Your call is important to us

Too bad companies say it and don’t mean it. If your call really was important, it would be answered promptly and expertly. Your requests for help and escalation to a supervisor would be followed up quickly, not left dangling for days. And your unresolved disputes about billing wouldn’t be turned over to a collection agency.

But that’s the lamentable state of customer service today, where technology helps reduce costs and increase depersonalization. Montreal Gazette business reporter Roberto Rocha winds up his series and posts some closing comments at his blog.

I like the response from a reader, who thinks customer service won’t get better until we start looking beyond low prices and become more demanding:

The reality is that large companies couldn’t care less about you. If you have an unusual situation that requires more than a few minutes of their time, you’re costing them money. The old threats of “I’ll never do business with you again” and “I’ll go to the press” are meaningless now. They don’t care if a few bad apples (who would otherwise bother their expensive customer service centres) end their service and go to a competitor. There’s plenty of other fish in the sea. And going to the media, which is a horrible nightmare for small businesses, doesn’t bother the big companies because they know their competitors have reputations that are just as bad.

Besides, nobody checks out customer service before signing up. They check prices. That’s why the small fries, who have great customer service but slightly higher prices, soon find themselves going out of business.

From a strict cost-benefit analysis, it’s better to provide crappy customer service (but have your PR guys talk about how you’re improving to the media) and lower prices than to raise prices and have qualified, local people answer the phone.

And that’s not going to change until more people start demanding better.

Meanwhile, you can check out the advice I gave Roberto, which he reprinted at his blog, on how to protect yourself when dealing with telecom companies.

Is your 16-digit Visa number on your receipts?

Big stores “truncate” credit card numbers, so only the last digits are showing. The rest are blanked out, just as they are on the receipts you get from bank machines. But some merchants are still printing the entire Visa card number on receipts. This is not only an invasion of privacy, but it contravenes a new Visa Canada policy supposed to take effect on April 1, 2007.

Gordon from Picton, Ont. has been pursuing answers from CIBC (his Visa card issuer) and the Canadian head office of Visa International. He’s found very few people even know about the new truncation policy and sound defensive when asked. He’s furious that many stores he deals with still print all 16 numbers on their Visa receipts and the expiry date.

I’m printing his letters below and Visa Canada’s response. I’d like to know what you have discovered with your own Visa card tranasactions.

I did a column recently and got many responses. Many people were surprised to see how frequently their full card number and expiry date were on their receipts. They wanted to stop it. Only with a real consumer push will we see a speeded-up adoption of new point of sale terminals.

What about the merchant’s copy? Can it contain the full credit card number? Yes, says Visa, because the merchant may need it for refunds or dispute resolution. However, the federal privacy law requires businesses to safeguard all the information they collect. This means they can’t throw the receipts into the dumpster without shredding them or leave them exposed to theft by employees.

“The energy choice is yours”… I’m not so sure

The Ontario Energy Board has started a public relations campaign to educate consumers about their rights when it comes to signing contracts with gas and electricity marketers. The board has set up a website and hired a plain-language expert to make its six consumer tipsheets easy to understand.

I think such an educational effort is needed and I wonder why the board took so long to get started. From the complaints I get about energy marketers, I know that many people aren’t making an informed choice at all when they sign a long-term contract.

The only reason to lock into a fixed-price deal is peace of mind. You don’t know whether or not you’ll save money and you may pay a rate that’s much higher than the utility rate. But that’s the risk you’re taking. It’s a form of insurance.

But the sellers who go door to door promise savings, and may even guarantee savings. This makes their job easier when it comes to earning sales commissions. Some sellers also misrepresent who they are (for example, telling new homeowners they have to sign to get their gas or electricity switched on).

You’re not making an informed choice when you sign under false pretenses. And if you’re not careful, you may find your long-term gas contract has been automatically renewed when it expired. Gas marketers (but not electricity marketers) can roll over contracts without your express consent if they’re signed before July 31, 2005. Luckily, there’s a tipsheet on renewals that explains how they work.

I wish the board had undertaken a TV or radio advertising campaign on energy choices. This would reach more people. But for now, I guess a low-budget PR campaign is better than nothing.

A tempest in a coffee cup

I always pay attention when I get two almost identical complaints within a few days. So, I wrote a column last week about a problem at Second Cup. It seems the small and medium cups for cold drinks are almost the same size, but the medium costs 40 cents more than the small.

Second Cup’s head office told me different stories. The problem was caused by old cups that should have been retired a year ago, when the 360-outlet chain acquired a new logo and changed its cup sizing system. There was also an issue with the small cups, which were actually 18 ounces (not 16 as ordered). When filled to the top, they were close to the medium size (20 ounces).

This week, I did what my two readers did. I bought a small strawberry lemonade and a medium chocolate chiller, both delicious, and drank the contents. Then, I filled them up with water to see how much they held. The interior volume was virtually the same, but disguised by the shapes. The small is short and fat, the medium tall and thin.

I thought this was an interesting story about economic justice. A large Canadian company is pulling one over on customers by selling the same cold drink in small and medium sizes that are not discernibly different. But some readers thought it was trivial and not worth mentioning. I got litres of feedback about this (see comments below). It seems everyone is an expert when it comes to coffee cups.

Insuring your home and car

My insurance series in the Sunday Star has moved closer to home. I’m focusing on the premiums you pay to insure your residence and belongings, the car you drive and the people you may come into contact with after an accident.

I find it interesting that people pay premiums month after month, but don’t think about updating the information on their policies. And many don’t think about shopping around for lower rates at renewal time.

