“The good news is that the problem has been identified as a faulty video card,” said the friendly customer service rep, who we’ll refer to as John. My five year old, hand-me-down freebie of a computer had crashed and I had taken it for a diagnostic test to see if it was worth fixing. “The bad news is that there has been a huge fire in the shop. It took four hours and 100 firefighters to extinguish it. Your computer has been destroyed.”
I was speechless.
I know things get broken and destroyed all the time. It’s a part of life. But when it happens at the hands of someone you’ve trusted (and paid) to fix your property, it’s harder to accept.
“I’ve never been in this position before,” I conceded to John. “Where do we go from here?”
After listing the inventory of hardware that formerly comprised my machine, John told me the shop was willing to compensate me to the tune of $100, plus refund the $45 I had already spent.
There was a long pause.
Considering I was prepared to pay more than $100 to have it fixed, I found this offer rather less than impressive.
It’s at this point that many Canadians would sigh, roll their eyes and acquiesce. Unfortunately, negotiation is not one of our prominent national traits. In fact, apart from a few sectors (notably real estate) our consumer culture discourages it. This is a shame, considering the extent to which other cultures negotiate to strike a more favourable deal. Being firm and persistent is a good way to open doors to opportunities that other people would miss, so it pays to hold out for a better offer.
Assuming the $100 figure was a low-ball tactic, I told John I would revisit the contract I had signed and get back to him. I then went in search of professional advice. What were my rights? Surely I was entitled to more than $100.
According to Tina Hill, a lawyer with Ogilvy Renault LLP in Ottawa, the disclaimer I had signed lacked a limit of liability, meaning there was no defined monetary amount at which they would cap compensation. Good news for me, but bad news for the company.
Armed with this knowledge (and ready for some ruthless negotiating) I called John back and told him the $100 wasn’t going to cut it. But before I even mentioned the word “lawyer”, he told me he was willing to offer me a computer with superior components than my previous machine, free of charge.
I have to admit; I smelled blood and part of me wanted to push for the best deal I could get. How high up the quality scale was he willing to go? Would he throw in a free monitor? What about an operating system?
However, while John’s initial offer left much to be desired, he had treated me in a professional and courteous manner, and now he had sweetened the pot. Plus, he was probably dealing with irate customers daily, and since I was now getting a brand new computer for my troubles, I decided to quit while I was ahead.
A few days later, I picked up my new machine from the company’s new shop, which had quickly sprung into existence right across the street from the former location.
But what if things hadn’t gone so smoothly? What recourse would I have?
For starters, each province has its own set of consumer protection laws which prohibit unfair practices. If you sign a waiver or agreement that runs afoul of such legislation, it will not be recognized by any court, period.
However, laws don’t necessarily protect people in all situations, so in the event you feel unfairly treated by a vendor, your next recourse is small claims court.
But you’ll have to do some serious cost/benefit analysis before going down this road. Although the system is designed to settle minor financial conflicts on the cheap, it will still cost you.
In Ontario (where the computer shop was located) it will cost you $75 just to file your claim. Once the defendant has filed a statement of defense, you’ll be brought to meet with a judge to see if this all can’t be settled out of court. Failing this, getting your day in court will cost you an additional $100. If letters need to be sent or witnesses called, the cost goes up even further. Add to this your time, missed work and hassle, and it quickly becomes an expensive endeavor.
On the plus side, if you win you’ll get all your disbursements back. However, it may turn out that the judge grants you only some of your disbursements. Worse case scenario, you lose and you’re on the hook for the defendant’s costs. Not a pretty picture.
In this case, the lesson is simple. Hold out for a better offer. You have nothing to lose and everything (sometimes even a new computer) to gain.