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How Companies Erode Trust

I almost never rant, but I am on hold on the telephone with American Express at the moment, and I am steaming. Here is the story:

Last week I purchased a plane ticket online using my American Express credit card. When the transaction was nearly complete, a window came up that said I would receive a free one-year subscription to Travel and Leisure magazine. I decided to accept the offer since I have been looking forward to more leisure and some enjoyable travel.

Because I am suspicious of anything that is described as “free,” I read every single word describing the offer. Yes, it was free–a $14 value, and I was getting it free because of purchasing my plane ticket between September 1 and October 31.

Today I received my American Express bill in the mail. You guessed it: It includes a charge for $69.95 for “T& L Elite Traveler.” “T & L” stands for “Travel and Leisure.”

I am off the phone now. Dealing with the problem took more than 10 minutes. That 10 minutes of pushing buttons, being on hold, and then talking with the Amex representative resulted in the charge being removed from my credit card while American Express “investigates.” The patient American Express representative told me she would cancel my subscription. I emphasized that I did not want to cancel it–I wanted it to be free.

I am sick of companies breaking faith with customers by dangling dishonest “free” offers in front of them. Despite reading the fine print very carefully, I still fell prey to deceitful corporate behavior.

I wish all business writers would dissuade their companies from the fraudulent use of the words free and no-cost. If an item or service has a charge of $69.95, it is not free. If a customer will be billed, an item is not no-cost.

How do you think I feel about American Express and Travel and Leisure at this moment? Warm and fuzzy? Not a chance. Their “free” offers cost them the loss of my trust and good will.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.