What's a Promise Worth?

Last Updated Jul 1, 2011 3:19 PM EDT

If a company promises you something in person or by phone, like a price quote or an item in stock, is it obligated to deliver?

It's a question I get often as a consumer advocate, and the answer, at least theoretically, is, "yes."

But practically speaking, it's not always that straightforward.

Consider Dawn Lyon's problem with Sprint. She recently flew to Vancouver for a business meeting, but before leaving, she called the wireless carrier to find out the most efficient way to connect, which is always a good idea.

"The agent noted I already had an international plan and that would make me eligible for reduced priced calls," she says.

Lyon specifically asked about her MiFi, a wireless hotspot that can be connected to several devices. (I tested a MiFi a few years ago, and it's an excellent product, but I digress.)

"He said I didn't need to worry about the MiFi," Lyon remembers. "He said, 'It's just like in the US.'"

Um, actually not.

"When I returned to the US, I was advised both my phone -- and most notably, my MiFi -- had nearly $800 in data roaming charges for a weekend," she told me.

"I want my money back."
And so began her adventure of trying to reduce her bill. After several hours on the phone with Sprint, a representative agreed to reduce her bill by 15 percent. Not enough, she said. After more haggling, a supervisor reduced it to 50 percent.

Couldn't Sprint pull up a recording of the original call? Not possible, she was told.

As I review her correspondence with Sprint, it seems the company actually wants her to use the phone rather than communicate in writing. A cynic might conclude the reason it's doing that is to ensure there's no record of the correspondence â€" at least none a customer can refer back to or that would stand up in a court of law.

I think the explanation is a lot simpler and less sinister: Sprint likes to use the phone because it's a phone company.

But that doesn't make it right. Sprint should have continued the conversation electronically, which would have established a paper trail of her grievance. It makes a resolution so much easier, believe me.

So Lyon contacted me two weeks later. I reviewed her correspondence and thought Sprint only had two options: Either it promised her MiFi wouldn't incur any roaming charges, and shouldn't have charged her $800, or Lyon had imagined the whole conversation, and ought to pay up.

There's no "third" way â€" no splitting the difference â€" on this one. Either Sprint is right, or it's not.

Either way, the company should give Lyon a straight answer.

I got in touch with Sprint.

The fix
Several days later, Sprint emailed me with a resolution.

"We apologize for any information given to Ms. Lyons that may have been inaccurate and as a courtesy we will be adjusting all of the roaming charges she incurred," wrote Sprint spokeswoman Roni Singleton. "We are also working to fully educate the customer service agent about roaming charges in the future."

Reading between the lines on this case, it appears that either Lyons misunderstood the representative with whom she spoke, or the representative misspoke. Based on the company's response, I would guess it's the latter.

All of which brings us back to the original question about promises. I think customers have every right to expect a business to honor its word â€" spoken, written or otherwise.

Is that asking too much?


Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: Jeff Golden/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.