The Lesson I Needed to Learn by Dumping My Best Customer

Back to amateur photography for today – a duck swims on a turbulent, late winter day at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve learned enough to fill a book in my few years in sales so far. But as a slightly intelligent guy (that would be Mr. Albert Einstein) once said, “the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Recently I’ve been stressed out by a dramatic change in the dynamic of my relationship with my best customer. Previously, he had always been a good communicator and reasonably conscientious but most importantly of all, there had been a mutual respect bordering on friendship between us that I valued very much. We had done deals that were huge wins for both sides and had another in the works that would have been our biggest and best yet.

But recently, that deal was derailed. My customer ran into an unforeseen setback that was serious enough to pose a legitimate threat to the survival of his business. To make it all the worse, it was through no fault of his own. He experienced a substantial loss of commercial property as a result of an apparently random criminal act. Now, if you’ve ever dealt with a very large commercial insurance claim, you know what a nightmare it can be. In our industry, a few month turnaround is pretty typical in a situation like this. Given my customer’s financial position, waiting that long would have been devastating at a minimum. And if the insurance company had screwed him on the amount of the payout, it could have been game over.

I was not going to let him go down without a fight. Marshaling all the resources at my disposal, including my own efforts and those of people in our district office, I was able to get the insurance payout fast tracked – and that’s not all. At the end of the day, the customer got a payout so large it shocked everyone involved. And it happened in just over a month. Just like that, his business was in significantly better shape than it had been before what had looked like a terrible misfortune. It looked like things were going to be better than ever for him and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. But here is where the story takes a turn.

Suddenly awash with cash, my former favorite customer changed into a totally different man. His payments were no longer made reliably. The office ran into issue after issue with his account – simple things that had never been problems before and rarely are for anyone. On my end, it became very difficult to address any of this with him – or even to get him on the phone at all. The part that doesn’t make sense is that while more than enough to get my customer back on his feet, this insurance payout was nowhere near a life changing amount of money. It wasn’t like he had just won the lottery or anything. But nonetheless, once he had the money, it seemed that nothing else mattered and the relationship I had enjoyed so much was replaced with one of nearly nonstop frustration.

Through all of this, we had somehow managed to get our massive deal back on track. But whereas previously it would have been relatively smooth, it was now riddled with complications because the customer had ceased getting anything done at all on his end. Whenever I confronted him about what was going on, he was evasive and made vague excuses that usually didn’t make much sense – and again, that was if I could get him on the phone at all. I did the best I could to smooth everything over with the office while I tried to keep him from completely self-destructing. This went on for over a month but going into last week, there was still no end in sight and it was taking a significant amount of time and attention that I could have been dedicating to other activities.

Finally, I decided I had been chasing the ghost of what had been a very different relationship for too long. In this new version of it, I was treated like a tool that could be used when needed and tossed into a shed when not. And it wasn’t even producing anything. So on Monday, I resolved to conclude the deal, one way or another, by the end of the week. By Friday morning, I had made zero progress, and I realized I had had enough. I called the customer once more but there was no answer and his voicemail box, as had become the new normal, was full. So I sent him a text message that simply said “if you still want to do the deal, I need to talk to you today.” As you can probably guess, I never heard from him. And I have no intention of calling again. For most of the rest of the day, contemplations about how and why this relationship had gone so wrong were never far from the forefront of my mind.

But overnight, things crystallized and when I woke up this morning, I felt much better. I don’t know what is going on with my customer but it doesn’t matter. I’ve given him ample time and opportunity to explain it to me and he has refused to do so. And his actions have been very disrespectful in the process. For someone who is still engaged in a lifelong struggle against the scarcity mentality, it was very difficult for me to put not just a very lucrative deal, but a rewarding relationship, on the line. But I realize now that it was my only option. I couldn’t keep throwing good resources, in the form of my time, effort, and credibility with the office, after ones that had produced nothing but failure, when there was no sign that the situation would improve.

