What’s the best way to get through to companies?

January 2 2012 by Ellen Roseman

Happy new year to my readers. I hope you exercise your consumer rights in 2012.

You have the right to safety, to choose, to be informed and to be heard, according to the original consumer bill of rights put forth by U.S. President John Kennedy in 1962.

Four more rights were added in 1985 by the United Nations: The right to redress or remedy. The right to environmental health. The right to service. The right to consumer education.

So, what happened in the past year? We had a victory for consumer activism with Open Media’s petition campaign to get the CRTC to review its decision on usage-based billing. The CRTC said smaller Internet service providers could charge customers as they liked.

We also had some losses. TD Bank pulled out of the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI),following RBC’s lead. Now Canada’s two biggest banks can use their own hand-picked mediator for banking complaints — and the federal government has done nothing to stop them.

The Supreme Court of Canada turned down a national securities regulator, saying it was unconstitutional. However, the court may have opened the door to more federal-provincial cooperation in this area, says Ermanno Pascutto of FAIR.

Is customer service getting any better? I’ve seen little improvement. I’m busier than ever helping readers with consumer complaints.

In fact, the Air Miles decision to date-stamp its points with a five-year limit is a step backward and makes Aeroplan’s seven-year expiry date look good in comparison. (Air Canada tweeted my column about the change.)

CBC Television ran a documentary on Customer (Dis)Service last year. And this week (Jan. 6), CBC Marketplace will launch its new season with a one-hour look at Canada’s Worst Retail Customer Service. (I’ll be on the show, giving my views of the three retail chains with the worst service.)

I’m also tackling this topic in a new book, called 99 Ways to Fight Back: How to Hang on to Your Money and Protect Yourself from Corporate Trickery. It’s going to be pubshed by Wiley in the next year or so.

Since I’m still writing, I’d love to get your stories. How do you get through to large corporations? How do you reach a decision-maker who can resolve your complaint?

How effective are social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in communicating with companies and spreading the word to other consumers? Do you use social media? Do you find they work?

Musician Dave Carroll, famous for his YouTube protest, United Breaks Guitars, will be on the CBC Marketplace show on Jan. 6. He’s written a new ode to consumer activism that he’ll sing on the show.

Talking about social media, check out my story on the Zellers coupon fiasco and Zellers’ Facebook page. I think this is one huge corporate mistake we’ll be talking about for months to come.

Thanks for all your comments on the blog. I expect the total number of comments to get close to, or surpass, the 10,000 mark this year.

Let’s keep talking about consumer rights (and yes, consumer responsibilities) and the progress we’re making in getting our voices heard and our issues taken seriously.

19 comments

  1. Michael James

    Jan 2 2012

    I’ve been told that I tend to comment on blogs only when I disagree with the writer. That’s not good.

    Thanks you for your hard work standing up for consumers. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    As for your question about getting through to large corporations, my main method is to recognize that there is a difference between the organization and the person I’m speaking with on the phone. My troubles are not his or her fault. I try to be polite and ask for the person’s help.

    It’s amazing how often the person on the other end of the line becomes a conspirator of mine who helps me get past the roadblocks set up by the corporation.

    This has worked well for me with Bell, Great West Life and CRA over the last few years. Call-centre workers are people, too!

  2. MrDisco

    Jan 2 2012

    “How do you get through to large corporations?”

    Seek out all their public facing lines of communications: email, telephone, Twitter, Facebook, official web forums, etc.

    “How do you reach a decision-maker who can resolve your complaint?”

    Send a polite, but firm, email using the above channels. If that doesn’t work, start looking for personal contact information for CEOs and his staff. Google is indeed our friend.

    “How effective are social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in communicating with companies and spreading the word to other consumers?”

    Depends on how you define effectiveness. As a way of releasing some tension, it’s very effective. It’s a fantastic environment to garner like-minded support for an issue and to create ad-hoc mobs with burning pitch forks.

    As a way of changing corporate behaviour, it’s not at all effective. Minor victories scored by consumers using social media are seen as the cost of doing business and very (very!) rarely do they actually change how a company operates.

