Three years and 250 blog posts later

March 27 2010 by Ellen Roseman

I love to celebrate anniversaries. I do so today with some questions I’d like you to answer.

Is life better for consumers than it was three years ago? Is it easier to communicate with large retailers and manufacturers? Is there more protection when it comes to overcharging, product quality and safety, and safeguarding of your legal rights?

Is life better for retail investors? Is the client-adviser relationship changing after the market collapse of 2008-09? Is the average person ready to leave high-cost mutual funds with bundled advice and embrace low-cost options and do-it-yourself investing?

Finally, is the Internet making a difference for consumers and investors? Is it allowing more effective communication with companies? Is it easier to connect with other in the same situation you are by using the Internet?

Let me say that, in my opinion, things have gotten worse for consumers who want to resolve problems on their own, without going to court or to the media.

Things are no better or investors, who are forced to put money away for the future and hope it will last, without getting the information needed to make good decisions or challenge the hidden conflicts of interest that distort the advice they’re given.

As for the Internet, I’m impressed with the way it allows us to talk to each other and learn from each other. But I don’t see ordinary people taking concrete action together and becoming agents of change, especially in Canada with its weak tradition of activism.

I’m also impressed with how easy it is to communicate by email, even with large companies and their CEOs. If you don’t believe it, check out this article about Steve Jobs of Apple, who does answer emails (at least sometimes, if only to send a single-word reply.)

Finally, I liked this blog post about the problems that newspapers are facing in trying to engage the public with online comments. Author Jeff Jarvis thinks the negativity reflects the fact readers aren’t asked to comment earlier in the process.

That’s what I try to do with this blog, engage my readers. I cherish the responses I get here — and trust me when I say they inform the work I do at the Toronto Star every day.

9 comments

  1. bylo

    Mar 27 2010

    Ellen, congratulations on achieving yet another two major milestones. You have much to be proud of.

    Sadly I have to agree with you that things haven’t gotten any better for consumers or investors.

    The Internet ought to afford businesses better ways to interact with their customers to provide faster and better service, however it seems that many use it to erect barriers. Instead of embracing e-mail they ignore it altogether or worse, make people wait for days to get a response that’s often just self-serving boilerplate that doesn’t address the customer’s issues. Why do they treat customers fairly only when an issue attracts media attention such a s through your columns or is aired in public on a major blog like consumerist.com?

    While Jobs’ personal responses are admirable, I imagine most people would be quite happy just to get timely and satisfactory responses from a customer service department that takes seriously its mandate to provide real “service” to its customers.

  2. Wendy R

    Mar 27 2010

    Ellen:

    First of all, CONGRATULATIONS to you and to the Star for having an opportunity like this. Major congrats on your Financial Literacy course, as the area I am in has nothing like it.

    It is ironic that the next generation has all the technical tools, but is somewhat lacking in the ability to empower themselves. Perhaps because either a) they have seen the reprisals or b) they have never had to question. Ssee the demise of the middle class haves and have nots).

    I certainly hope for many of us (as some of us face major decisions) that this community will continue.

    As to Customer Service, I had an experience with Royal Bank and Canada Life that embodies what you are talking about — 3 months to get an answer that says NOTHING. All under the guise of an Ombudsman.

    Keep up the great work… need it more than ever!

  3. Recruiting Animal

    Mar 28 2010

    Congratulations, Ellen, on your blog.

    See how useful it is? I came here specifically this morning so I could comment on your article about choosing a financial advisor.

    http://www.thestar.com/business/money911/article/786456–roseman-consider-the-source-of-financial-advice

    You wrote:

    “They hooked up online, using the company’s adviser match tool that lets potential clients choose from among a dozen advisers.

    In her profile, Arkwright says she’s married with two children: “I do volunteer work, enjoy the arts, like to travel and I’m a big sports fan.”

    After meeting face-to-face in January, Perch agreed to a follow-up call in two weeks. Now they’re going steady. “There was no pressure,” she says about her adviser’s advances.

    That was pretty funny. I had to re-read it because I thought I’d missed something and they were not only working together but dating.

    I found this particularly interesting.

    “You can also check out how an adviser looks before meeting in person.”

    “It’s very important to have a good photo,” says Arkwright, who has a friendly smile and well-cut dark hair with bangs.

    I’ve wondered about the value of pictures on sites like Linkedin.com. Your article is the first report I’ve seen that they do make a difference.

    The comment, however, doesn’t come from the buyer so it might be a belief of the person who put it up there rather than a report of an actual decision-making process.

  4. Caroline Kalaydjian

    Mar 28 2010

    Ellen,

    Your column, which predated this blog, was one of the few Canadian ones that helped consumers pursue their concerns with manufacturers and retailers, and learn a few lessons along the way in finance. For that, we should all thank you and congratulate you.

