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What Makes a Smart Buyer? They Get It In Writing

Here are 7 things you should always ask for in writing when you buy something.

· Contract Management,Veeto Review,Purchase Experience

If you follow these tips, you'll be well on your way to "smart buyer" status, and most importantly, unscrupulous sellers will have a difficult time trying to pull a fast one on you. Here we go.

1. Verbal promises and representations

How many times have you been on the phone with a salesperson who made certain claims about what his company would sell to you, only later to discover after you made the purchase that what the salesperson told you was untrue? There are three versions of this that we see most commonly:

  • "Sins of omission."
     
  • Explicit claims by the by the salesperson that were simply honest mistakes.
     
  • Explicit claims by the by the salesperson that were intentionally misleading.

Sins of omission include all of the things the salesperson didn't tell you but probably should have, and the other two are self-explanatory. While at first, you might react to the above list by "ranking" them according to how bad they are, you shouldn't do this. Why not? Because it does not matter whether a mistake was honest or not, explicit or implicit; if you were induced to make purchase (or sign a contract) based on misrepresentations, the effect on you is the same whether the salesperson meant to mislead you or not.

(By the way, we are also talking about in-person conversations you have with salespeople.)

Most contracts nowadays include what is called an "Entire Agreement clause." Here is an example from the Verizon Wireless terms of service:

entire agreement clause misrepresentation

Look at what this clause is saying. In effect, we are not accountable for any promise our representative made to convince you to enter this agreement. The reason this clause might strike you as so obviously wrongheaded is this: the agreement did not do the selling; it was not what convinced you to buy; what convinced you to buy was everything that you were told before you even saw this agreement. Thus there is an important disconnect between the things you base your purchase decision on and the things you subsequently agree to by virtue of the purchase.

That's one part of the problem, and the way that you can counteract this disconnect is by asking the salesperson to write down anything that you deem important, anything you believe you will base your purchase evaluation on. Just say something like, "hey, this great; could you email me this info in bullet points?" Once you have it writing, there can be no question whether the salesperson made those particular claims to you. Further, from there, you can request to incorporate those claims into the agreement itself, perhaps as an addendum; or you could "red line" the entire agreement clause when you are presented with the boilerplate agreement, thereby removing the iron curtain between the things you considered before purchasing and the things you actually agree to. Of course, you still must get the other party to agree to your cleverness, but that actually becomes possible now that you have transcribed the salesperson's verbal claims into something written that all parties can reference.

2. The version of the purchase agreement at the time of your purchase

The second part of the problem is that contracts and terms of service nowadays also include something like the following language: "We may change prices or any other term of your Service or this Agreement at any time." (Again, I pulled this example directly from the Verizon Wireless terms of service.) The effect of this sentence being included in the agreement with Verizon, for example, is that no matter what you get Verizon to initially agree to, they are also reserving the right to completely renege on that version of the agreement and replace with a version more favorable to them; and because this sentence means that you would have, for the most part, already agreed to give them this "blank check" in your name, it puts you in just about as weak of a position as any buyer could be in.

To further amplify this problem, when the agreement itself lives on some website page that the seller controls (as Verizon Wireless does for its own terms of service), the seller can modify that agreement often without you noticing. The Verizon Wireless agreement I am citing was last modified 58 days before this article was published; if that were the interval at which Verizon Wireless were modifying the agreement, then, including this most recent version, that agreement could have changed up to 6 times in the previous 12 months. But that would be on the low end.

We have been tracking changes to the Verizon Wireless agreement for the last 6 years, and in one 2-year period, they changed the agreement 28 times! How many Verizon Wireless customers do you suppose noticed?

More to the point--how many times have you checked any web-based terms of service page in the last 12 months? Probably zero. In any case, you probably aren't going to check your Verizon Wireless agreement 14 times per year--which means you would miss at least some of the changes that affect your Verizon Wireless purchase experience. Therefore, you should always ask for a static copy (meaning some written document that the seller does not have the ability to later modify) of the agreement the seller is representing will govern your purchase, if you were to make the purchase.

Besides just doing this yourself (because, be honest, are you really going to follow any of these tips?), another way to tackle this is to delegate all of your "purchase experience management" tasks to a professional "purchase experience assistant" (PEA). Veeto happens to be the leading PEA, and the way that we tackle this particular task on an ongoing basis is that, yes, we begin by obtaining a static copy of the agreement version you are presented with at the time of purchase; but then, we also monitor the agreement (and terms of service) for any changes that happen over time. In many cases, we actually respond to the seller to request some kind of written explanation of how the change affects you, and we often deem the change to be an "early termination event" which allows you to get out of any outstanding contract early without penalty; that is, if there is a long-term contract associated with your purchase that saddles you with some ongoing obligation.

Our Purchase Experience Assistance clients use Veeto as their total vendor management solution: we handle all aspects of managing the products, services, and purchase experiences that follow from a purchase; and not only will we do the things that most people will not take the time to do, but have over a decade of experience making sure they are done correctly. You can see for yourself by clicking the button below.

3. A copy of your executed purchase agreement

This one confuses many people because it can seem a little wonky if you aren't a contract law nerd like me. Basically, there is this idea what a contract is according to the law. In some cases, you could have a contract without having anything in writing. In other cases, the law would only recognize a contract if it were written. But beyond the question of whether there is (or was) a contract, there are more action-packed questions about what you actually agreed to, when, and how. Oftentimes, unscrupulous sellers will try to design an intentionally vague purchase process so that you are left with vague-at-best answers to these questions. Why do they do this? Because if you ever encounter a problem with the thing that you purchased, you would have to pick up the phone to ask the seller for these answers; and this gives the seller an advantage over you, because at that point, the seller can say whatever is favorable to the seller's position.