    Examples of bad corporate behaviour that isn’t likely to change without gov’t intervention:

    -Advertising amazing sale prices but stating After MIR in smaller letters. The math isn’t even correct as the MIR is applied after tax

    -Advertising items for sale and then not having any quantity available for sale

    -Not enforcing limits on hot items, leading to scalping and profiteering

    -Ridiculously short banking hours

    -Social media platforms that are not staffed by people with any decision making power (or worse are simply used to advertise sales and not to interact with fans)

    -Censoring comments on web forums

    -Unscrupulous sales people who prey on seniors

    -Telemarketing calls that operate in defiance of the CRTC

    -Cable/ISPs/Telcos who offer high prices but little service. Do I really want to pay over $100/mo just to get the one or two specialty channels?

    -Pricing that is quick to reflect a poor performing Canadian dollar, but glacially slow when it comes to pass on the savings of a strong loonie.

    -Lobby groups that force us to buy products and services that are not in the best interest of consumers. Ridiculous alcohol pricing, dairy control boards, little competition in oil and fuel are a few examples of this.

    Canadian consumers are too apathetic and our politicians are feeble-minded to bring about real change.

    “Do you use social media? Do you find they work?”

    Yes, I do, and it works only so far as to resolve one-off issues. It never works to bring about change in a corporation.

  3. Ellen Roseman

    Jan 2 2012

    Erica Johnson of CBC Marketplace wrote a blog post about her success in tweeting Air Canada. Airlines are better than most in monitoring for Twitter complaints.

    http://www.cbc.ca/marketplace/blog/2011/11/testing-twitter-for-customer-service.html

    But I also enjoyed this comment (below) from someone who found Twitter led her to the same ineffective customer service people as she’d run into before:

    I tweeted @tomtom that I was having problems with my GPS. They responded with a request that I call their customer service #.

    Of course I already had – but the issue can only be handled as an axchnge for a refurbished device; that would be fine if the refurb worked.

    The model 630 and 730 have a known defect and the customer support forum has hundreds of posts to this issue.

    So not only is my GPS locked in a loop that makes it unusable, the tweets, customer service line, and support forum is in a loop that offers no real solution to the problem.

    I recently tweeted again to TomTom that I still have the same problem after 2 replacements, but they have not responded.

    Why would they ignore hundreds of same issue complaints for the same model??

  4. MrDisco

    Jan 3 2012

    And while on the subject of bad customer service, The Toronto Star’s circulation department is rather horrid.

    For the last 4 days, I’ve had non-delivery of the paper, meaning I have to take time out to phone in.

    After enduring a long wait period and dropped calls, you’re handed off to what sounds like an outsourced call centre (poor voice quality and ambivalent CSRs).

    You don’t have to venture far from home to find bad customer service, it appears.

    Now which consumer advocacy columnist do I turn to in order to get this matter fixed?

  5. Laura

    Jan 3 2012

    I don’t use social media. I have also not found the majority of call centre folks to be particularly helpful, no matter what my approach.

    Since knowledge consistency among the CRS’s is poor, especially within the telecommunications industry, I continue to call, speaking to different CSR’s until I find someone who is willing to give me what I want and I document everything.

    My most effective method is to search the corporate websites or Google for the name and contact of the corporate media reps and leave a voice message that clearly states my issue and the resolution which I’m seeking.

    As MrDisco above states, Google is indeed our friend. I ensure to identify myself as a customer and not a media rep.

    I have always had my call returned and, concerning my biggest issue with my auto insurance provider, my issue was resolved. I was informed that the CSR training protocol would be adjusted as a result of my negative experience.

    My caveat, though? The company needs to already have a customer service mind-set and want to raise the bar.

    I’ve phoned a corporate media rep with a major laboratory service, only to hear obvious corporate-speak and talking points and no changes were made.

    Ellen, I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming book.

  6. SW

    Jan 3 2012

    Hi Ellen,

    I, too, want to thank you for helping so many consumers find a voice. Please make sure and let your readers know when it is published.

    I recently e-mailed you regarding my issue with Sears Canada delivering an appliance to my home and damaging my tile floor.

    It appears that Sears is *determined* to deny causing that damage.

    So far, I am using “old fashioned” social media: word of mouth.

    My neighbours, friends and colleagues have seen the damage and heard my story. They are all waiting to hear the outcome.

