Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Long Distance Wedding: Screening Merchants (Part II)

Catering/Reception Sites

It's funny how even the best laid plans can go awry. That perfect menu you planned for months is suddenly out the window when you notice, to your shock and horror, that waiters are rolling out the wrong dish. You ordered prime rib but they're serving Chicken Cordon Bleu!
Sound far fetched? Happens more often than you think. How you prevent this from happening to you is by asking if the catering manager will be present at your reception (at least through the meal). And get it in writing. All those promises the catering manager makes to you aren't worth a dime if there is no on-site damage control in case things go awry.

Destination Wedding Planners

You're in Hawaii and all ready for your wedding . . . but wait! The minister is a no-show. Or the hotel lost your reservations. What can you do now?

A good destination wedding planner will have a coordinator there on-site to help you with such last minute problems. If there's no one on-site, you'd have to call back to the States and hope to catch the planner at their office—with time differences that might be a challenge. Another plus to planners who have on-site coordinators: you're more likely to get higher-quality services.
If you are booking your destination wedding through a travel tour company, ask if they have a local office or contact to help with any problems.

There are several telltale signs that you are dealing with a reputable, customer-focused company. First, you'll note that your calls are returned quickly (within the next business day). Materials should also be mailed promptly—check the postmark date to see when that price list was really mailed.

Of course, another sign of professionalism is that the company mails the right materials! When you request a contract, do you merely get a marketing brochure? As far fetched as it sounds, many disorganized businesses routinely mail the wrong stuff to brides.

Finally, check out how professional the materials are. While fancy stationery does not insure you're going to get high quality products or services, it does indicate the company has invested in their image. Easy-to-read materials with clear type and professional layout are a positive sign.

Any reputable company should be willing to give you references of past clients. But what value are these anyway? And why should you take the time to check them?
It's true that reference-checking is somewhat time-consuming. Calling a few past customers will take a good fifteen to thirty minutes of your time (and your long-distance money).
Why should you make this investment? For the most important elements of your wedding (the photography, for example), it may be the only way to feel comfortable with spending large sums of your wedding budget. In a sense, this is a technique to lower "buyer remorse," the sinking feeling that you made the wrong decision after you sign the deal.

What about that old line that "the merchant will only give me references from happy clients. You never hear from the unhappy ones." This is true and here's how you get around this: ask the company for the names (and phone numbers) of their three most recent brides! Obviously, if they pick three customers from way back in 1989, you are getting a distorted picture. This will also reveal how busy they have been lately— a company who can't give you a client reference from last month must not be too busy. A bad sign, for sure.

Once you have the recent customer on the phone, how can truly get the best information from him or her? Will people be honest, even if they were unhappy? To understand how to deal with this situation, put yourself in the shoes of the reference. The phone is ringing at dinner time . . . it's been a long hard day . . and now there's some yahoo on the phone who you've never met, asking about that darn wedding.

The point is: be smooth. Identify yourself as a future bride and tell them you were given their name by (fill-in-the-blank company). Ask a few general questions about their wedding to break the ice.

The key to getting the feedback you want is not to ask "yes or no" questions. Don't ask "Are you happy with the pictures?" The obvious cop-out will be a quick "yes." Instead, probe gently for any areas of possible problems.
Here are some of our time-tested questions for reference checks:
"Was there anything you would have changed with the (photography, etc.)?"
"How did the merchant handle any special requests you made?"
"Were there any promises that the merchant failed to keep?" "If you had to do it over, would you hire this business again?"
Listen carefully for any hesitation in the person's voice. Ask follow-up questions if you don't understand their answers.

If we had to pick one thing that most surprised us about researching the "bridal market," it would have to be the Price Quote Run-Around. No doubt you'll encounter this phenomenon at least once along your planning journey. What is it? Basically, it's the inexplicable and incredibly stupid practice of some merchants who don't want to give out prices by phone.
Now this seems counter intuitive, to say the least. Using the warped thinking of these businesses, consumers are supposed to part with large sums of money entirely on faith. Yea, sure.

