Aeroplan vs. Air Miles

April 28 2007 by Ellen Roseman

There are a few key differences between these popular reward programs. If you want to keep your points and not have them taken away, choose Air Miles. It won’t zap your miles after three years of inactivity, as Aeroplan does. And if you have Aeroplan points, fill up your car with Esso gas every so often. That will be enough to keep you active.

Suppose your spouse dies. He or she has a lot of points saved up, which you want to transfer to your account. Aeroplan makes you pay a big fee to do so. Air Miles does not charge a fee.

Aeroplan charges a $30 fee for telephone bookings, but its website is far from reliable. Check this discussion forum for frequent flyers, where you’ll find many complaints about Aeroplan’s technical issues.

Air Miles gives you a wider choice of airlines for reward flights. Aeroplan has Air Canada (and the Star Alliance), whose customer service may leave you feeling frustrated. That’s a topic for another day.

Finding a human being to answer your calls

April 25 2007 by Ellen Roseman

Do you dislike Emily, the interactive voice response (IVR) system at 310-BELL? What about the no-name Rogers Guy? Why is it impossible to press zero and get a human?

Check out the Get Human website run by volunteers who want to improve the quality of phone support in the United States. There’s a blog, discussion forum and hot consumer news (such as pending bills in five U.S. states, addressing the need for callers to bypass the automated system and connect to a live operator).

There’s also a standard for how customer service phone systems and support should work. Most companies in its GetHuman 500 database are American, but you can find tips for making a real connection at a few domestic firms (including Air Canada).

Here are some ways to cut through the computer to reach a human at the other end:

Interrupt. Press 0 (or 0# or #0 or 0* or *0) repeatedly, sometimes quickly. Unfortunately the same keystroke does not always work for each company. Many IVRs will connect to a human after a few “invalid entries”, although some IVRs will hangup.

Talk. Say “get human” (or “agent” or “representative”) or raise your voice, or just mumble. The IVR might connect you to a human after one of these key or unknown phrases.

Just hold, pretending you have only an old rotary phone.

Connect to account collections or sales or account cancellation; they always seem to answer quickly. First ask them for their name and rep number (so they know you are writing it down, and thus, so they are more likely to help you.) Then ask them to transfer you to the department you need. Sometimes they will put you ahead of the queue, although sometimes they will send you to the end (and thus, in those cases, this tip is useless).

Toll call. For credit cards, if the expected wait time is too long, hangup and try to call back on their non-toll-free number, as they often have shorter queues.

Selecting the option for Spanish will sometimes get you a bilingual human more quickly than if you just waited for an English-only operator.

When you do finally find a human, ask them how to connect directly the next time (in case your call gets disconnnected).

Do-not-call Maxime Bernier at (613) 995-9001

April 24 2007 by Ellen Roseman

Where is Canada’s do-not-call list to protect consumers from telemarketers? The CRTC asked for public input more than a year ago, but has produced nothing yet.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre urges everyone to call the federal Industry Minister, Maxime Bernier, to demand a national do-not-call list. (The minister’s email address is bernier.maxime@ic.gc.ca.)

At minimum, the government should give the CRTC the seed money it needs to set up a mechanism to protect consumers from unsolicited phone calls. “If there’s the political will to do it, then the money will be there,” says PIAC executive director Michael Janigan.

Says the Edmonton Journal’s Mike Sadava:

The United States, which is not exactly unfriendly to capitalism, has had a do-not-call registry for four years and a staggering 100 million people have signed onto it. Telemarketers are responsible for checking the list and they can be fined up to $11,000 per call to people on the no-call list.

Perils of a mortgage life policy

April 23 2007 by Ellen Roseman

In my article I left out an important point. It has to do with how successful you will be if you have to make a claim.

A term life insurance policy that you own personally is medically underwritten up front. So, if you die and your family makes a claim, the life insurance proceeds are guaranteed to be paid out — and in a timely way.

But if you buy the lender’s life insurance, the in-depth underwriting begins at the time you make a claim. If there’s a medical condition found after the fact, the claim process can be delayed significantly. And you may not be able to claim at all, if there’s a pre-existing condition or cause of death.