    As someone who worked for several consumer good companies, some of the corporate entities understood what good consumer relations meant for the top and bottom line, and that a happy customer was the best and likely most trusted promoter of your goods and services. Others were far behind the curve. Some didn’t care.

    I have been on both sides of the equation, and I can comfortably say that those companies that have learned the hard way are better stewards, while those that have not had the limelight shine on their shortcomings are not. Most companies do not voluntarily or inherently do the right thing.

    As for your comments on Canadians being less active in seeing their complaints through, it’s absolutely true. Americans consumers are far more litigious and much more apt to pick up the phone, or email, or now Twitter, and see their issue through to the end.

    It’s really up to us to do the same and not settle for shoddy service or products.

    With the help of great folks like you, of course.

  5. Lior

    Mar 28 2010

    Congratulations on the impressive milestone! You do a great deal of service to many people, myself included at times. 🙂

    You have creative ways of cutting through the red tape, holding the right people accountable, and getting things done promptly.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. second opinion mike

    Mar 29 2010

    Congratulations Ellen! The positive side of me says that the bar has been moved.

    At places like TD Bank and other big banks, bonuses are heavily impacted by the customer satisfaction surveys. Within the banks, the annual customer service awards are actually a point of pride.

    The practical side of me, however, sees a service culture that lacks any empathy and is not getting better. Firms are learning how to game the service surveys and get maximum score for minimum effort.

    The proof of this is shown when you call a firm and have 20 switchboard options before you are told to wait forever for an undertrained overworked service rep who has been ordered to block all requests to speak to a supervisor.

    I guess it is one step forward and a couple back! But, at least the blogs allow us to vent now!

  7. Wendy

    Apr 2 2010

    I am hoping that between Ellen and Second Opinion Mike, or someone, I can get a NAME here. Canada Life (Anne Toal) was insulted when I questioned the veracity of their web site, but it has been two weeks of more of the same.. and I could sit on the phone all day if I had an office, waiting to find out.

    Mike mentioned the names of people to contact; good luck with Canada Life (or, actually , Royal at some levels). As previously noted, I had some difficulties with a bank and an insurance company.

    Right now, I have to decide whether I should trust (in a small community) the advice of TD Waterhouse in a new field to me (investments or dastardly prepayment fees on a 40 yr mortgage I needed fast).

    HSBC did not report payout of the title for a year, resulting in a last minute mortgage. In order to do this, I have tried to cope with Ombudsman (as Second Opinion Mike noted, useless for both Royal and recently Canada Life, why Royal switched from OBSI for Dispute Resolution).

    My simple question: Two weeka ago, I was sent an email, when I asked for the NAME of the Vice President of Retail Lending, and WHERE some confidential Scotia insurance info had gone. I sent it after assurance that it would be dealt with appropriately. It is gone. Disappeared.

    It SHOULD have gone to litigation years ago, as should the insurance with RBC to Canada Life (L. Lavallee: Compliance Officer, I thought would do this). I was told again last week by the rep that they would reach out to Royal Bank again (AKA: the info landed on the Fax Room Floor).

    I emailed L. Lavallee and Privacy (London Life) and was assured this would be dealt with appropriately (since November: see family death and grieving). In return, I emailed (Sun, Mar. 27), asking the rep it was again DOWNLOADED to, why the Ombudsman had not mailed the name of the Vice President who had deemed to make this decision. (\

    It seems the Vice President had decided this was between two banks, notwithstanding the fact that two insurance policies were handled COMPLETELY differently by the same company, different banks. one of whom, Royal, was ACTIVELY negotiating for storefront type insurance. (I received a response from Paul Martin on this one: they did not get it).

    Insuring with RBC COST me $20,000. I have had no response and am STILL looking for the name of the Vice President who decided this. No name given yet. Mysterious forces alive and well at Canada Life.

    Ironically this week, a family member and I each received requests for a return of $44.18 on an insurance cheque acccidental overpayment by London Life (AKA Canada Life).

    The letters were mis-sent; each one of us received a letter addressed to the other. We have mutually agreed to send them $44, deducting the cost of the cheques (they enclosed self addressed envelopes).

    SO, Second Opinion Mike and Ellen, HOW do you find out the name of a President or Vice President; we have DONE the Compliance officer thing; and it has not helped.

    At least with Scotia, when you phone the President’s Office, you get the real thing, sometimes. (How you can tell? How many people are not speaking to you next time you visit with a satisfactory response, negotiated up higher? Are insurance companies exempt from these laws?) I will send them $44.

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