Maybe ten years ago, a show on PBS called "The New Yankee Workshop" was very popular. The carpenter on the show, Norm Abram, used to work real magic with wood (I think he built a complicated rail back rocking chair in thirty minutes once, complete with stain), but the drawback to the show was that not only was this guy a master craftsman, he had every single power tool and associated attachment known to man and knew how to use each one of them.
A friend of mine was doing some work around his house, remembered a trick Norm had done on some cornering, and ran to the local hardware store to pick up a "dadoe" tool. I have no idea what it is, except Norm used it constantly. Closest I can say is that it looked kind of like a router bit. Anyway, my friend went up to the counter and asked the weathered old clerk where he could find the dadoe tools. And the old man looked him up and down, gave him this disappointed sigh, and asked, "You've been watching that damn Norm Abram, haven't ya?" Then the old man showed my friend in about ten minutes how to do the same cornering with a simple router bit, it just takes a couple of extra strokes.
The late comedian Richard Jeni used to do a bit about cooking shows. Taking the role of the chef on the typical cooking program, he’d brashly announce that “I’m going to cook a dish you’ve never heard of using ingredients you can’t find with tools you don’t have in a kitchen bigger than your entire apartment.”
Point is, I guess, the "experts" on TV aren't exactly real people, are they?
I’d never call myself an expert at anything, but, largely based on the number of my appearances in the local media (“local” being a relative term, since I’ve spouted advice in three or four states now, in the course of my BBB career), some anchors or interviewers have used that moniker to introduce me. I sincerely doubt that anybody can be expert in consumer education issues. You can know a lot, but that doesn’t mean you know everything. And, given the wide range of topics we’ve covered even in this weekly blog, I’m usually willing to admit that there are two sides to every story and even that estimate is low. How can anyone claim to be an expert on consumer issues? Everybody has a different approach to creating and solving problems, and even if we could chart and limit the problems and reactions to a few types, people have the gift of being unique.
Anyone with more than one child will tell you that – despite the fact that they’ve been raised by the same parents in the same house with more or less the same limitations – kids are different. Kids grow into people. And those different people grow to be salespeople, laborers, homeowners, consumers, and product providers. Sometimes, they grow to be a combination of all or some of those diverse facets, and just because a guy knows everything there is to know about selling a car it doesn’t mean that he knows everything about buying one, muchless buying anything that doesn’t have four wheels.
Within the realm of consumer education or consumer advice, there’s no “one size fits all” gem of wisdom to throw out there. There are catch-all generalities that should keep you out of trouble 99% of the time, but no one can predict every eventuality in the business world. There are tactics or suggestions we can make at one time or another that may be helpful. And maybe not. Even our best advice might suffer from poor execution or (How do I say this tactfully?) a human inability to completely, accurately and quickly relay the facts of what might be a complicated situation. I’m dealing with a consumer right now who happens to be attending trade classes at a school. She called about a week ago asking if it was fair for a school to have certain practices concerning the validity of certain questions on a test or forbid her from communicating with other students concerning her perceived shortcomings of the program and some instructors. I answered to the best of my ability, recommending along the way that she peek at the student handbook to check what standards might apply to her situation, and gave what I thought were helpful suggestions steering her toward mediating her own resolution to the dispute. I reviewed the text of her complaint after it arrived and, if I were to pick a word to characterize the tone of that communication, I’d say “argumentative” would be fair. I can suggest or recommend a civil tone, but I completely appreciate the fact that when some consumers sit down at the PC and begin composing their complaints, something pops in their heads and they are incapable of remaining unemotional about their issues. That may not always be possible, and to tell the truth, I’m sure that there have been plenty of times in my personal dealings when I intended to be perfectly calm but – certainly with provocation, or at least what I thought was sufficient cause, like someone saying “Hello. How can we help you?”, I went off like a skyrocket. I’d love to “practice what I preach” at all times, but I don’t know that I’m always capable of it. Is anyone?
Back to our disgruntled student. This afternoon, she called asking more questions about the conduct of the school and put me on the spot with a new inquiry that blindsided me. “Now that the complaint has been filed, can the school ban me from the campus?” I’ve said a dozen times in this blog that I’m not an attorney and I refuse to give anything that looks remotely like legal advice, and this was no exception. “Like any private institution, the school – or a Better Business Bureau office, for that matter – can refuse admittance to anyone, as long as it’s not breaking some other law in doing so. The likelihood of any business actively kicking someone off the property without cause is pretty slim, though.” Note the phrase I’m sure the complainant probably didn’t hear: without cause. Given a short relationship with this person, I can understand over the coarse of two phone calls and reading her complaint that someone in the school office may, at all times she’s on campus, have “9” and “1” entered on the phone and a finger poised over the “1” key just in case.
No amount of advice or – dare I say – expertise is going to calm this person down until she receives a response to her issues that she can respect, and I would submit that the only response she’ll respect is one that agrees with her point of view.
Not that I’m an expert on such matters.