And this way, I am giving the relationship its only remaining chance to go back to its formerly mutually beneficial form. It is very possible that I will never hear from the customer again. Maybe the account will even go bad. If it happens, I will be able to say I did everything I could to avoid that outcome. If he does call me, I will tell him that while I will continue to service his existing account, I will not pursue any additional business unless three conditions are met. One, I need to hear a genuine apology for the way things have been recently. Two, I need to hear a coherent explanation. And three, I need an assurance that things will go back to the way they had been before – with the enforcement mechanism that if they get to this point again, we will be finished doing business for good. I’m not asking anyone for perfection. This is an imperfect world and a very imperfect industry. But I am demanding, not asking, for effort and basic respect. If we can’t operate that way, then we won’t.

For too long, I tried to save a previously great relationship that was already dead. But I have finally accepted that fact and begun to act accordingly. And the result? I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I have most likely lost the opportunity to make a large bonus, and likely subsequent ones. But there again, that opportunity had already been very likely gone. And even if it hadn’t been, it doesn’t matter. There is more to every single decision I make in life than money.

Respect is the real issue. I wanted my customer to continue to give it to me but by doing all I could to protect him from the consequences of doing the opposite, I wasn’t giving it to myself. It was the wrong message to be sending to him but more importantly, I was hurting myself in a very profound way. After a long hibernation, symptoms of depression have crept back into my life recently. Looking back, the timeline matches up almost perfectly with the disintegration of this relationship. I can’t control another person’s actions, but I can certainly respond more effectively than I did in this case. I fully expect that now that I have identified the real problem and taken steps towards correcting it, those symptoms will go back where they came from.

This may seem obvious to many of you, and I will admit I’m a little disappointed with myself as I type it out and realize I should have figured it out sooner. But for me, this has been a reasonably difficult, and thus valuable lesson. It could easily be applied to many scenarios – not just the specific one I’ve described. If you run into a situation like this one, learn from my mistake. You can’t expect respect from other people if you don’t give it to yourself first. I lost sight of that this time. But having had this experience and deconstructed it, it will be much easier to avoid repeating it in the future.

Welcome Aboard, Jean-Marc!

Midtown Park – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

I completely glossed over this with yesterday’s post but I have an exciting announcement for Health, Wealth, Power. We have a new addition in the form of wonderful pictures taken by fellow Houstonian Jean-Marc Buytaert! In addition to being such a top shelf bowler that he was recruited by one of the better teams in a drinking/bowling (note the word order) league, Jean-Marc is a phenomenal photographer – and he seems to find himself in a ton of interesting places all over the world. After seeing enough of his work come across my Facebook feed and being blown away, both by the fact that someone was posting something other than their kids, memes, or political crap, and even more so by the fact that the pictures were incredible, I approached him about contributing to my fledgling personal finance/philosophy blog. We’re all very lucky he said yes because going forward, we will have eye candy like the picture above to enjoy.

I understand this is something Jean-Marc is currently doing as a hobby but that he has eventual aspirations of going pro. If you would like to see more of his work or to contact him about a potential project, you can visit either of the following:

Instagram

Facebook

If he gets enough exposure out of this deal, I’m hoping he will stick around so check him out!

How I Occasionally Get Over Half the Cost of My Hotel Stays Back in Cash Equivalent Rewards and Why Choice Hotels is the Hotel Brand I Love to Hate (Hint: the two are related)

I try to see something interesting on every trip; in this case, Texan hero Sam Houston looks solemnly out over the highway.

Hotels offer a wonderful opportunity to make some extra money when traveling for work, and mind you none of the windfall is taxable. I personally use Marriott and Choice. My colleagues (yes, even the boss, who approves my expense reports and would seem to have reason to prefer smaller numbers) mock me mercilessly for “slumming” when it comes to my hotel preferences. But I come from a humble background and to me, it’s really not a huge sacrifice. Why those two chains? Marriott properties are where I most prefer to stay (not too fancy/expensive, but also not too “questionable,” as long as you avoid certain older properties) and the rewards program is decent. So if I’m going to pay for a hotel stay on vacation with points, Marriott is a good, solid option. Choice, on the other hand, has a rewards program that makes it number one for people who want to get PAID – during two parts of the year in particular. And if you travel to the same areas regularly, you figure out pretty quickly which of their properties are fine and which are better avoided, so that aspect of things becomes less of an issue.

