You win some… and lose some

When the media get involved in customer service disputes, companies snap to attention. Suddenly, the lines of communication open up and the disputes get resolved.

In my Saturday column, On Your Side, I write about fights I’ve won on behalf of readers. But I only have room for a few of the many victories. You’ll find more details in this blog.

However, there’s one battle I usually lose. That’s when I go to bat for someone who signs a long-term contract and wants to get out early: Something comes up and there’s a need to switch. The company says too bad: You decided to sign and you’re stuck.

I’m reprinting a letter from a reader who wants to get out of his cellphone contract with Telus and the company’s response. Tell me what you think.

I signed a 2-year contract in January of 2007 and recently found out that I was awarded a job in Yellowknife and will be moving from PEI to Yellowknife this June. I called Telus to inquire about their services in Yellowknife and they told me that they simply have a roaming agreement with Northwestel. In order to have coverage up there, I would have to purchase a Canada-wide long distance plan and keep my PEI phone number.

They were unclear about the details, but this was not a desirable outcome since I will be living in Yellowknife indefinitely and don’t want to have to worry that local calls could be coming in as long distance. Not only would I lose all my current calling features and bonuses from my current contract renewal that I negotiated with Telus, but I will be forced to buy a plan that does not offer any of the features I rely on (call display, voicemail, etc).

I feel like this is unfair. My career is taking off and I’m moving to a new place, but Telus will not let me get out of a contract in which they cannot provide the proper service. Is there any way you can help me get out of my current Telus contract so that I am not forced against the ropes, so to speak?

Response from Julie Smithers, a Telus spokeswoman:

It will not be possible for TELUS to permit cancellation of the account without applying the full termination liability charge that is standard for cancellation of a term contract. As the customer indicates, he chose to sign a contract in January. This is entirely optional as clients can also choose to maintain service on a month to month basis, which allows them to cancel on 30 days’ notice without incurring penalty. For example, we do not encourage clients to sign contracts if they are in temporary living circumstances or actively looking for employment, which could include relocation, as it might make it difficult for them to commit to a contract term.

All clients have the option of transferring their contract to friends or family at their discretion. The client has also been informed of the termination liability charges that would result from cancelling the unit just months into the contract. Termination liability charges are clearly outlined in easily legible print on the front page of the contract he signed when selecting his service. Because of the two-year term commitment, he received his handset at a discounted rate. TELUS also incurs other up-front costs of bringing clients onto the network, including commissions to the sales force.

In TELUS’ Service Terms, which are presented to clients prior to activation, TELUS expressly points out that it does not guarantee uninterrupted service. It is important for clients considering relocation to discuss their potential coverage needs with TELUS’ client care staff either by contacting client care or visiting a retail location.

The joys and frustrations of travel

I’m just back from a week-long trip to New York and Boston for family parties. While fun, our trip also had frustration, snafus and hassles.

1) I rented a van from Alamo Car Rentals. While dropping it off at Boston’s Logan Airport, I forgot to remove the charger for my Blackberry. Called Alamo several times and was told to leave a message with the Boston location’s lost and found. No one ever calls back. Guess they can’t be bothered. But it costs $45 to replace.

2) For the New York to Boston trip, we debated whether to take a train or plane. Decided to fly because of a good fare (about $50 one way) with Delta/Comair. Flight supposed to leave at 11 a.m., but delayed again and again while waiting for a staff member. Did he or she sleep in? Can one person delay a scheduled flight for four hours? We got to Boston at 4 p.m. Wish we had taken the train, after all.

3) Boston was busy with university graduations and the hotels were packed. Our two downtown hotel rooms weren’t cleaned properly when we checked in, so we told the desk. Got 2,000 Starwood points as a bonus, which compensated for the 2,000 points we used to bring down the price of the hotel to a more reasonable level. (Starwood points are given with Sheraton and Westin hotels.)

Do you have travel complaints? I get lots of them from readers, but rarely have much luck getting compensation for anyone (apart from offers of a small discount on future trips). Companies write contracts in such a way that they don’t take responsibility for delays.

