There is little quite so annoying as not getting your money’s worth, and for me this is most evident when I talk about the services I pay for monthly. For example, if you’re paying for an internet service and their servers are screwed up for a few days. Or if you’re paying for phone service but a wire to your complex were to get cut and take a day to fix. Etc., and so on.

Now if you buy a product—like, say a computer—and it doesn’t work up to the standard advertised, it is typical that during a warranty period you can return it and get a functioning product or perhaps your money back. Standard company warranties are the length of time that the company is reasonably confident that their product should continue to function—you know this when you buy the product—so it’s pretty fair that it’s not their problem if your hard drive fails a day after the warranty runs out.

But when we talk about services, there is no warranty period because there is no physical product that you can hold in your hand and that could eventually fail. Instead, there is a monthly, quarterly, or yearly fee that you pay them in exchange for a reasonable guarantee that they’ll provide whatever it is you’re paying for. It’s their job to make sure that whatever service they are providing makes it to you, the loyal and paying customer.

But what happens when a service provider fails to do their job? Well if you’ve ever experienced a power outage, a cable outage, or an internet access outage you know exactly what happens. Sooner or later they get around to fixing it, and your monthly bill comes as usual with the normal monthly rate.

What else could happen, right?

Cox High Speed Internet access is $54.95 per month. I have this service in my apartment, and the cost is split between the three people who live here. In exchange for a monthly check in the amount of $54.95, Cox Communications agrees to provide me and my roommates with high speed internet access. I see this as a contract—I give them something, they give me something in return. When they do not live up to their side of the deal, I don’t see why I should have to live up to mine.

The approximate daily cost of Cox High Speed Internet is about $1.80, and if the Cox DNS servers are so screwed up that I can’t so much as log into AOL Instant Messenger for two days straight, it seems that the cost of 2 days of internet should be deducted from my bill. Instead of $54.95, my bill for that month should only have been $51.35—$3.60 less than usual, as I was not provided with service for two days at the daily cost mentioned earlier.

Now this isn’t a legal requirement. Anybody who reads License Agreements with online services, subscriber agreements with cable companies, etc., is well aware that they are laden with legalese loopholes. “Prices subject to change,” is a popular one, “We reserve the right to change the contents of this agreement at any time,” is another. Since we consumers are supposed to have read these things, companies don’t necessarily have to be fair with us.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

What companies don’t seem to realize is that it’s in their best interest to be fair, no matter what legal mumbo-jumbo they’ve hoodwinked their subscribers into agreeing with. When I signed up with Hypermart web hosting, server-parsed HTML files that allowed server side includes were a part of the deal. I was told that I would have reliable, consistent hosting services. But they decided seemingly on a whim to move all their customers to a new server (screwing up CGI paths and stuff), and entirely disabling some of their services—server-parsed HTML and telnet access among others—that were a part of the deal that I was paying $100/year to get.

Forgive the techie gibberish, the point is that they didn’t break any laws when they changed these things on me—they have the same agreements that any other service has. But they did break my trust, and they’ve lost a loyal, paying customer in return. Trust will help get you more business, and a lack of it will help you lose it.

Hypermart could have saved my trust even with having changed their servers. It would have been a huge hassle to get everything back in working condition on my website, but I would’ve done it rather than switch to a competitor if they had warned me that there were likely to be problems with the change, and more importantly refunded me a fair amount for the hassle. Maybe a free month of service, maybe $10 off the next bill, I don’t care how they did it but the effort would have gone a long way.

This is what northeast power companies ought to be doing on their customers’ next bill after subjecting them to the largest blackout in United States history. Yeah, I know, you get billed for electricity in the amount that you use and so people’s bills are already going to be lower because they weren’t using any electricity during the outage—duh. But still, even a token $5 refund would probably make people feel a lot better about the trouble that this recent incompetence has put them through.

But nothing can be a substitute for reliable, trustworthy service. The power companies in the United States know the electrical grid is a fickle load of 1960’s technology, and yet they’ve put minimal to no effort into improving it. It’s going to take more than a $5 refund (which people probably won’t get anyway) to make people like the power companies now, it’s going to take some time, money, and effort. But the return will probably benefit them in the long run.

I’m currently reading a book titled The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by my favorite author, Robert A. Heinlein. This science fiction novel deals with the 2076 revolution on the moon where the residents of our natural satellite—self described Loonies—created the Free Luna Republic. The reason I bring this up is that the fictional Loonies have a wonderful slogan, the essence of which is interwoven into Lunar culture (and into many of Heinlein’s novels)—TANSTAAFL.

Much like the chat room jargon of today, TANSTAAFL stands for something—There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch.

In other words, you have to pay for what you get. Every benefit comes with a cost. For us consumers, this means that for every product or service we receive we have to pay for it somehow—whether it be in cash, credit, or in clicking some advertisements on a website. But the principle of TANSTAAFL applies just as much to companies in the opposite way. If they expect to get our hard earned money, they have to provide a product or service that is well worth that money. They have to earn it.

I believe that part of earning that money is an attitude of respect and fairness. I consider respect and fairness to be the paramount responsibilities of any company—not legal responsibilities, but surely ethical ones—just as it is my responsibility to pay for any product or service provided. It is a failure to live up to these paramount responsibilities that explains why this website isn’t on Hypermart, why I’m considering changing my internet service provider, and that’s why everybody in the northeast should be livid at their power companies.

TANSTAAFL—truly an acronym to live by.