A few years ago, I received a $5 gift card in the mail from a major fast food company. Enclosed with the gift card was a letter from the company following up with a recent complaint that I had made. The gift card was an apologetic gesture to keep me as a customer.
At the time, I was thrilled! I was working over 60 hours a week between 2 low-paying jobs, and still barely making ends meet. That $5 meant a free meal for me, and was a bit of an unexpected treat.
But I was little hesitant to accept it.
Why, you ask?
Well, you see, I didn’t make the complaint.
(I suspect that there was some sort of glitch in their system, because I had recently signed up for the company’s email newsletter. My birthday was coming up and I wanted to snag my birthday freebie! Otherwise, I have no idea how they would have gotten my mailing address.)
I have, however, complained to companies and asked for a discount or refund a few times in the past. But only when service I received was truly awful.
Like the time I complained to an airline after my flight was double-booked twice, the washroom on the plane was out of service, and they were unable to offer food during the flight due to a catering issue – all on the same trip! (I know, I know… complaining about airlines is such a cliche!) They did offer me a $50 voucher, which I accepted and then “paid it forward” by giving it to my sister for her to use.
I haven’t complained to a company just to get free stuff.
Nowadays, I’m sure companies get more complaints than ever thanks to the advances in technology. Between all of the social media channels and review websites, it’s so easy for customers to publically make their complaints.
And I’m sure that most of these companies offer some sort of discount, freebie, or incentive to many of those customers in order to keep them as customers.
But is it ethical to complain to a company just to get free stuff?
In the personal finance world, there is a sometimes overwhelming amount of advice out there on how to save money. Most of the time, this advice is offered in good faith. But I have seen articles that encouraged people to make false complaints (or exaggerate small ones) in order to get something for free.
I’m not going to tell anyone how to live their life, but I hope that you don’t do this.
There are honest ways to get free stuff from companies.
Most companies will give you a freebie or discount just by signing up to their email newsletter. These are usually applied to your first (or next) purchase, or will be valid on or around your birthday.
Or you could try thanking companies instead of complaining to them.
Back in 2006, Tom Locke conducted a 39 Dollar Experiment where he essentially wrote fan letters to 100 different companies and asked for free products. And yes, he actually sent real letters, printed on paper and sent through the mail. (Some of them are pretty funny!) He received over 60 responses and 35 freebies for a total of about $275 worth of products and coupons.
More recently, Jim Wang completed a similar experiment, called the Flattery Project where he thanked over 40 different companies (via email) to see if they would send him anything. He received mostly coupons and a few free samples from about a third of the companies he contacted. But one company, Nespresso, sent him a free set of cappuccino cups and saucers worth approximately $20. Just because he asked.
Complaining for the sake of complaining may get you a free appetizer or a $5 gift card.
But is complaining just to get free stuff worth it?
Is it worth lying? Compromising your values? Setting a bad example for others (like your kids)? Possibly costing an innocent employee their job – maybe even their whole business?
Is it worth possibly breaking the law by committing fraud and stealing? Just to save yourself a few bucks?
But alas, people of the Internet, I pose this question to you all:
Have you ever complained to a company just to get free stuff? Would you?
Have you ever complimented or thanked a company and received a freebie?
Please share your stories or thoughts in the comments and let us know!
A version of this post was originally published in November 2012 and has been majorly updated and republished.
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