $2.99 a month, according to New York Magazine, which quoted a Times vice-president as saying, "Our [elderly] readers tell us they want a weekly TV book that covers around-the-clock programming."

Ah, great. Sticking a fee to elderly readers, many who are likely to be on a fixed income, for TV listings that used to be free? As I said, I'm sympathetic to the newspaper industry, given that they've been hammered by shrinking readership and other forces, but that does seem to fit the definition of mean.

What all these companies may be forgetting, however, is what goes around comes around. In other words, karma could end up hurting at least some of these Scrooge-like businesses.

As Matt Wallaert, a behavioral consumer psychologist at, a consulting company that helps businesses brainstorm, design and build web-based solutions, says: "Companies that are doing things like disconnecting without grace periods and pushing to close difficult accounts to eliminate immediate financial risk -- it's good for their bottom line, but terrible for consumers and for the nation."

"Actions like these will be remembered," warns Wallaert. "We won't be in this economy forever."

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
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