Can you ever stop shopping around?

In today’s column, I talk about a small business owner who believed in the values advertised by his Big Five bank. He thought that RBC had his best interests at heart.

He was turned down every time he asked for a Euro account until he said he was going to move his business elsewhere. Then, the bank offered to give him what he had been denied for two years before.

This kind of behaviour is commonplace in the business world. Companies fight to increase their market share by offering juicy incentives to new customers. Meanwhile, they ignore their existing clients, who only get their attention when they threaten to leave.

This means you have to change your behaviour as a customer. Instead of being loyal to a long-time supplier, you have to keep an eye out for bargains offered by competitors and always have one foot out the door, ready to decamp.

You can’t take it for granted that the companies you patronize are giving you the best deals. They don’t take you seriously until they’re about to lose you — and that’s when they hand over the discounts.

You can never let down your guard, assuming that you have the lowest prices or most attractive service plan. Instead, you have to keep checking what’s offered by others and asking your own supplier to match them.

It’s exhausting, time-consuming and disruptive to keep moving your accounts around. But in the new world of cut throat capitalism, it’s the only way to make sure that companies really value your business.

Rogers gets “social” with Twitter

In just a short time, Twitter has become an essential tool for both media and business.

I have a Twitter account and so does Rogers Communications. In fact, it has a few of them. You can check out what Rogers is doing, even if you’re not on Twitter yet:

Rogers told me that it’s trying to reach out to people who post online comments about their bad experiences, Then, it works to resolve these complaints offline.

Wouldn’t you know it? Right after I talked to Rogers, I got an email from someone who was helped this way. And he was pretty happy about it.

Hi Ellen,

I just thought to pass this message to you to inform other readers of your articles and on your side blog.

I recently wrote on twitter the following: “Rogers customer service = one lost customer” after having difficulties with getting a resolution to my billing problem.

Within one day, I received a re-tweet from Rob Manne (AKA RogersRob) asking if he can help. I was skeptical at first but then found that he has a lot of followers and is the Manager of Social Media and Digital Communications for Rogers.

I direct messaged him and he then indicated he would look into the problem. Within 24 hours, I received a call from Laurie at the Office of the President for Rogers. Laurie helped address the billing issue and I will be getting a credit and an apology.

I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised about this type of customer service for Rogers. Usually I and others have experienced negative ones.


Rogers also wants to help you escalate your complaints more easily. Its website lays out a three-step process, ending at the office of the president, which is easier to follow than what was there before.

Bell Canada, however, has shut down its forums, which seems a backward move. When I first read the conversations going on there, I thought I was reading my own blog. Guess the comments were too critical for the company’s liking.

Here’s how Bell justifies its decision to do away with free-wheeling discussion:

At Bell, improving customer service is our top priority. That’s why we’re replacing the Bell Support Forum with a new Instant answers knowledge base coupled with 24/7 chat support. With this new tool, we believe we will better serve our customers’ need for fast, accurate information and assistance. It can also quickly connect you to a live support staff if you want to further discuss your situation.

Can companies use social media to get closer to customers and their concerns? I’d like to hear your thoughts about this trend.

A tricky issue getting some traction

I’ve written about Direct Energy’s practice of automatic renewal of gas contracts. Finally, after much nagging, I think I’m getting somewhere on behalf of frustrated customers whose relationship with this company has been extended without their express consent.

DE spokeswoman Lisa Dornan told me that changes are coming to the renewal packages sent in the mail.

We are continually looking at our renewal process to make the necessary improvements to communicate clearly with our customers about their options at the end of their contract term.

Some of the recent changes have included the addition of a “Frequently Asked Questions” section in the package, and upcoming changes include:

* “IMPORTANT RENEWAL INFORMATION ENCLOSED” message on outer envelope – coming in August.

* Underlining the “Renewing this Contract” section on the terms and conditions page (first enclosed page in the renewal package) – effective Sept. 1.

* The addition of “PLEASE TURN OVER FOR MORE IMPORTANT RENEWAL INFORMATION!” in bold, underlined font on the front of the renewal package letter – coming in August.

* Ongoing testing of follow-up options to the renewal package as a reminder to customers of their need to contact us if they do not wish to renew.

We have made, and continue to make, efforts to clarify the communication as much as possible. And we’re taking customer feedback seriously as we seek to improve the customer experience.

All this is good news, though I’d quibble with her statement that DE takes customer feedback seriously. If it did, these changes would have been introduced years ago. There was no reason for the company to drag its feet for so long.

So why now? I think the yawning gap between utility prices and Direct Energy’s one-year price for auto-renewals (up to triple the regulated price) has finally made people realize what’s going on. And they’re fighting mad.

Direct Energy makes it really hard for customers to cancel. Now it’s still hiding the cancellation instructions on the back of its renewal letter. But it’s adding a bold print message on the front, telling people to turn it over.

I guess that’s progress.

Tough times for auto dealers

I often think about replacing my 12-year-old car. But then I remember it works well (mostly) and has low mileage. So why not keep driving until it drops?

