Get Ahead in the Rebate Race

My informal survey on rebates apparently touched a nerve. I'm not sure if I'm comforted or disappointed by the discovery that this marketing effort/scam has improved only slightly, even with official efforts to curb the blatant abuses and the inexorable march of technological progress toward the possibility of simpler fulfillment. It certainly seem to be a topic we can all weigh in on with the same acceptance of our victimhood. That's something, I guess.

In my earlier post, I intended the Sprint rebate incident to serve merely as an example of how angry -- and resentful -- customers can become in the face of rebates gone wrong. For John, that account of dreadful Sprint customer service recalled his own epic tale of woe with the company.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Rebates -- do they offer incentives to buyers or are they merely marketing scams? The Gripe Line's readers weigh in with "The consumer rebate debate" | Frustrated by tech support? Get answers in InfoWorld's Gripe Line newsletter. ]

"Your recent post about a Sprint rebate that took 18 months to arrive," writes John. "Fanned what I thought was a dead ember. I was a Sprint customer from the days of the Motorola 555 'flip brick' up through the Treo 650 and HTC Touch Pro. I loved the phones and always had a clear connection. But not once in twenty years did I have a pleasant service experience."

He proceeded to tell several tales worthy of Gripe Line intervention, culminating in an infuriating customer service incident that reduced his wife to tears of frustration -- not for the first time -- and convinced the couple finally to give up. "We went to the Apple Store and bought two iPhones. Apple customer service is prompt, courteous, and goes out of their way to take care of us. The phone could be mediocre (it isn't), and I'd be happy. I wouldn't go back to Sprint if you paid me," he says.

Most of the responses I got to my rebate query described a system designed to teach the art of letting go of expectations. There was a fair amount of agreement that companies only offer rebates in the expectation many of them will go unfulfilled; the obstacles people encounter getting their money are intended to discourage their participation and, thus, improve on the percentage of unfulfilled rebates. For some people, this means avoiding any rebate offer, but others take a more calculated approach.

Michael insists the only way to participate in a rebate offer is to expect nothing. "I only buy something if it would be a good deal without the rebate," he says. "That way if the rebate arrives, it is a bonus."

But Justaviking, who describes himself as "the king of rebates," has taken advantage of the companies' gamble that they will not have to make good on their offers -- at least some of the time -- to his own cash advantage. "Considering the number of rebates I've submitted," he says. "I have had very good luck. Even my worst experience had a happy ending. An Office Max rebate never arrived and there was no no way to contact the fulfillment house. So I asked the manager at my local Office Max if he had any contact information. It turns out many people were having the same problem. The manager then gave me two gift cards -- one for the rebate amount and another $10 card as an apology."

Some people think the system has improved -- at least in the case of the few companies who recognize that rebates are a service interaction that can drive customers away or create strong loyalties. "Staples is a sterling example," says Michael. "Most rebates on products the store sells use its Easy Rebate system. Everything is done electronically; nothing to mail in. If a product is being shipped, you don't have to wait until you receive it. You can apply for the rebate when you order the product and track it online. If you don't apply for a rebate that is due to you for something you ordered online, you will get a reminder email."

In fact, several people commented on the faith they had in Costco's rebate system. "Over the years," says Frank, "I have purchased a number of items from Costco that came with rebates." He continues this practice of buying rebated items at Costco because the company used those rebates to earn his trust. "They have always arrived before the promised date."

It's clear that rebates are dangerous territory for merchants. They cause a virulent friction that doesn't end when the rebate issue is resolved. "One company gave me such a hassle over a rebate on an office chair," says Frank, "that I never shop there, even though I eventually did get the rebate." I doubt that losing a customer for life has anything close to the cash value of the rebate offered on that chair.

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "How to work the the rebate racket," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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