“It will never come to pass,” said Ray, 29, a federal worker in Denver. “I’ll cry on the phone.”
And so, defeated like so many by an ever-growing automation economy, outsourcing and dehumanization, Karen called out.
Ray already knew the Get me the-manager “Karen” stereotype — discerning, vocal, and demanding — when she saw a TikTok video about a company called Karens for Hire (“We’re Karen so you don’t have to”), which promised to harness the power of slick complainers in Serving battered customers, abused tenants and anyone else who has a dispute is beyond their carp.
As the holiday season floods the economy with products that can be returned and refunds on demand, the Pennsylvania group hopes to bring the energy of the meme into the world of established consumer advocacy groups. They join the ranks of those lining up for the frustrated, including countless local news “on your side” sections, the Better Business Bureau, and nonprofits like Elliott Advocacy and Clark Howard’s Consumer Action Center.
“Today people only expect big corporations to treat them horribly,” said Howard, a longtime Atlanta-based consumer champion on radio, television and podcasts. “Sending a group of Karens after them might be their worst nightmare.”
Ray thought the Karens for Hire video was only funny until she told a friend about it the next day. Suddenly she stopped herself.
“Wait a minute, I could use someone like that with Aetna,” she said.
Ray found the company’s website and read some encouraging reviews. The $65 average fee seems worth the gamble. Sent for help.
Estimated waiting time
Its appeal has reached into a 19th-century brick house on a once-great street in Pittsburgh. Here, in a basement apartment, Chris Grimm, 44, and Valon Zika, 35, are trying to launch a small business and revolutionize the way they complain.
On a December morning, Zika is where she’s most often: “Estimated wait time is four minutes,” said a voice from the loudspeaker at the dining room table. Her personal record is three hours on hold (with Air Canada), but this time she’s quickly on the phone with a travel broker who backs out on refunding a frustrated pilot.
“Hi, this is Fallon from Karens for Hire and this is my third call…” said Zika, summarizing her client’s complaint: a canceled last-minute trip that forced her to rent a car and drive hours from Toronto to Pittsburgh to avoid missing work.
On the other side of the table, Grimm — her business partner and romantic partner — was reviewing the fine print on the solar panel nodes. A California family tried for months to understand why their rooftop array produced less than a third of the expected effort, leaving them with light bills of $200 a month. The company that sold and installed the system stopped responding.
“They’ve got a good case,” Grimm said, referring to the referee who promised only $19 monthly bills. He had the direct line to the owner and is now writing his arguments on a laptop with “You have to believe” written on a sticky note next to the keyboard.
Karens for Hire, which includes two other part-time advocates and a proxy attorney, has received more than 2,300 requests for help since launching last spring. The table is littered with notes and sketched numbers, hangovers from hundreds of transactions gone wrong, conflicts large and small, corporate and local, petty and profound.
Angry frustrated numbers are growing as some companies decide it is cheaper to bring in new customers than to keep old ones.
“Over time, companies’ attitude has shifted from ‘we want to resolve a conflict with customers’ to ‘we want to make the customer disappear,’” said Christopher Elliott, a consumer columnist whose nonprofit Elliott Advocacy helps more than 10,000 people. In The Washington Post.
Many of those who have turned to Karens only send in a plea for help after bruising their foreheads on the stone walls of Airbnb, Facebook, Ticketmaster, T-Mobile, car dealerships, ISPs, insurers, carriers and contractors.
Others sought help from the start, either too busy or too afraid to do their dueling.
Many of the group’s clients were recent immigrants, acutely aware that poor English or a heavy accent was a drawback in the daily battles of American commerce.
Among the issues in the active file:
– The Massachusetts-based dressmaker is raved about by a celebrity chef who wore her creations at the Met Gala but then refused to return or pay for them.
– The woman trying to end her $4,500 contract with her “It’s Just Lunch” matchmaker after asking for a hiking guy and being met instead by a man who mostly wanted to try on women’s shoes.