My column this week was for those sitting on the sidelines, wondering whether to buy or not to buy. Will the hot deals disappear? Seems like some already have.

When I talked about using dealer cost information to negotiate for a good price, I heard from several industry insiders. They felt I didn’t have the whole story.

The commissions are much lower than customers believe them to be, I was told. And selling a car is a tough, time-consuming, not all that rewarding job.

If you’re planning to buy a car, here’s what the other side is thinking.

What’s in your wallet?

Many of us hang on to gift cards or loyalty cards, hoping to use them one day. But instead of freebies, we get frustration.

Readers are telling me about card games that retailers are playing, such as not honouring a gift card because of a rule that can’t be broken or a policy never disclosed to the consumer.

Here are two stories below, where Sears and Petro Canada reversed their refusals once I called them on it. Also, here are two complaints, not yet resolved, about loyalty programs denying points or rewards to members.

Your right to a credit card refund

If a store closes its doors, you don’t want to be out of pocket if you have paid for merchandise and not received it. You can protect yourself by putting down a small deposit and using a credit card, rather than cash or a debit card.

I recently wrote about Neoset, a Toronto furniture chain that sold custom-made furniture from Greece and Quebec. Customers were given endless excuses for why their orders hadn’t arrived. Then, one day, the stores were shuttered and the phone lines went dead.

In my column, I said Visa and MasterCard could provide refunds when items were paid for and not delivered. Both have policies that ensure customers are made whole in such cases.

Then, I started getting complaints that people were being denied refunds. Their credit card issuers said they were out of luck because they had a limited window of only 60 or 90 days after payment to get their money back.

This is not true. The financial institutions that issue credit cards are getting the facts wrong. They’re misinterpreting the generous refund policies designed to help consumers caught in a retail crunch.

So, let’s get the story straight. Here’s a quote from Julie Wilson, a spokeswoman for MasterCard Canada, and reiterated by Amy Cole, a spokeswoman for Visa Canada:

MasterCard provides its card issuers with 120 days from the latest anticipated delivery date to dispute a charge. Simply put, it is non-receipt of merchandise.

Similar to the airlines, if a merchant goes out of business, and you have used your MasterCard credit card, then you are covered on any services or products not received. That includes deposits.

So if you have purchased a wedding gift using a registry, and the goods were never received, then your card-issuing financial institution would have 120 days from the date that you were told it would be delivered to dispute the charge.

Let’s say I bought something on April 3, 2009 and the merchant tells me that I will have it in my hands on Oct. 2, 2009. The 120 days starts Oct. 2, 2009.

It’s important to keep receipts and records of any communication about delivery dates. Then, if your credit card issuer says no, keep fighting up the chain. Go tol the head office of Visa or MasterCard for confirmation that a refund is allowed.

I predict we’ll see more cases of business failure and non-delivery of orders before this recesssion ends. If credit cards want to maintain their reputation as being more secure than cash, they had better train their issuers to tell the truth about their refund policies.

Guard against product pushers

Someone catches you by surprise and gets you to buy something you didn’t want. You say OK and then immediately regret your decision.

Maybe you get the unwanted product even if you don’t agree. By the time you realize you’re paying for it, you’re too late to cancel.

Insurance is one of those products that is pushed heavily, especially as an add-on to another sale. See the complaints below about unwanted travel health insurance for a cruise and unwanted medical insurance for furniture financing.

Alarm systems are a product pushed by door to door sellers, who make people feel they have to get rid of their hard-wired systems and buy a wireless system. This is now arousing consumer alarms.

Door to door sales recently led to the shooting of a mentally challenged man by Ontario Provincial Police. He had gotten into a fight with an aggressive salesman of water heaters, resulting in the call to police.

For consumers, the best strategy is to send salespeople away when they come to your door. And, of course, to check every document you get to make sure you aren’t being charged for unauthorized and unsolicited goods and services.

Tanks and no tanks

I’m talking about hot water heating, a topic that ignited a blaze of controversy. Some people swore by tankless water heaters, a technology long used in Europe but new here. Others who replaced their hot water tank with an on-demand system wanted to rip it out of their home.

Some comments ended up in my blog post a few weeks ago, but more are coming in. It seems everyone has an opinion on how to save energy. It’s a subject that makes readers get really get hot under the collar.

Let’s pay tribute to Dan, a homeowner who shared his experience with others and came up with than 500 tips for saving energy, of which 275 cost absolutely nothing to do. You can find his tips broken down into subcategories here.

“Our objective is in part to remind people that they don’t need to wait for government handouts to reduce their household utility bills at any time of the year, as well as provide a quick list that people can access whenever they want at no cost,” he says. “After all, most of the items on the list were submitted to us free of charge.”

Let’s also give a shout to Jim Davidson’s book, which gave lots of advice about how to make your car go further before filling up the gas tank. Some of his 75 tips made people exceed the speed limit with indignation.