Help, I’ve got a lemon

Lately, I’m hearing complaints about major appliances and automobiles wearing out before their time. (See below).) Often, this happens just after the warranty expires.

What can you do?

–Watch out for problems during the warranty period. Keep a log of all the calls you make to the dealer or manufacturer, the people you speak to and the corrective action taken. You want to show that your issue was reported while the product was under warranty, even if the breakdown occurred later.

–Look for similar complaints, which could indicate a pattern. This gives you ammunition when you approach a manufacturer. Do a Google search and see what comes up.

–Find out if the company has a secret warranty that will help you get action. Of course, no one talks about a secret warranty. They use euphemisms like “goodwill policies” or “owner notification programs.”

–Get an estimate of the repair cost before you start negotiating. You might want to get an estimate from the company’s authorized dealer and another from an independent service outlet. See if the independent will say the problem is factory-related or the result of premature wearing out.

–Send a registered letter to the manufacturer, with a description of what you want and the average repair cost. Give a deadline to respond before going to small claims court, the Better Business Bureau or the media.

–Think about arbitration if you’re having a dispute with a car manufacturer. Check the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP) to see if your car qualifies. This is a quasi-judicial proceeding, so you will need to bring experts with you to testify.

Phil Edmonston, author of the Lemon-Aid car guides, thinks going to small claims court is your best bet for a durability complaint.

No lawyer is required, costs should be minimal (under $100), and a mediation hearing or trial will likely be scheduled in a few months. Most cases are settled for two-thirds to three-quarters of the claim at the mediation stage. A trial and judgment will follow a few months later if the claim isn’t resolved through mediation.

If the dealer offers a partial repair or refund, take it. Then sue for the rest. Remember, if a partial repair has been done under warranty it counts as an admission of responsibility — no matter what “goodwill” euphemism is used. Also, the repaired component/body panel should be just as durable as if it were new. Hence, the clock starts ticking again, no matter what the dealer’s repair warranty limit says.

Can Bell’s customer service be fixed?

You don’t have to read all 200+ comments at Bell Bliues to know that the telecom giant has serious problems. I talk to disaffected customers every day and I’m always amazed at what can and does go wrong at Bell’s many divisions. Even when I send readers’ complaints to Bell’s senior management, they don’t always get resolved quickly. Some disputes end up with a collection agency — and then they degenerate into harassment and name calling.

So, what would you do to fix Bell’s customer service? Kevin Crull told me a few things that didn’t make it into my column today.

–He wants call centre staff to connect customers with a supervisor when they ask. If no is available, the customer will get called back by a supervisor. Right now, it’s hit and miss.

–He wants call centre staff to be more compassionate with customers. He started empathy training sessions in April, but hasn’t seen any impact so far.

–He wants a better interface between Bell’s legacy computer systems. Some Sympatico customers living in apartment buildings no longer have the suite numbers in their addresses after databases were merged. As a result, they’re no longer getting their mail regularly.

Do you have any suggestions for Bell Canada’s senior management team? If so, post them here.

Here’s mine: Cut the silly slogans that customer service staff must repeat endlessly. “How can we provide you with superb service today?” “Helping customers succeed is our mission.” This rhetoric is so far from reality that it makes people angry.

Meanwhile, if you want to contact Kevin Crull directly, send an email to

Insuring the health of your pet

My insurance series in the Sunday Star is drawing to a close. But my latest column drew a spirited response from pet owners. Some felt pet insurance was the cat’s meow, while others thought it was a dog’s breakfast. One person called and pleaded for pets to be covered under medicare.

Here are some points that are important for owners to consider:

The cost of insuring your pet ranges from $10 a month to $40 a month. Some policies cover accidents only, while others include common illnesses. Routine treatments, such as vaccinations, spaying, neutering and flea control are usually excluded. But a new Purina pet food plan, underwritten by Securican General Insurance, also covers preventative care.

As with any insurance, you have to read the policy language carefully. You may find there are maximum amounts you can claim. You may be covered for only 80 per cent of insured costs, less a deductible. You may have a waiting period before benefits are paid.

An aging pet costs more to insure. You may find your premiums increase every year or your deductibles increase as your pet grows older. Sometimes, pets are covered only until they reach a certain age.

Pre-existing conditions are always excluded. If a health problem first occurred or showed clinical signs before the pet’s coverage started or within the waiting period, the claim will be denied. As is common with any form of health or disability insurance, disputes are common when insurance companies — or their hired experts — make judgment calls about what is a pre-existing or foreseeable condition.

Is your financial adviser missing in action?

The stock market has been plunging for a few weeks. In today’s rout Toronto stocks are down almost 5 per cent. It’s a terrible thing to watch, worrisome, scary, heart-wrenching.

So, did you get a call from your financial adviser? I did yesterday and I felt better. My long-time broker said she thought the panic selling was an overreaction and this, too, would pass. I don’t know if she’s right or wrong, but I know that she’s calling all her clients to talk to them this week.

This reminded me of a column I wrote on July 17, 2002, when the stock market was also going through a rough patch.

If you’ve had a recent phone call from your stockbroker, mutual fund dealer, insurance agent or banker, consider yourself lucky. Many people are out there alone, feeling anxious and abandoned by an adviser who’s missing in action.

Your investment representatives should be communicating with you in a crisis. It’s the least you can expect for the fees or commissions you’re paying. If you’re not getting phone calls, letters or personal visits, why aren’t you demanding more?

This week is a good test. If you’ve heard not a peep from those who sold you the stocks or funds you own, it’s time to shop around. Getting a few impersonal emails isn’t enough. One-to-one communication is key.

Abandoned investors, start fighting back. You have nothing to lose but your isolation.

