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5 Companies That Excel at Screwing Over Customers

These businesses make treating you like crap an art form.

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You would think torturing customers is so bad for business that companies would try to avoid it. Isn’t the invisible hand of the market supposed to bitchslap businesses that thumb their nose at the people who buy the stuff? Polls show 85 percent of consumers will retaliate against a company if customer service sucks, and the younger ones are likely to pour out their grievances on social media. Billions in revenue are at stake.

And yet… a recent “customer rage” survey shows that American consumers feel that they are getting shafted more and more.  The truth is that markets fail us all the time. Too often, oligopolistic conditions and poor regulation conspire to allow companies to get away with all sorts of abuse, making it hard for the consumers to fight back. Some companies actually seem to be turning screwing consumers into a business model (see: Spirit Airlines).

Let’s take a look at five companies that are currently competing in the Customer Dissatisfaction Olympics.

1. Sprint

How do customers hate thee? Let us count the ways. Over at the Consumer Affairs website, you can actually read 2,366 accounts of rage, frustration and bewilderment with issues ranging from dropped calls to confusing plans to unexpected charges. Here’s a typical cri de coeur from a customer who attempted to deal with a simple issue of moving abroad and needing to cancel plans:

“I spent 7 hours on the phone to solve the problem. 7 crazy hours!” — Petro, Arlington, VA, March 15, 2014

Some people are so emotionally drained by the experience of dealing with customer service that they break down in tears:

“…Today I actually cried because I feel trapped in a service that can’t help me…” — Kimbra, Frisco, TX, March 11, 2014

Dealing with most cell phone companies is no picnic, but with reactions like this, it’s no surprise Sprint ranks dead last in a recent wireless carrier satisfaction ranking.

Sprint gets away with this poor treatment of customers largely because the cell phone industry is an oligopoly and customers have limited choices and get roped into unfriendly contracts and plans. The CEO of SoftBank, which just purchased Sprint, acknowledges the oligopolistic conditions and has a curious solution: Let Sprint get even bigger by gobbling up T-Mobile. Then T-Mobile customers can enjoy the same level of poor service! Regulators are quite naturally suspicious of this logic, but given their generally complacent attitude, Sprint might just be allowed to do it. Ah, the joys of unbridled capitalism.

2. Spirit Airlines

Spirit wins the prize for most customer complaints of any airline, and it has dedicated extraordinary effort to the project of bamboozling customers with outrageous fees. Spirit has mastered the art of charging what appear to be low prices and then extracting money through various sneaky practices. Its business model depends on customers not knowing where and how they’re going to get hit. Spirit makes 41 percent of its revenues in fees.

If you peruse the Spirit Airlines Twitter feed, you will see endless streams of passenger anger over such practices as charging $50 for a carry-on bag (and make that $100 if you don’t pay these skyway robbers at check-in). I just looked at the feed, and here are the three latest postings:

“$80 in baggage fees and choosing my seat fees! #spiritairlines #whatajoke #neveragain #wastingmoney

Pretti_N_Sadity10:38am via Twitter for iPhone”

“I will NEVER fly #SpiritAirlines again.

Luisohyes7:58am via Twitter for iPhone”

“RT @sapnam: Heart is breaking at seeing kids in line for #spiritairlines at #ORD—too young for such trauma #dontflyspirit #protectyouthsfrmspirit