Has anything changed in your life that your insurer should know about? If you don’t inform the company about major changes — for example, that you’re no longer driving your car for work — you could be missing out on lower rates. The onus is on you to say if there’s something different that could affect the risk level the insurer agreed to at the start of your relationship.

As for shopping around, it’s a lot of work. You have to dig up your documents, find out the exact coverage you have and compare the cost with the offerings from other companies. But the results can be worthwhile, as long as you don’t switch too often and you’re not leaving behind valuable benefits (such as the forgiveness for first claims).

Toronto Star readers may have noticed many recent full-page ads for Insurance Hotline, a service that compares car insurance rates, run by Lee Romanov (who ran for Toronto Mayor last time around). How can she afford to pay for these ads? Simple. Her company was purchased by the Star earlier this year.

When you use Insurance Hotline, you have to supply information about your claims history (how many at-fault accidents, licence suspensions, tickets and insurance cancellations for non-payment). You also have to specify the deductibles you want for collision and comprehensive coverage. Then, you get three quotes and contact information for brokers or agents who can write a policy for you. Try it and see if you’re paying too much.

It’s not easy being green

Did you catch some of the Live Earth concert last weekend on TV? I was impressed by the musicians, but bemused by seeing them fly around the world in air-polluting aircraft to urge others to fight global warming. Many people saw the irony, not to say hypocrisy, in this environmental consciousness-raising event.

So, what’s the answer? Should we stop flying and avoid destinations that we can’t get to except by plane? Is China or Japan off the map (literally) and is Newfoundland our newfound eastern paradise?

Adria Vasil, a columnist for Now magazine in Toronto, has written a terrific book called Ecoholic. It’s a bestselling guide to the most environmentally friendly products, information and services in Canada and has some suggestions about how to keep flying without a guilty conscience.

Air travel is never environmentally friendly, she says, but it’s hard to swear off flying in a giant country like Canada with miles of ocean on three sides. But you can ease the impact by getting green tags. With green tags, you offset the carbon your flight creates by supporting renewable energy or planting trees. If you have to fly for work, ask your employer to foot the bill.

I tried the carbon flight calculator at Green My Flight, which showed a cost of $38.73 to neutralize my round-trip flight from Toronto to London, England. Then, I tried another calculator at Offsetters, which let me off more lightly at $29.79. You can buy carbon offsets from these websites or do it on your own.

Eatling locally is another way to help the planet. You can become a “locavore” and buy only foods that come from a 100-mile radius of your home. To find your safe-eating zone, check the instant mapping tool at The 100 Mile Diet . You can also read about the book by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who did it for a year from their apartment in Vancouver. Their book sprang from a blog they did at The Tyee, an independent alternative daily newspaper in B.C.

Here’s an interesting Q & A from these two Canadian pioneers in eating locally:

What did you miss the most?
Every region has foods that are hard–or impossible–to find. We went without wheat for seven months. We missed pasta. We missed bread. We missed pancakes. Then we found our wheat farmer, and we pigged out.

Were your meals repetitive and boring?
At first, yes. As we found more and more local food sources, though, our meals became more interesting than ever before. Farmers and farmers’ markets introduced us to foods and flavors we’d never tried before.

Did it take a lot of time?
We won’t lie–it takes time to find local food sources, to make food from scratch, to do canning for winter, and so on. But it also raises interesting questions about how we’re spending our time. What if we spent more time on self-sufficiency and less time at the office?

How can they treat customers that way?

You have a problem with a company’s products or services. You get in touch, but can’t find anyone to help. You keep calling and writing, only to get no response. Or even worse, you talk to people in “customer care” who don’t care. They’re arrogant, rude, condescending or just plain incompetent.

I’m always writing about the declining levels of service in large companies. It’s a theme that strikes a chord with readers. I think I’ve heard every horror story imaginable, but then another one comes along.

You’ll find a few rants below. Feel free to add your own.

Telus, Telus, please come back

I don’t normally like it when rivals get together. But I find myself rooting for Telus to make a bid for BCE, now that the way is clear for a hostile takeover.

It makes sense to combine two former monopoly providers of home phone service, one in eastern Canada and one in western Canada. They know each other’s businesses and they can achieve economies of scale in new service offerings. Some of the savings should flow through to customers — at least I hope so.

If “Belus” becomes a dominant player, Ottawa can change the foreign ownership rules to allow more players to come into the telecommunications market. Even now, there’s little competition in some areas.

Cell phone service, for example, is controlled by three companies. Not regulated, they use high-pressure marketing to make customers pay high monthly rates, undisclosed charges and stiff fees to cancel contracts. Wireless is ripe for growth, desperate for innovation, so let’s open the doors to more entrants.

It seems that BCE’s chief executive Michael Sabia and his board rigged the bidding process. They used a short time limit and a tight leash on information to prevent Telus from making an offer. Instead, they commandeered a buyout from the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, one that would enrich the management team and leave it intact.

I know that many customers and employees aren’t impressed with Bell’s management. They’d like to see more caring and compassion, better training, an allegiance to something other than cost-cutting.

Stephen Jarislowsky, a well-known money manager, isn’t impressed either. Here’s what he told the National Post in today’s column by Diane Francis:

The problem with Bell is that people don’t like dealing with it and haven’t for 30 years so the business is lousy. This company has been high-handed toward customers and has no public-relations manners. It’s not a sinking ship but it’s certainly taking in water.

Getting acquired by a competitor may be a better fit for BCE than being owned by a giant pension fund backed by private equity firms. They’re anxious to turn a profit on their investment by turning the company around.

Darren Entwistle, Telus chief executive, don’t play dead. It’s time to make a hostile takeover offer for Bell Canada. And while you’re at it, you can lobby Ottawa to let more players into the market.