Accident victims vs. insurance company = unequal fight

You’ve been in a car accident. You’re injured and unable to work, so you apply for accident benefits from your insurance company under Ontario’s no-fault system.

This should be a fairly simple process, one that doesn’t require your hiring a lawyer and going to court. But it can turn out that way if your insurer says you need to go for a second opinion.

The doctors providing second opinions are often in the employ of the insurance companies and write reports that say you don’t need the treatment your own doctor recommended. They may also say you’re ready to return to work. In other words, their reports can help cut costs for the benefit of the insurance company and other policyholders.

If you’ve seen Sicko, the Michael Moore documentary about U.S. health care, you’ll know what can happen when insurance companies rule the roost. They often deny claims based on medical evidence from doctors who are far from impartial. One of these doctors, shown in the film, repents for her misdeeds and talks about being viewed as a profit centre for the insurer.

All this makes it harder for people to get the coverage they thought they were entitled to. They trusted their insurance company to be in their camp — on their side, so to speak — and they feel betrayed when they find out it’s not the case.

I wrote a column about this last Sunday and got amazing feedback from readers. Many now see insurance through different eyes.

How long should companies take to respond to your email?

Hurray for When I ordered a book that arrived with a torn cover, I sent an email complaint and got an answer back — from a real person — within an hour. I ended up settling for a 20 per cent credit, since I didn’t want to return the book. That’s the kind of service I’d expect to get from a customer-centric organization.

But in my column yesterday, I highlighted Capital One’s policy to respond within seven to 10 business days when customers send emails to its ombudsman’s office. Why should it take that long to hear back from a company when you have a problem urgent enough to go to the highest level of appeal?

A Connecticut-based marketing company, Hornstein Associates, has been doing a study each year since 2001 on companies’ response time to email. Only 33 per cent of the top firms replied within 24 hours in 2007, compared with a high of 63 per cent in 2002. Firms polled included Starbucks, Microsoft, GE, Toyota, Wal-Mart and Apple.

Hornstein did the survey by sending a one-sentence to each company, asking “What is your corporate policy regarding the turnaround time for emails addressed to customer servicel?” Nearly half didn’t respond at all in 2007.

Here’s what firm founder, Scott Hornstein, told CBC News Online about the slow turnaround time:

I think it’s a lack of strategy. I think we’ve got plenty of infrastructure, we’ve got more technology than we know what to do with. The problem is there isn’t a strategy in place that says it’s important to treat the customer well. We keep recreating the wheel, bringing new customers in to take the place of those who’ve had bad experiences and leave.

Robin Ritchie, a business professor at the University of Western Ontario, had this to say:

E-mailing makes complaining very easy and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Feedback from customers, good or bad, is a real opportunity to learn what you’re doing well and what you’re doing badly. Good companies will encourage and solicit that feedback. But I do think that firms just don’t put enough money into monitoring, handling and responding to customer feedback. It’s the practical reality of the short-term focus of business, which is driven in part by stock-market valuations and even performance evaluation measures used by firms that really reward performance in the last quarter or the last year, rather than long-term brand-building efforts.

So, tell me how long you’re waiting for an answer when you send a complaint to a company. Letters take weeks, maybe up to a month. But emails should be returned, in my view, within a couple of days. Is that the standard you expect and receive? How are companies doing?

Readers with Bell Blues and Seeing Red with Rogers, tell me about your email experiences. Is it better to write than call? Or do you find the emails vague and bland and generic?

How can they treat customers that way? Part Two

Recruiting Animal, a long-time blogger, asked me if I was interested in doing a story about Facebook. The social networking site has disabled people’s accounts without warning if they tried to use it for commercial purposes. Harry Joiner, a recruiter, tried to invite his entire network of 4,600 names to join Facebook and link to him.

“I can see the concern about spam invitations,” says the Animal, “but to withdraw service in an insensitive manner is just plain arrogant.”

My response? Companies do this all the time. They make the rules and enforce the rules and customers have to play along if they want the product or service. Check the emails below from readers whose Internet service was cut off by Rogers because they were using the wrong routers. Again, little or no warning, just punitive action.

Huffington Post, a well-known U.S. blog, picked up the Facebook story this week. And if you check the comments from readers, most are sympathetic to Facebook. But the writer stands by her argument, which I think has merit, that Harry deserved a warning.

Check your bills for questionable transactions

If you don’t normally comb through each bank statement and credit card bill looking for errors, here are some stories that might make you change your behaviour.

Start with Dave, who writes: “Twice in the last month, my 15-year-old stepdaughter has been charged a false $35 NSF fee on her RBC bank account. Both times, we went to the bank and they apologized and reversed the charges. Both times, the tellers made statements such as ‘this happens a lot” and “you don’t know how often this occurs.’ My daughter checks her account online very frequently and caught both charges. How many people do that? Would they notice a $35 discrepancy over a month-long period.”

Then, there’s Fred who works in a bookstore. He’s noticed customers coming in with their bank statements and saying their book purchases, made with a debit card, were billed twice. They get a refund right away, but there must be others who don’t notice the double charging. How does it happen? He thinks it’s when the first debit card purchase doesn’t go through and the cashier puts it through again. The cashier may think the first transaction is cancelled, and may get a message that it’s void, but that’s not always the case.

Also, I’ve been hearing about new retail policies that no signature is required on Visa and MasterCard transactions below a certain amount, say under $100. The stores say it’s more convenient for customers and reduces the waiting time for those standing in line. But what about security of customers’ funds? Is it being compromised by these no-signature policies?

Unless you scrutinize your online banking accounts or paper statements, you may end up with charges that aren’t really yours.