We have all experienced the feeling of helplessness when dealing with a company or corporation. The context is often making a purchase of goods or services. More precisely, the context is often the aftermath of a mistake by the corporation. Just recently, I witnessed a circumstance where a customer of a very large company was nearly brought to tears because of the senseless inefficiency of the company and his bank. A working class man came into the business because he had purchased a service earlier that week, and during the purchase he was double charged. When he went to make the purchase he was told that his credit card was not being accepted and that he would need to use a separate card. Reservedly, the man used his debit card, and by extension, funds that were really needed for other bills due in the coming week. The company has a policy that if a customer uses a debit card a $200 deposit is held until the final checkout after the service is used. At that time, the $200 is credited back to the customers debit card. The problem arose for this customer when he realized that somehow the first card had been charged, as well as the second card, and somehow $200 of his money was now in electronic limbo. The customer’s mortgage was due the next day and some of the money that he needed was floating around between the company and the customer’s bank account. The manager of the company could not figure out what happened, but did acknowledge that the man was owed $200. There was no timeline for when that money would be credited back to the man, so he asked if the money could be credited to his debit card. It was possible, but then there was no guarantee of when the bank would process the transaction. A quick call revealed that it may take 7 to 10 days to credit back to the man’s account. 7 to 10 days!!! In a day where information can be sent around the world in less than a second, this should not be!
This post is not a rant of the erosion of society by technology or an ideological critique of corporations, big business, or Capitalism. In truth, I believe that all those things do more good than harm. However, my observation is that modern society as allowed the corporation and its implementation of technology to be exempt from the standards of efficiency in implementing what is due to the customer. If customers act in the same way, there are significant consequences. To continue the example from above, it is very likely that the customer was not able to pay his mortgage on time this month due to the fact neither the company or the bank would act quickly to ensure the man received what he was due. On the other hand, we can make an educated guess on some of the consequences of this man being just hours late on his mortgage. The man would almost certainly be charged some sort of penalty fee, and it is possible that the man’s credit would be adversely affected, which could have numerous negative impacts for the man and his family. In this light, it is right that I have described the freedom of corporations to operate on their own extended timelines as an exemption. Anyone who purchases a good or service must compensate the vender at the time of or even prior to receiving the good or service. However, the corporation is allowed to take valuable time with no consequence.
I am not old enough to have experienced how business was done prior to modern technological advances that businesses use. At the same time, it is not difficult to imagine how a similar situation to that above would have been handled prior to the technology typical for businesses today. When a business realized that it owed a customer money, it would be expected to refund in cash or a check on the spot. No customer would stand for being told that they would have to come back in 7 to 10 days in order to receive their refund. When was this balance of responsibility between the business and the customer cast into the wind? The development of technology that can instantly take money out of a customer’s account via the swipe of a card can certainly put it back just as easily. The barrier to doing so is put in place by the corporation (vender, bank, etc.) for their own benefit.
I have used the concept of giving the customer their “due” intentionally, and in the same way classical philosophers used similar concepts to define justice. The concept of justice does not begin after a party has been offended, though that is most often how the concept is used today. When a crime is committed, the victim desires retributive justice, and rightfully so. I suggest, however, that the concept of primary justice, that the people we come into contact with are due a particular nature of interaction depending on the circumstance, should be… well, primary. In this case, the business owes the customer a refund just as much as the customer owed payment for services rendered. The company should be just as quick or face penalties similar to those that a customer would face. If acting justly was at the forefront of business ethics, the barriers that delay honoring what the customer is due would not have been constructed. That is not to say that some balance of efficiency in favor of the customer and security for the corporation is not a concern, but that acting justly towards the customer ought not be sacrificed for the sake of the corporation’s convenience. To be sure, there are many other aspects of corporations that should be challenged, and which are probably more pressing. However, the principle will essentially be the same. Somehow, society has allowed corporations and other large organizations to sacrifice acting justly for the sake of some perceived need or convenience, without consequence.