A good method for defeating this is to always ask the seller for a copy of the executed contract. This accomplishes two things:

  1. It will reveal to you what the seller does have.
     
  2. It will reveal to you what the seller does not have.

Let me illustrate these points with an example. Let's say that you sign up for a software contract lasting 12 months. A month after signing up, you realize that the software is not exactly what you were told it was. You would like to consider your options for terminating the contract. So you first ask the seller to send you a copy of your executed contract. In response, the seller sends you some internal confirmation email the salesperson received when you "signed up." That email, supposedly, is evidence that you signed up. That's it--that's what the seller is treating as your executed contract. While it varies by jurisdiction, many courts might not consider this to be an executed contract under the law. So now you know that the seller does not in fact have an executed contract. In that case, you are free to discontinue the software service without penalty.

Nowadays, this simple tip can really be a powerful "cheat code" for getting out of an unwanted contract early. Why? Because so many contracts nowadays lack signatures. According to UpCounsel, "An executed contract is a contract that has been signed by all necessary parties and has taken legal effect."

Once you start asking every seller you buy from to send you a copy of the executed contract, I think you will be surprised how seldom sellers will have a contract with your actual signature. Anything you sign up for online--"click here to agree to the terms of service"--is likely not going to have your signature.

Sellers should not know more about a deal than the buyer, yet sellers often do. Whatever the seller knows (or thinks), that's what you also want to know. So in general, your goal with this request should be to eliminate the asymmetric information. This allows you to plan/manage your purchase experience without having to guess at your options.

Pro tip: depending on where you live/work, you might be able to leverage new legislation such as the EU's GDPR or California's own version of GDPR--which some people call "GDPR Lite"--to more simply request all data the seller has on you, which, presumably, would include the thing the seller considers to be your executed contract. We do this often for our purchase experience assistance clients, and you can use the same tool we use to generate/send those requests by clicking the button below and letting us know who want your data from.

4. Complaints about the thing you purchased

When you have a complaint, sometimes you want to get on the phone with someone to vent. I get that. But you also need to make sure that there is a written record of the complaint you have lodged to the seller.

The best way to do this is email. Why email specifically, and not, say, an online "contact request form" or a live chat? Because email is more egalitarian, in the sense that there is a sender and a recipient, and neither party has more power than the other. With a contact request form, for example, you could spend 5 minutes articulating your complaint in writing, hit the submit button, and then never see that text again. The seller has it now, and the seller can decide whether to send you that documentation.

With email, you also can/should confirm that the seller received your complaint. There are dozens of software nowadays that could do this for you in various ways. We use our own proprietary system in house, for example.

Many people raise the question of who precisely to contact at the seller, and how to get that person's contact info. Again, there are dozens of software nowadays that, for a fee, can give you at least the contact information. But it is still up to you to decide who to contact. We also use our own proprietary system for deciding who to contact, and because we have been doing this for over a decade, that database has thousands of contacts at hundreds of sellers with complete contact info. So, in essence, this becomes one of the many small benefits you get when you use a purchase experience assistant like Veeto: they probably have all of the necessary tools and experience to do the job faster, and more capably, than you.

5. Resolutions by the seller in response to your complaints

Just as it is smart to put your complaint in writing, it is smart to ask the seller to put a description of the proposed (or completed) resolution in writing. What will the seller do? How? When? And under what conditions? By getting this resolution info in writing, you have record that you can reference later in the event the seller fails to do what the record said the seller would do. If it is precise enough, you might even be able to treat with as much weight as if the promised resolution were its own contract, or at least a line-item term of your existing purchase agreement.

6. A full accounting of everything you pay and get

We have reviewed thousands of invoices over the years, and there seems to be an inverse correlation between scruples and clarity with regard to billing records. When a seller's billing records for your account are clear and easy to decipher, it seems to be the case that you are less likely dealing with an unscrupulous seller. In contrast, when you have know idea what you are being charged for, even when you are staring directly at the invoice, chances are that you are dealing with a shady seller.

Many times, your request should be that the seller clarify what your invoice/bill says. You might have received the bill, but if you have no idea what it means, then you should ask the seller for a written explanation. Do this for every single dollar--especially if your account is on an automatic payment arrangment.

7. Promotions, deals, and concessions that induce you make the purchase

This relates to the discussion above about "entire agreement clauses," but because of its outsized impact on the economics of your purchases, and the value you derive form them, I am highlighting this separately. There tends to be an out-of-the-box version of a product/service, and there tends to be an incentivized version that includes extra deals or discounts. Because the entire agreement clauses speak directly for the out-of-the-box version, you need to have a written document that speaks for the incentivized version that many contracts are actually agreed to under.

Ask the salesperson to...

  • detail what he/she is offering you;
     
  • delineate between those elements that are part of the out-of-the-box version and those that are extra incentives;
     
  • incorporate any extra elements into the agreement, thereby neutralizing the "entire agreement clause."
     
  • confirm that the seller can/will honor these extra elements

While this last bullet point may seem redundant, it's not. You would be shocked to know how many times a salesperson makes a promise to get the purchase, and the seller later says, "sorry, salesperson ABC must have gone rogue, because that is not something we can/will do." Avoid this by eliminating wiggle room for both the salesperson and the seller.

Follow these tips, and you will mysteriously begin to get screwed less.

And if you would prefer to delegate all of this to someone else--along with all of the other vendor management and purchase experience responsibilities that follow a purchase--we're happy to help. Click the button below to book a micro-consultation with Veeto.

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