Check out the warning by CBC Marketplace in its analysis of credit life insurance for cars. It says buyers may be paying premiums without being qualified to receive an insurance payout. To make sure insurance isn’t being sold to you if you don’t qualify medically, you should discuss pre-existing conditions with the insurance seller or the company that underwrites the policy.

Is it bad to outsource customer calls?

April 21 2007 by Ellen Roseman

I think you can make a case for outsourcing. When companies run promotions or introduce new products, they can’t always hire employees quickly enough to deal with the calls. So they use outside call centres to handle the overflow. That means less waiting time for you and me when we call for help.

The problem is lack of accountability. Call centre staff get a minimal amount of training, so they can answer common questions. But they often leave you hanging. They may be told NEVER to give out names or phone numbers of senior executives. So, it’s a closed loop.

If companies did more training of call centre staff and empowered them to escalate complaints, outsourcing might work out fine. Also, outsourcing results in cost savings that (we hope) are passed on to customers. That’s a good thing.

Some companies, such as Bell, try to save even more money by sending calls overseas. I’ve got nothing against Indian call centres, despite comments on this blog suggesting racism. It’s just that I hear constant complaints from readers about not understanding the accents. People also tell me about inappropriate advice — one senior was told to climb onto his roof in the winter to check his satellite connection — which doesn’t take into account the Canadian way of life.

So, here’s the question. If companies invest in better training, tools and technology, does it matter where they outsource the calls? Should you care whether the people you talk to live in Canada, the United States or overseas, as long as they’re smart, well-informed, polite, easily understood and willing to connect you to a supervisor if you need more help?

Is the price right at Tim Hortons?

April 19 2007 by Ellen Roseman

The coffee is a great deal, but you may get clipped by cashier error if you order food to go with it. A reader, Ross T in Kingston, has found frequent mispricing.

Purchase 1 Medium Coffee, 1 Donut, 1 Chicken Salad sandwich under the sandwich deal. Last year, I went to several different Tim Hortons and they seemed to overcharge me more often than they got it right. The deal is $3.99 plus tax. The correct total should be $4.23 but I’ve been charged $4.89.

Meals of $3.99 or less are exempt from Ontario sales tax. Only GST should be charged. However, even with 14% sales taxes, it shouldn’t add up to $4.89.

Sometimes the clerks redo the transaction and sometimes the managers have to be summoned. Just imagine the hundreds of thousands of meals sold every day and the mistaken overcharges.

Ross later realized that other meals could be mispriced, not just the $3.99 sandwich deal, when he went to Tim Hortons with a friend.

They must have seen me coming, since they got my order right. My friend bought a BLT sandwich deal for $5.25 and the total was $6.80. When I questioned the amount, it was soon corrected to a $5.99 total.

I don’t believe the problem is related to sales tax, but to pushing the wrong buttons on the cash register at the customer’s expense.

So, here’s what I want to know. Have you had the same problem? Tim Hortons is busy, with line-ups out the door and lots of part-time staff. Maybe other fast food chains are vulnerable to pricing errors, too.

Do you have an electricity contract?

April 18 2007 by Ellen Roseman

When Ontario’s electricity market was deregulated in 2002, almost one million people signed fixed-price contracts with Direct Energy, Ontario Energy Savings Corp. and other electricity marketers. The government later pulled the plug on deregulation and the fixed price didn’t take effect. But the contracts are still in place.

The five-year contracts come up for renewal, starting in May, and you may find your contract is automatically rolled over for another year unless you take steps to cancel it.

Here are your options:

* Do nothing. You’ll be in a one-year contract at more than 9 cents a kilowatt-hour.

* Sign a new five-year contract with your current supplier at a rate of 8.8 to 8.9 cents a kilowatt-hour.

* Tell your current supplier you don’t want to renew and sign a five-year contract with the lowest-cost supplier at 8.49 cents a kilowatt-hour.

* Go back to your local utility’s regulated price plan. The rate is 5.3 cents for the first 600 kilowatt-hours and 6.2 cents for the rest (averaging about 5.8 cents).