The key with Choice is learning the ins and outs of the rewards program. It is clearly designed to offer a lot of potential value while quietly screwing as many people as possible out of much of it. But once you know what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to deal with. First I’m going to show you just how valuable the program can be. Then I will discuss the pitfalls and how to avoid them. The two parts of the year when I “choose” Choice (sorry) are when two specific promotions are running. Otherwise, I’m at Marriott for the better overall hotel experience.

Right now, Choice is running its “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. It’s not quite as great as it sounds, but it’s close. A typical one night stay (more on the significance of this wording later) will get you about 1000 points (roughly $100 x 10 points per dollar). But during this promotion, two of those 1000 point nights will get you a serious bonus. It gets a little strange here since supposedly you will get 8000 points total but in reality, you get a little more and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to exactly how many. But regardless, you get a minimum of 8000 points for two stays. Now to be fair, that will only get you a night at a select few Choice properties but that’s irrelevant to me because that isn’t how I use the points. I use them to buy Amazon gift cards, which are effectively cash equivalents. And the cost of a $50 Amazon gift card is 16,000 points. Are you one of the eight people who don’t use Amazon? No problem. There are tons of other gift card options as well and I believe they’re all priced the same.

The opposite promotion is twice as good. You still get 8000 points minimum for two one night stays but in addition, some of the gift cards, including Amazon, are discounted to half price – meaning you get a $50 gift card for every other night you stay. The catch here is that the discount only lasts while the promotion is running and if I remember correctly, there is a delay of 48 hours between gift card orders. So you have to stay on top of it or you will get screwed out of some of your bonus. But this can be an incredible moneymaker. Back when I was spending a few nights on the road in a typical week, I was making easily $500+ in Amazon gift cards during the approximately two months a year this promotion ran.

This pair of promotions represents the bulk of the opportunity, but I’m all about maximizing. You can make about an extra $2-10 per stay if you use ebates (www.ebates.com), depending on how much Choice is offering when you make your reservation. On my last stay, it was 10%! Usually it’s at least 2%. Another thing that is easy to overlook is the “Extras” portion. I use it to collect an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card for every stay. There are other “Extras” options but this one is the easiest for me to monetize. Finally, if you use a proper rewards credit card to pay for your stay, you will get even more cash back. I use the Wells Fargo Propel Amex to get 3%. All of these are small on their own but together, they add up to almost $10 per stay (or significantly more depending on the current ebates rate). And other than the $2.50 Amazon gift card, you can also use them at Marriott or most other major hotel chains.

What does this all look like in practice? This week I stayed a night under the “stay two times, get a free night” promotion. For the sake of simplicity, I will round the cost to $100, which is usually pretty close anyway. For my one night stay, I got: $12.50 in the form of enough points to buy a quarter of a $50 Amazon gift card, $10 through ebates, $3 through my Wells Fargo Propel credit card, and an additional $2.50 Amazon gift card through “Extras.” So in total, my $100 stay paid me back $28. If you factor in the vomit inducing amount of taxes I pay on every dollar of earned income, and will not have to pay on this since it falls under that magical “purchase rebate” category, that $28 becomes almost $40. And if this stay had instead been during the opposite promotion, I would have earned half an Amazon gift card instead of a quarter, bringing the total haul to nearly a whopping $60 with taxes factored in!   