There are several possible (albeit weak) excuses for this behavior. First, we've discovered some merchants who are paranoid that their competition is spying on them. As if their pricing is some proprietary secret formula! To avoid this, try not to bring up price in your first questions. Ask them about their background and wedding experience. Then hit them with the money questions.
Perhaps the most common cause of Price Quote Run-Around is that some bridal merchants are afraid of scaring you away. If you knew their prices, then you might run off, screaming. Hence, their goal is to try to get you into their office/studio for an "in-person" sales consultation. In this controlled environment, they can dazzle you with their wares, temporarily numbing your brain. At that point, they whip out the price list. If you don't sign immediately, a little emotional arm-
twisting might be employed: "Oh, now you want the very best for your wedding day, don't you? You only get married once! This is your special day!"

The sales technique is to wear you down. And it is generally effective. Except if you are planning long distance. This tends to throw a wrench in the well-oiled sales machinery . . . "you mean, you want prices over the phone? Geez, I don't know if can give you a quote for your wedding over the phone.''''

Perhaps the biggest lie is "we can't give you a price since we customize all our weddings." Give us a break—nearly all businesses have price lists (even though they may not be for public consumption). An exception may be florists, but even these guys can give ball-park figures for certain items (bride's bouquet, altar arrangement, etc.). By specifying a few flowers you are looking for, you can often get some figures to give you an idea of how much money you'll be parting with.

The best strategy: tell them from the start that you are calling (and planning) long-distance. You want to give them your business, but you need to know some pricing information first. If they say they must meet you in person, tell them you'll be glad to—if they pay the airfare to fly you in. That'll give them the hint.

Beware of "low-ball" price quotes. Here a business uses an enticingly low price to bait you in, like a $499 package for a wedding video. Then, you notice in the fme print that lots of littie extras cost lots of big extra bucks. In one case, we heard about a video company that advertised the above price. But, wouldn't you know it, litde things like microphones to capture the ceremony audio were an extra $50. Each. And, the videographer suggests lots of microphones for the best sound. Requesting materials in writing to lay out details like these is a way around this rip-off.
The bottom line is: use a little of that consumer assertiveness. The best cure for the Price Quote Run-Around is to take the wedding merchant by the nose and tell them what you want. Remember, you're paying them that hard-earned money—not the other way around.

Most cities and town have a Better Business Bureau, a free service that's professed goal is to help foster happy consumers (and better businesses, as the name implies).
In screening businesses, you can call the local BBB to see if they have any complaints on file. This way can spot merchants who have a bad track record before you plunk down your deposit.
Sounds simple. So, what's the catch, you say? Well, the catch is that the BBB is funded by merchants and subsequendy bends over backwards to make sure it gives businesses a "fair shot" at fixing their record. To understand how this can protect bad merchants, let's look at the complaint process.

If you believe you've been duped by a company, you write the BBB and file a complaint. The bureau forwards this complaint to the merchant and gives them ten days to respond. What happens next is most interesting.

Most of the time, the merchant will respond and attempt to defend themselves. If the merchant offers just about any excuse, the BBB will usually decide on behalf of—guess who—the merchant. As a result, if you call the BBB and ask about that merchant, you'll hear that there are no unresolved complaints in the merchant's file. There may have been twenty-seven com- plaints in the past year, but if the company offers any lame excuse, they can have a clean record. As a result, it is fairly rare to find any merchant who has a "bad record" at the BBB. They certainly have to be very stupid—ignoring the bureau's letters and so on. This probably explains why we discovered several disreputable bridal merchants who have absolutely clean BBB files.
Furthermore, there is another loophole that merchants can drive a truck through at the BBB. Even if the merchant has a complaint, they can join the BBB and have their record sponged clean! Typically, the report you will get on this company says they have been a member since (a certain date—as in last Tuesday) and since that time, there have been no com- plaints. Never mind that there could have been several nasty problems before this. Since the BBB exists on merchant-funded membership fees, you can see the conflict here.

Does this mean the BBB is worthless? Of course not. We do recommend checking out each wedding merchant's track record with the BBB. Any unresolved complaints are obvious red flags. However, a "clean" bill of health does not mean your screening job is over.

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