Why sign a contract when the regulated price plan (RPP) is much lower? Here’s a response from Ian MacLellan of Energyshop.com:

To compare the contract with the RPP, you should deduct about 1.5 cents for the rebates that a customer gets on a contract but are already factored into the RPP. So, you’re looking at 5.8 cents for the RPP and 7 cents to 7.49 cents for the contract.

Locking into a fixed-price contract is still a valid decision, but the considerations are:

* What will happen to electricity rates after the October election?

* How fast will rates increase with rising oil and gas prices? What about the Auditor-General’s report that electricity from the Bruce Nuclear plant will cost 7.1 cents?

The message we want to get out to people is this: Read your renewal notice carefully. And do your homework before getting into a new contract.

Watch out for negative option billing

April 17 2007 by Ellen Roseman

You might think this was outlawed in Canada after Rogers Cable tried to get customers to pay for new specialty TV channels in 1995, unless they said they didn’t want them. There was a huge uproar and Rogers backed down.

In fact, the federal government never passed a law to get rid of this marketing practice. So, federally-regulated banks and telecom firms can sign you up for products and services you didn’t ask for and keep billing you for them.

Are you still paying for credit card balance insurance or telephone calling features that were supposed to be free for a few months? If you don’t say no, you’re on the hook. The onus is on you to opt out.

The Ontario government did pass a law in August 2005 to outlaw negative option billing, but it applies only to contracts signed after that date. Suppose you have a long-standing furnace protection plan or fixed-price natural gas plan. Unless you take specific action to get out when the contract expires, the company will roll it over for another year.

Health and fitness clubs may also indulge in this practice. They insist that you pay with automatic debits from a credit card or bank account, so they can keep deducting your payments long after your contract is up.

Pay attention to your bills and don’t let marketers “opt you in” by your inaction.

Why not Canadian Tire or Wal-Mart Blues?

April 16 2007 by Ellen Roseman

My posting, Bell Blues, has attracted great activity over the weekend. I’m responding to E.J. Wonder’s comment that it seems one-sided. Why not go after other companies with customer service problems?

First, I listen to readers. When I get many complaints, I know something’s wrong. Bell has always attracted a large volume of protests, along the lines of “I can’t believe this isn’t being fixed and why can’t I reach anyone?” But I’m finding the number going up, not down, despite management’s claims of consistent progress.

Second, I also respond to the “pain factor.” It’s not just the number of complaints, but the anguish behind them. When readers talk about hours and hours spent in fruitless pursuit of a resolution, that’s when I prick up my ears. I think smart companies empathize with those who take the time to complain. They’re happy for feedback that helps them get better. Also, smart companies offer something tangible (e.g. bill credits or gift certificates) to tell customers they appreciate the value of their time.

Third, I look to see if there’s a complaint resolution system in the company. Is there a single point of contact? Is there a complaint officer or internal ombudsman? Bell doesn’t have one, nor does Rogers or Telus. The only place to send an appeal is to the CRTC in Ottawa. But this regulatory agency doesn’t regulate many services that Bell provides (e.g. Internet, cell phones and long-distance). Its website is vast and often confusing.

So, that’s why I’m singing the Bell Blues and so are many readers. But check the comments here and you’ll find some positive ones.

I hope Bell does improve its service. If so, I’ll happily move on. There’s never a shortage of topics. And, let me say this isn’t a personal crusade. I have home phone service with Bell and have no complaints. (Rogers and Yak do the rest.)

Who’s that knocking at your door?

April 15 2007 by Ellen Roseman

If they tell you about great savings on natural gas or electricity and they want to look at your utility bills, shut the door….quickly.

I’m not against locking in a long-term price for energy (and I did it myself once), but I don’t trust door-to-door sellers of energy contracts. Too often, according to what I hear, they misrepresent who they are and what you get if you sign. You don’t have time to do any background research and make up your mind on whether it’s a good time to buy.

Before you agree to anything, check the Ontario Energy Board reports on consumer complaints relating to gas and electricity retailers. You can check each company and see what kind of complaints it has received.

Also, you have to compare the prices you’re quoted with your local utility’s price. If you go to Energyshop you can see whether you would have been better off locking in or staying with your utility. Because of the falling price of gas in the past 18 months, Enbridge Gas customers who didn’t lock in have been ahead of those who did.