How can you keep the clever bastards in Choice’s c-suite from conning you out of your rewards? First, you obviously have to register for a rewards account. But it’s not that simple. The two promotions above require a separate registration each time they run. So when I make any hotel reservation, I always start with the Choice site to make sure one of these promotions isn’t running. If it is, I immediately register and then use only Choice hotels for the duration. Another way they can get you is the difference between “night” and “stay.” The promotions are for “stays,” meaning that if you stay multiple consecutive nights, you have just made a terrible mistake because your multiple nights are only getting you credit for one half of the two “stays” required to earn the bonus (when multiple nights would already have earned you the bonus once and potentially more times, depending on how many there were). I believe the extras (the $2.50 Amazon gift card in my case) run the same way. So make sure you never stay two nights in a row in the same Choice hotel unless you’re ok with halving most of your payoff – and if you’re anything like me, the payoff is the only reason you’re there in the first place.

I will note that as a guy who has been to the top tier of Choice’s rewards level and well beyond, there is very little benefit to doing so. You get some bonus points on top of your regular 1000 but nothing else of value. And for me, that isn’t enough to get my business over a superior Marriott option, which is typically priced only a little bit higher. The money is made with the two major bonus promotions. There are a couple of other promotions throughout the year (for example, one doubles the points you earn from a stay) but there again, they aren’t enough to move the needle for me.

There you have it. You now have the tools to make some serious money off of your hotel stays, especially at Choice properties. Stay tuned because I’m going to post about other ways to put your travel job to work making extra money for you – and no, it’s not anything illegal or underhanded. Happy system gaming and have a great afternoon!

Why You Should NEVER Use a Debit Card

In my bank account basics post, I said you should never use debit cards and I promised to write a follow up post with my reasons. I’m a man of my word so here I am delivering on that promise. I’m following up quickly because this is very important. There is absolutely no reason to have a debit card at all much less use one. I ask banks not to order one when I get a new checking account and if they insist on doing so anyway, I shred it the minute it shows up without ever activating it. This is because as I will explain, debit cards aren’t just useless; they are not safe. I know, they also serve as ATM cards. So plan ahead. Keep whatever cash you might spend in a month in your wallet and replenish it when it runs low. Actually, do people still use cash? I’ve had the same sixty dollars or so in my wallet for as long as I can remember. Anyway…

As a little change of pace, I’m going to try a list format today. So without further ado, here are my reasons you should never use debit cards.

1. They are dangerous.

With a debit card, any criminal that gets ahold of your card, or more likely your card information, has direct access to your bank account. The minute that happens with your debit card, a clock starts. If you report the situation immediately and no fraudulent charges have been made yet, you aren’t liable for anything. Of course in many cases your first indication of fraud will be a fraudulent charge so you aren’t likely to be this lucky. If there are any fraudulent charges made and you notify the bank within two business days, you are only liable for the first $50 – still not a disaster, but more than I want to be paying for some asshole’s actions. If you miss the two business day mark but you do notify the bank within sixty total days, you’re on the hook for the first $500. Keep in mind that this is by far the most likely scenario. And finally, if you fail to notify the bank for a full sixty days, you are liable for ALL fraudulent charges. Ouch.

Now compare that to what happens with a credit card. You are liable for up to $50 but the vast majority of banks waive that because being able to advertise “zero fraud liability” is a bargain at that price. That’s literally it. You sleep easy knowing that when (yes, that’s WHEN, not IF) your card information is stolen/hacked/etc, your problem is limited to the inconvenience of a short conversation with the bank’s fraud department and waiting a few days for a replacement card to show up.

2. Direct access to your bank account affects more than just fraud.

I stay in a lot of hotels and when I check in, I usually see a sign informing me that if I use a debit card, a hold will be placed for more than the total expected cost of my stay to cover incidentals. I have no idea how much more because I don’t use debit cards. But it is enough that they almost always have a sign and I’m guessing that’s because they get a lot of complaints otherwise. This hold likely won’t be released until you’ve paid the final bill upon checking out and that’s at the earliest. I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a day or two after that. And keep in mind that with a debit card, this means you literally don’t have access to this money even if it is in your bank account. If you’re not maintaining a high enough balance to account for this, you could literally wind up overdrafting because of it and no, neither the bank nor the hotel is going to pick up your overdraft fees. I often see similar signs at gas stations and I’m sure there are plenty of other businesses that do this too.