    I’m afraid that things like this leave me a bit cynical. I think most corporations like Sears give little more than lip-service to a customer’s problem until it is exposed in the media and affects the shareholders.

    -SW

  7. Patricia Arney

    Jan 3 2012

    Thanks again for your relentless quest for ‘consumer rights’.

    Having consulted with you several times over the years, I too have become much more aggressive in following up with companies when I feel ‘cheated’.

    I have not used social media in these efforts, but I do sometimes suffer severe neck and ear pain consequences of many hours on the telephone and trying my patience beyond my wildest expectations — “Yes, I will hold to speak with your supervisor.”

    Most recently, I managed to cancel an unwanted contract with iYogi, apparently some subcontractor with Dell for ‘software support,’ and resolved a simpler one over a ‘scrubbing bubbles shower cleaner.’

    Keeping receipts and tracking issues is vital.

    This ‘personal telephone’ approach may become more difficult, as I am finding getting ‘phone #’s” increasingly difficult. Companies hide behind web responses.

    In that case, I will continue to turn to Ellen.

    Thanks again.

  8. MrDisco

    Jan 4 2012

    The fundamental problem is the race to the bottom effect.

    It is not in the best interest of businesses to pay for proper customer service once they’ve established a market. It is more cost effective to deal with the squeaky wheels (people like ourselves) in order to meet the growing demand for increased profit.

    The beauty of this is that when all your competitors are doing the same thing there is little risk of customer turnover.

    Social media is great for bringing together disgruntled consumers, but it is merely an echo chamber for what we all know – companies of all stripes are not interested in doing what is right, only what increases short term profit.

  9. Jamie

    Jan 4 2012

    99% of the time, an email or letter right to the CEO (easily found with google if you don’t already know) gets quick results that would be impossible using the advertised “customer service”.

    Whether it’s a major issue with a bank or minor one with a retailer, going right to the CEO gets results the outsourced call centres can’t.

    I loved seeing Zellers take a hit over the coupon fiasco. Over 3 years ago, after years of advertising issues, I started complaining directly to the CEO and other senior execs about their false advertising in general or the local store just not honouring what they advertised.

    I also got several rulings against them from the (industry shill) Advertising Standards Council that HBC is a paying member of.

    Zellers has never been named for advertising code violations in ASC reports, despite never following the ASC rules for correcting mistakes that is supposedly required to avoid being named. Membership appears to have its benefits, I assume, which is why HBC is one of the few retail members.

    Only two months ago, they ran two flyers promoting “lowest prices of the year”, despite many prices having been lower in previous flyers. One item’s “lowest price of the year” was higher than the regular price had been only weeks before.

    Despite Zellers acknowledging the “lowest price” claim was false before the flyer even started, they made no effort to post corrections, and left up piles of signs falsely promoting “lowest price” for the entire week.

    Using social media to tell them about the supposed error got me an email from their social media rep…telling me not to contact them on Twitter or Facebook.

    Writing to the CEO got me an email offering to honour what the real lowest price of the year was ($50 less than advertised).

    Each time I’ve contacted Zellers’ executives directly about advertising issues, they made good on it (for me) by honouring the ad or sending me a gift card…but took no action to stop the same issues happening again and again.

    If they’d taken some action to address their recurring advertising issues along the way, rather than just paying off the few who complained, they might have avoided the hit they took on coupon fiasco.

  10. MrDisco

    Jan 5 2012

    An update with my Toronto Star delivery issue that I mentioned above. Ellen put me in touch with someone who was able to investigate my concerns.

    It turns out the offer I was given was not properly explained by the sales rep. The Star has honoured the sale and took care of the delivery issues as well.

    I’m assuming they will continue to investigate on their end so as to improve for the future.

    Thanks Ellen for your time.

  11. Beven

    Jan 9 2012

    Shanghai Tang, an international Luxury Brand, is not honouring price errors on their e-commerce site. Can they do that??

    =======================================

    Reply from Shanghai Tang:

    Dear Customer,

    Thank you for your support to our brand.

    One of our products, “Checked wool blazer with elbow patch” with reference #2B097F2, has been wrongly priced at USD5.00 instead of USD492.00. This is embarrassing for our brand as well as for yourself.

