Service too slow? Then just walk

Have you done it? Left a store without buying because you were fed up?

There are many reasons why you might feel frustrated enough to walk out. The store staff ignore you. There aren’t enough cashiers. The customers ahead of you dawdle. The advertised specials are missing or mispriced.

A whopping 86 per cent of Canadians, according to a survey released by Maritz Canada, have left a store without buying something because they felt they had waited too long for service. A Globe and Mail story touched a nerve, attracting 181 comments.

Customers frustrated with long waits will go to the competition, said Maritz. They will rant about their experience and post comments online.

But they will stay longer if retailers offer music, refreshments, reading materials, an apology or a smile.

But things are different if you’ve already bought something and you have to fix a problem. You call or email a company (often dealing with its outsourced customer service department) and wait for a response.

You tell your story over and over again to each person who handles your calls or emails. You can’t walk out. You’re a captive customer, trapped in an indifferent and inferior system.

Welcome to my world. I hear from captive customers every hour of the workday. They’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more. But what can they do?

If you learn how to navigate the system, you can share your experience with others. That’s what Karl did here this week, printing email addresses for useful contacts at Bell Canada and its new owner, the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan.

Speaking of Bell, they have a new advertising campaign, “Today just got better,” which makes liberal use of words ending in “er” — faster, easier, gamer, worker, talker, texter, multi-tasker, music lover. You can read the corporate new release here.

Did anyone notice they’re using my initials?

Maybe it’s a backhanded compliment, considering how much flak I collect (and pass along) about Bell’s flagging service. If their new strategy is to deliver a better customer experience, then why not tip a hat in my direction with their ER campaign?

Direct Energy’s $1,320 cancellation fee

I wrote a column about Direct Energy’s latest marketing tactic. I’ve been hearing from other in the same jam. Some are posting comments here.

The game is to go after people who have contracts with other energy suppliers. Direct Energy’s sales agents say it’s OK to switch in midstream. Any problems will be taken care of.

Of course, this is nonsense. Customers soon get calls from their existing suppliers, warning them of the need to pay cancellation fees if they leave. Many say “OK, I’ll stay.”

A few months later, they hear that Direct Energy is zapping them them with a $1,320 penalty. This is much higher than the fees they’d have had to pay if they’d left their existing suppliers. Often, their account is already with a collection agency (called CGC).

The game is over, DE executives now tell me. The company has high ethical standards and won’t stand for misrepresentation. It will refuse to compensate agents who sign deals with those already under contract with another energy marketer.

Direct Energy has been undoing all these contracts signed under duress and releasing people from that onerous $1,320 penalty.

This is a window of opportunity for customers stuck between two energy sellers. Send me an email with your name, address and phone number and I’ll advocate for you, as I’ve done for so many others.

Meanwhile, remember that natural gas prices are coming down, unlike what you hear from salespeople. Check my recent column.

Consumer problems I’d like to fix

I spend my days helping people resolve their complaints with goods and services purchased from large companies. It’s frustrating for them and also for me, when I see the same issues come up again and again.

Here are a few things I’d like to change ASAP.

Why does the government allow unregulated sellers to knock on doors and encourage households to sign expensive and restrictive contracts for their gas and electricity needs? When door-to-door sellers ask to see utility bills, but why do people hand them over?

I want to see strict controls on this industry, not administered by the weak and ineffectual Ontario Energy Board, and mandatory plain-language contracts. The misrepresentation and deception must end, since it penalizes more vulnerable consumers — older people, immigrants to Canada and new homeowners. Why are people so trusting of those who can’t be trusted?

Why is negative option marketing still around? We’ve seen large banks and retailers use it to push upgraded credit cards on customers. Even in Ontario, where the law prohibits this tactic, it’s still going on. See the comments posted below about lawn care companies and their “evergreen contracts.”

I find it disgraceful that companies pay attention to me — because I work for Canada’s largest daily newspaper — and pay little or no attention to those who keep them in business. Average customers find their voices are not heard.

There’s too much corporate focus on selling more, more and more — and insulating yourself from accountability for problems that crop up after the sale.

I wish people didn’t waste time waiting to speak to customer service reps who can’t help — and refuse to connect them to higher-level executives who can. I wish people didn’t tell me they’re losing sleep at night because of their intractable billing problems. Sometimes, they burst into tears on the phone.

Finally, I wish that governments in Canada treated consumer issues seriously. Politicians wade into the odd thing, such as high Canadian book prices or cell phone carriers that charge for incoming text messages. But it’s all in their quest for votes.

Why can’t they do the right thing for the right reason and really start protecting people from marketplace abuses?

Nine people’s favourite thing

Spent last week in New York and caught the hot Broadway plays. We saw South Pacific, the revival of a 1949 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical; August: Osage County, the 2007 Tony award winner for drama; and Thurgood, a one-man show with Laurence Fishburne about the first black U.S. Supreme Court judge.

But the one that stuck with me was (title of show), a self-referential musical comedy about two guys writing a musical comedy. They performed it at a theatre festival in 2004, then had an off-Broadway production and finally made it to Broadway last month. It’s an inspiring story.

The show has a song that I can’t get out of my head.

I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing
Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing

Those nine people will tell nine people
Then we’ll have eighteen people loving the show
Then eighteen people could grow into
Five-hundred and twenty-five-thousand, six-hundred people
All loving our show

It’s about viral marketing, says this blogger. I think it’s also about excellence. Companies succeed and prosper when they strive to be the very best at what they do, even if for a small audience, rather than aiming for bland, middle-of-the-road mediocrity.

Leonard Lee, the founder of Lee Valley Tools, springs to mind. He’s an entrepreneur who started his Ottawa-based mail order business for gardening and woodworking tools in 1978 and gained a worldwide reputation for service quality.

What bothers him most about the way business is conducted now, he told reporter Gordon Pitts in an interview published this week, is the outsourcing of customer service.

What I find most amazing is watching Canadian and American businesses farm out their customer service. You might as well put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. It’s Russian roulette if you farm it out.


Because the [outsource specialists] don’t know your business and they don’t know the culture. When you’ve farmed out customer service, you’ve lost the connection with the customer, and you will eventually die a horrible economic death.

So you will never outsource customer service?

Never. You will never find, I hope, a screened telephone call when you phone Lee Valley. Anybody who has called me in the past 30 years was put through without asking what they were calling about or what their name was.

When you have a customer who gets directly though to a senior officer in a firm, it’s like a dog that’s caught a car. The customer doesn’t know what to do now that he or she has hope.

They’ll say, ‘But I didn’t expect to get through to the president.’

‘Well, you got through. What can I do for you?’

‘Well, it wasn’t really that big of a problem.’

‘It must be a problem. What can we do?’

So you’ve won the battle just by not putting up screens and blockages between you and your customers.

Lee Valley is a $100 million company, not the multi-billion-dollar companies that draw hostile comments here for their lacklustre customer service. But the 70-year-old founder thinks it’s a myth that big firms have to outsource.

There are so many choices today, people ought to be able to rely on their suppliers. But if you can never get in touch with them, you can’t rely on them.

I’m still in awe of (title of show) and its clever marketing campaign, using YouTube and other online ways to build an audience and become nine people’s favourite thing.

So, indulge me. Tell me your stories of being knocked over by great customer service. What companies have you dealt with that exceeded your expectations and made your life more pleasurable and less stressful?