3. Debit cards aren’t very “rewarding.”

I’ve already written a post detailing how I get paid back an average of about 3% on anything I am able to pay for using credit cards. That’s not counting the churning, which gets me free flights or cash in $500-700 chunks. You always want to be looking for extra sources of income and simply using credit cards for purchases gives you a nice one that requires almost no effort and is tax free to boot. I believe debit cards do offer very limited rewards but nothing close to the bonanza credit cards do. This is because the transaction fees charged to merchants by the banks are legally limited and thus, there is less kickback money available. So by using debit cards, you are literally costing yourself money.

4. Debit cards do not help you build credit.

You need a credit score for lots of things now and rightfully so. If you don’t pay your bills on time, that is directly applicable for a creditor or a landlord but it’s also helpful information for insurance companies, employers, and many other entities that may be considering doing some sort of business with you. Why? If you don’t handle your finances responsibly, there is a strong likelihood that you make similar choices in other areas of your life. Or put another way, credit reflects character. Yes, people run into unfortunate circumstances sometimes. But those things happen to all of us. If you’re handling your finances well, you have built a nice buffer of resources and you can weather the storm as long as it isn’t something totally catastrophic. There are certainly cases where people get hit with something very few could withstand but those are outliers and far more often, this is simply an irresponsible person making excuses. Long story short, credit scoring isn’t going anywhere because the concept is sound even if the execution occasionally isn’t. Debit cards don’t build credit in any way, shape, or form; credit cards do. P.S. I think I’m going to have to write a post on the ins and outs of credit scoring. Stay tuned.

5. Debit cards don’t give you an interest free loan.

Don’t misinterpret this; in no way am I advocating carrying a balance on a credit card. Ever. But when you use a credit card to pay for a purchase, you are not billed until the statement date. At that point, you have at least twenty days before your payment is due. This means that depending on when in a month you make a purchase, you get an interest free loan of anywhere from 20-50 days. To anyone who understands the time value of money principle (there’s another post to write), that is a sweet deal! Mind you the bank is betting you will fail to pay the full statement balance by the due date and then…well, you know what happens then. Pull your pants down, bend over, and by the way, they’re fresh out of lube today. But if you’re following the credit card rules I included in my credit card post, this will never happen to you. And consequences of irresponsibility should not concern those of us who are responsible.

6. Debit cards don’t give you rental car insurance, extended warranties, price protection, and all sorts of other extra benefits.

This may seem like a minor point until you buy something for $399 and it’s marked down to $299 two weeks later. If you used a debit card to make that purchase, tough luck. But if you used one of the many credit cards that offers price protection, you’re a phone call, a simple form, and some processing time from getting your hundred bucks back. If you rent a car, most credit cards include insurance so you can laugh when the agent generously offers to charge you some exorbitant amount “for your peace of mind.” Make sure to verify that your card offers this first though. Credit cards offer all kinds of little goodies like this that debit cards do not.

In closing, I know there are people who use debit cards because they’re afraid of overspending on credit cards. But the answer to an alcohol problem is to fix your thinking and habits, not to stop drinking anything and instead start taking in fluid only through an IV. In another manner of speaking, don’t try to get rid of your disease by bleeding yourself like they did in the revolutionary war era. Hurting yourself more is not going to help. Credit cards are the adult method of paying for things. Basically, think of them like condoms; they require just a tiny little bit of thinking and planning ahead but they also protect you from being directly exposed to some really bad things. The only flaw in that analogy is that condoms turn down the volume a little whereas credit cards actually enhance the experience of paying for things. Enough fun for today. Please, shred your debit cards and start managing your finances like an adult. I promise it is much more rewarding than making excuses for not doing so.