    We will cancel your order within the coming 48 hours unless you confirm with us you still want to order the blazer at the correct price of USD492.00. The initial price of this jacket is USD703.00 and has been marked down by 30% only.

    We do sincerely apologise for the disappointment this may have caused and should you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

    Shanghai Tang

    ============================

  12. wendy

    Jan 13 2012

    Happy New Year, Excellent Ellen and readers!

    I missed this origninally, but as the Liberals choose a New Leader, I am the proud owner of Paul Martin’s letter in 2001 recommending the Consumer Gateway.. re TD Bank.

    Ten years later; I have spoken the Royal Bank arm: ADR. Lawyer. Who told me the Royal was WAY out of line.. but if THEY spoke to Royal, they would just tell them the very un informed and rude Manager would be coached. THAT is their own lawyer; who told me I should send SEVERAL e mails.

    Been going on for years; but this summer was the rudest and most ignorant. However, at least TD does not throw out their e mails.. so far.. And TD now has the product David Olive was raving about.

    BUT how do you keep someone’s account on FILE (my husband’s with inaccurate info when they have been dead for 10 years)? Now am being told to go to Equifax. And even acct numbers are incorrect. WHAT happened to Privacy and Identity?

    And Consumer Gateway: Sophie Gregoire PHONED to tell me that all they do is make sure there is a complaint procedure in place. Really. THERE is something they can close and probably will, except for probably being staffed by offspring of MPs and bureaucrats with degrees, no experience and no jobs.

    SO, yes, Occupy.. get focussed.

    NEXT; Air Miles; Coincidence that in November 2011. Now needed to note re AIR MILES REDEEM: Thought I should note that in Nov, 2011: I was given 900 Air Miles by Air Miles from my husband (dec d April 2001) OPEN account. Ten years later. (Again, thanks Royal).. I am betting. SEE your money someone took it to a staff meeting. So sometime we will have a weekend on Air Miles?? Just saying. You go, Air Miles stay??

    Thanks for chance to vent: but if anyone has any ROYAL ideals for Royal pain and would like to sue RB (they are busy with Earl Jones in Mtl, I know)in class action, let me know.. (Oh and check all their Facebook pages. Employees lOL.

  13. Chris Lederman

    Jan 14 2012

    Too bad more companies don’t have Amazon’s attitude towards customer service ( and yes I can tell you the customer service is top notch)

    http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=13611

  14. Julian

    Jan 26 2012

    Good morning Ellen, I just had to write to thank you for your blog! I don’t use social media. I have also not found the majority of call centre folks to be particularly helpful, no matter what my approach.

    Since knowledge consistency among the CRS’s is poor, especially within the telecommunications industry, I continue to call, speaking to different CSR’s until I find someone who is willing to give me what I want and I document everything.

    My most effective method is to search the corporate websites or Google for the name and contact of the corporate media reps and leave a voice message that clearly states my issue and the resolution which I’m seeking.

    As MrDisco above states, Google is indeed our friend. I ensure to identify myself as a customer and not a media rep.

    I have always had my call returned and, concerning my biggest issue with my auto insurance provider, my issue was resolved. I was informed that the CSR training protocol would be adjusted as a result of my negative experience.

    My caveat, though? The company needs to already have a customer service mind-set and want to raise the bar.

    I’ve phoned a corporate media rep with a major laboratory service, only to hear obvious corporate-speak and talking points and no changes were made.

    Ellen, I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming book.

  15. Laura

    Jan 26 2012

    Gee, Ellen. Julian’s comments read a lot like mine dated January 3, 2012. I guess that imitation really IS the highest form of flattery.

  16. Michelle

    Feb 10 2012

    I would absolutely love to complain to Bell about Bell, but what would be the point?

    In our area, they have decided we don’t want the service we have been paying for and receiving good value for the money. Note: we did not decide to cancel or change our service in any way.

    We called them to inquire about service disruption this morning and we were told that the WiMax we were using is too unreliable and we were now going to have to sign up for their limited usage ripoff scam masquerading as their new 3Gig service.

    Where do I go to complain about a service that is the only thing available out here? Why should they give two figs when they obviously feel they can monkey around without consequences?