Bell apologizes for poor service

In a Montreal Gazette article, Bell Canada said it was sorry for the spotty service doled out to customers in the last three years. But things are better now, said Patrick Pichette, Bell’s president of operations, in a speech to an audience of MBAs in Montreal.

Luckily, reporter Roberto Rocha didn’t let Bell hijack the story and mentioned this blog (hurray!) and its opposing view that Bell is making little progress in its attempts to deliver seamless and smooth service. Other websites were highlighted, such as Boycott Bell Canada by an anonymous blogger and Randy Charles Morin’s web journal, where he urges people to complain to the CRTC about Bell (not that it helps in most cases).

Rocha also quotes a telecom analyst, Kevin Restivo, who says other phone providers also share a level of mediocre customer support. And while service may be improving, he said, the companies must battle a public perception that they don’t care about clients.

Demetrius K., a frequent email correspondent, told me after reading the Montreal Gazette piece:

I wonder whether Bell’s aplogy is an invitation to rectify unresolved disputes. I would love to get my $100 back for the cellphone airtime they refused to reinstate. Had their call centre been open after 5 p.m., I would never have lost the airtime. Furthermore, their refusal to reinstate it the next morning left me with no alternative but to leave the service.

In any case, I doubt that their apologies will change anything. It was their attitude that was a major part of the problem — something they will never recognize.

Money management for university graduates

This was the topic of a presentation I gave this week at the University of Toronto to a group of students who had just finished their degree courses. I talked about how to track their expenses, save, invest, use credit cards, buy or lease a car and pay for a roof over their heads.

I threw in a suggestion, one just implemented in our household, that adult children choosing to live at home after gradution should pay rent. I’ve heard that some parents bank the rent and give it to their kids later as a down payment on a house purchase.

I mentioned some favourite websites, such as this one for help with banking and credit and this one for help with investing. I also talked about this one for advice on taming cellphone costs.

One of the students had great advice about buying online. When asked for a code to get a discount, go to Red Flag Deals and do a search. You should find one there.

Here’s a comment below from an audience member. She’s a well-known blogger who’s finishing her master’s degree, studying the interface between humans and computers.

Why are mutual funds so expensive?

In my Star column today, I talked about a study that said Canada had the highest mutual fund fees among 18 countries surveyed. Why? Consumers don’t understand what they’re paying for funds and how the fees cripple their returns over the long run. Meanwhile, financial advisers don’t offer any low-cost alternatives, such as index funds and exchange-traded funds.

It’s always fun to see the reaction, so here are some of the comments received. Let me know what you think.

Attention must be paid

One day, I was going through the mail at home and noticed that my son, 20, had lots of bank statements that he hadn’t opened. I took them out of their envelopes and tried not look, but something popped out at me. He was paying $1.50 each time he took money out of a bank machine – adding up to $6 to $9 a month.

I spoke to him about it and he said his bank had no branches or cash machines on his route from home to the University of Toronto, where he’s a full-time student. So, he was using other ATMs and wasn’t really paying attention to the cost.

All day at work, I talk to readers who are starting to pay attention to their money –where they spend it and where they waste it. Often, they’re in a financial crisis or trapped in a billing dispute that forces them to review their expenditures. I love it when people try to track down the cash that goes through their bank accounts – what’s known as their burn rate. If they do it religiously, they’ll find dollars they can reuse for savings and investments.

While I’m surprised that my son wastes his money on ATM fees, I’m aware that he’s not ready to pay attention to his finances. Money is no big deal to him now. He lives at home. His parents (and his RESP) pay for tuition and books. He’s not a big spender. He has cash in the bank. He’s not in a crisis.

One day, most of us come to realize we can’t go on spending money needlessly and heedlessly. Attention must be paid to the little details we didn’t notice before: the late charges on utility bills, the way credit card issuers calculate interest, the unexpected costs of a cell phone plan.

Awareness leads to action. Seeing the money dribbling away, many people decide to challenge the charges they didn’t authorize. They shop around for a better deal and go back to their original supplier, demanding a change. If they don’t get action, they walk away.