– A low-income Memphis tenant, a single mother with a disability, is evicted from her apartment in apparent violation of rent laws.
For the latter case, Grimm offered the woman a free educational program in federal tenant protection and how to get HUD assistance. He just helped a New Jersey woman draft a letter to a Kia dealership objecting to having her engine replaced.
Many of their clients don’t need a complaint mercenary so much as some basic instructions on how to file a complaint.
“People don’t know how to stand up for themselves,” Grimm said.
For these two, it comes naturally. Both describe learning to speak early in boisterous Pittsburgh families.
“We are Italian,” Zica explained. “We don’t really have inner voices.”
Both have become the medium of choice for relatives and friends who have products that can be returned or refunded upon request.
“If something is broken, my mom wants to get rid of it,” Zika said. “I would say, no, they sold us this product that doesn’t work, and we’re bringing it back. These companies want to make it hard so you give up.”
Both have work experience within companies that generate grievances, including technology and healthcare. Zika still works full time for a medical software company. Grimm was an Apple Store employee and spent six years behind the Mercedes dealer’s service desk, recording low sales but highest customer approval rates for the company.
“I used to tell people that they don’t have to do non-essential work all the time,” he said.
“We can do this as a business,” they said one night, while laughing about Zika’s involvement in its boss’ months-long battle with Home Depot over a botched refrigerator installation.
Grimm, who recently quit his job due to a service desk burnout situation, has built a website heavy on references to Star Wars and the Marvel Universe (as in their home). A video someone posted on TikTok about signs he had placed around Pittsburgh — “Karens for Hire, entitled to help” — generated a flurry of orders and an item by Yahoo Finance.
They knew that catching “Carnes”—white mothers draped aggressively at the risk of the meme—would be attractive, but also provocative, marketing. Not everyone amused.
She was profiled last summer by CBS’s local morning show, “Pittsburgh Today Live,” only to find the part disappearing online. Looks like someone objected to Karen’s concept. KDKA did not respond to a request for comment.
“We’re not talking about yelling at the waiter,” Zika said. “We want to harness the power of Karen’s for good.”
In fact, some who tried to join their team were too Karen.
“How stupid are you?” said one applicant on a test call before Zika could dash for the mute button and take over.
“It’s never wrong to answer the phone,” Grimm said. “This guy gets paid as a joke just to yell at him.”
Instead, like other defensemen, Karens fishes up the chain of responsibility. (Elliot Advocacy, for example, maintains a public database of CEOs’ phone numbers and emails.)
Grimm has had no luck with a monopolistic Internet service provider in Arkansas that drove one family crazy by not connecting after more than three years of phone calls. He then asked the woman to hand her phone over to a visiting technician and asked him for the department head’s phone number. Finally Grimm and the executive officer identify the system crash that was thwarting the process and the cycle ends.
“I devoted a lot of lunch hours to it over the course of three years,” said Amanda Boshiers, 35, who paid Karen $50 for the service.
Tasha Ray became similarly exhausted trying to get that message out of Aetna.
Ray’s brother and her disabled mother in Atlanta had been waiting for weeks to get her into a treatment facility. But the old policy from a decade ago was to prevent the center from processing her Medicaid application.
When Zika took over, she faced the same cycle of failure, one call after another that offered assurances that went nowhere.
Finally, she authored a tweet, tagging Aetna along with mental health advocacy groups, exposing the company for delaying treatment they didn’t even have to pay for. “Our client has been trying for months to get a paper saying you don’t have coverage. Why is it so difficult?”
The company responded immediately, asking for details and giving Zika a private email address. The next day, they sent the letter.
Ray is delighted, then shocked when they say she doesn’t owe them anything for an effort that has created an email chain 54 messages long.
“I sent them $100 anyway,” said Ray. “Honestly, just knowing that someone else was going after them was a huge relief.”
For her, that was more caring than Karen.