So, that’s my mission as a long-time journalist covering personal finance and consumer advocacy. I want my readers to save more, invest better, retire earlier and not die broke (unless that’s their goal). But first and foremost, I want them to pay attention to their daily spending.

Identifying the latte factor, as David Bach writes, means finding where you overindulge and where you can cut back. But in my view, it’s not the fancy coffees that get most people in trouble. It’s the excessive long-distance phone charges if they stick with Bell instead of finding a lower-cost carrier. It’s the bank fees if they fail to check out no-fee options such as President’s Choice Financial. It’s the interest on credit card bills paid on the due date when it’s a Sunday or holiday. Most issuers won’t process the payment until the next business day.

I’m new to the blogging game and not as active as some of my colleagues Canadian Tour of Personal Finance Blogs “>here. But I hope to attract a wide range of comments as I have at the Bell Blues posting (more than 100 so far). I hope to create conversations among readers about their experiences and their opinions of customer service. Above all, I want to get people to pay attention to their personal finances, unlike my son, and start to challenge the companies they deal with. From that state of readiness, everything else will flow.

I urge readers to check out The Money Diva tour of personal finance blogs. There’s great information here and lots of attention being paid to pocketbook issues.

Who’s on my speed dial?

Here are the names of companies to which I send frequent complaints from readers. But I rarely call them, nor do they call me. Email is more efficient.

Bell and Rogers are probably tops, but Telus Mobility gets its share. Direct Energy is big in home heating plans and energy contracts, but its long-term gas and electricity rates are way above the current utility rates — and it rolls over contracts automatically if you don’t pay attention. Enbridge Gas complaints are steady.

Sears has some unhappy customers, especially when their letters to the president’s office get no response. The Bay recently outsourced its credit card administration to GE Money and that’s caused a few glitches, enough to elicit a big apology on the monthly bills.

Home Depot is quiet lately after several reports of botched installations last year and complaints being rerouted to Atlanta, the corporate head office. Canadian Tire complaints have dropped off. Future Shop and Best Buy keep me busy, while Staples is moving up. The manufacturers I talk to most often are Dell, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and LG Electronics. Don’t forget Whirlpool, which seems to have fumbled a huge Maytag dishwasher recall. Customers couldn’t get through at first, then were left fuming while they waited to get parts and had to wait dishes by hand.

Banks seem to handle things well, though I get frequent queries about their credit card fees, interest calculation methods and heavy-handed promotions. Why tell us to take a holiday from paying bills one month and then say that regular interest will be charged? Why send out unsolicited credit card cheques that act as bait for identity thieves if they fall into the wrong hands?

Air Canada and Aeroplan are on my email list (but not WestJet). And while I often hear about messed up vacations, I know tour operators all have contracts that protect them from paying compensation when things go awry. People expect their out-of-pocket costs to be covered, but if they’re lucky they get a discount voucher to use on a future trip.

Finally, some fitness clubs go overboard with their billing practices. They get you on an automatic debit plan and keep taking your money even after you cancel. I don’t even handle those complaints any more. After writing too many columns about fitness clubs, I find they’re no longer newsworthy or interesting — and novelty is everything to a journalist. If you want a trustworthy organzation, join the YMCA.

Do you want information about your investments?

Canadian securities regulators have passed new rules that you only get information from stock issuers and mutual fund issuers if you “opt in.” They call it investor choice, but I’m afraid it may leave people in the dark.

Under the new rules, you get an annual request from the companies you invest in. Do you want to get its annual reports or interim reports? If you want them, you have to send in a special form. If you do nothing, you get nothing.

That’s worrisome, because it’s important to keep tabs on your investments. Even with a financial adviser looking after you, you may not get what you need to make informed choices. You can go to SEDAR , which is an electronic database of stock and mutual fund documents. But is that enough?

It’s easy to ignore or overlook these requests. Stock issuers often combine them with the voter instruction or proxy forms, sent out with annual meeting packages. If you don’t read carefully, you may just throw them out.

Investors often feel buried under a crushing load of paperwork. And they may wonder how many trees have been killed to send out this stuff, which often seems more like marketing than information. But I think they’re not well-served by the new opt-in rules.

What do you think? Are you getting too much informatioin or not enough?