Company = bad, customer = good

August 20 2010 by Ellen Roseman

Geoff, a reader, came up with this slogan in a comment yesterday on truth in labelling.

So, let me tell you, Geoff, and other readers too, that I don’t think all companies are bad and all customers are good.

The problem is that companies have too much power to bamboozle customers. If they can get away with it, they’ll do it.

In their promotion and advertising, companies only tell one side of the story. Any negative stuff that customers need to know is omitted or buried in the fine print.

Misleading advertising is rarely prohibited unless rivals complain about each other (that’s why Rogers now says “Canada’s reliable network” instead of “Canada’s most reliable network”).

Class action lawsuits are effective in stopping misleading advertising. But they’re hard to organize, so we don’t see them with great frequency in Canada.

This leaves a vacuum that companies can fill.

They can say what they want to attract you and then make it impossible for you to understand what you’re agreeing to.

They can avoid the use of plain language in their terms and conditions, deliberately making them difficult to read.

They can make you sign long-term contracts with high cancellation fees, inserting clauses that allow them to change the terms and conditions without penalty.

They can outsource their customer service departments and supply you with little in the way of help, support or advice, all in the name of efficiency and cost-cutting.

That’s why I’m standing up for the majority of customers who keep companies in business and want to see fair dealing.

I’m trying to give power to customers, instead of letting big business control all the plays.

Through the Internet and the Toronto Star, I can restore some balance to the lopsided relationship between companies and their customers.

And in my view, that’s a good thing.

28 comments

  1. bylo

    Aug 20 2010

    Great post Ellen!

    Companies also like to try to create the impression that they exist to “serve” their customers. Then they let their marketing and legal departments come up with increasingly sophisticated ways to, as you put it, “bamboozle” those customers without running afoul of the law. That may work for a while, but as the Canadian telecom carriers, chartered banks, energu marketers, etc. have found out, it eventually backfires and they become amongst the most reviled companies. You’d think that by now their corporate management would have woken up to this and told their “creative” staff to stop with this nonsense.

    Thank you for doing what you do to even the playing field. Thank you for doing it with such dedication and for so many years.

  2. Shaun Belding

    Aug 20 2010

    Great observations! I think (hope) that the newfound voice customers have with social media will begin to generate some payback to companies who live by the mantra ‘the large print giveth, the small print taketh away’.

    There’s a lot of pent-up frustration out there among abused customers, and they are accepting poor customer service and poor marketing practices less and less.

  3. brian

    Aug 20 2010

    The Ontario auto insurance lobby has cleverly inverted this slogan and in the process successfully bamboozled its captive (legally obligated) consumers.

    The auto insurance lobby’s mantra is that auto insurers are good but their customers are bad. Not merely bad – but criminals waiting to turn an accident into an opportunity.

    Customers who have accidents and attempt to use the policy as it was marketed are labeled as fraudsters seeking to cash in on overly generous auto insurer largess.

    The dogma of the omnipresent malingering opportunist (repeatedly recycled and sanitized by some business columnists in the mainstream press) has been so successful that Ontario motorists who haven’t (yet) had an accident now blame those Ontario motorists who have had an accident for driving up premiums via their malingering opportunism.

    Meanwhile, the insurers laugh and periodially jack up premiums, based on the same unsupported allegations of rampant fraud, which pro-insurer business columnists repeatedly trotted out but never questioned.

    Bottom line – when it comes to auto insurance in Ontario, the consumer position is insurers = good, consumers = bad.

  4. Riscario Insider | @riscario

    Aug 20 2010

    Customers aren’t always right, but neither are companies. Yet companies get to make the decisions. In this asymmetry of power, you play an important role, Ellen.

    We need you!

  5. Mandy June

    Aug 20 2010

    I couldn’t agree more with you, Ellen. A lot of times corporations get carried away, too.

    I mean imagine it. They get away with one little thing and then they begin to do other little things and get away with it and then it just becomes one huge problem.

    Have you ever read the book “The Corporation” by Joel Bakan? It’s actually quite an interesting read. I had to read it back in college but it kind of gives you an insight into how their minds work because they actually interview corrupt people who ran corrupt companies. Give it a good read!

  6. JJG

    Aug 20 2010

    Today’s case study is:

    Side A – the combined forces of Enbridge and Direct Energy.

    Side B – me.

    The Scenario – I’ve had a furnace protection plan with DE for many years. Every year around the first week of November, I get a renewal letter.

    Last year, my letter said, “your plan will be renewed Nov. 7/2009 at a price of $154.99, plus GST of $7.74, for a total of $162.73”. The charge would appear on my late November Enbridge bill. But it didn’t! I waited a month to see if I had just missed a cutoff date. Nope. Not on December’s bill either.

    I called DE on Dec. 28/09 and was assured I was covered and the charge would show up. Nope, not on January’s bill either.

    I spoke to a Rich on Jan. 21/10, who again confirmed coverage and said he would put the issue through “the billing team”. And subsequently, I have been waiting for “the billing team” to complete their task.

    And so yesterday, along comes a letter on Enbridge’s letterhead, but signed jointly by the Enbridge Director of Customer Care and the Senior Director of Customer Operations for DE, acknowledging that DE charges had not been DISPLAYED (their word) on my bill and that I would soon see the charges, but my products and services with DE have not been IMPACTED (again, their word). The letter also offered the opportunity to make customer friendly payment arrangements.

    And yes, today, there it was in the mailbox, my Enbridge bill with the long lost DE charges that I diligently told them about and tried twice to get DISPLAYED on my bill. So all is well. Right? Well, not quite.

    Since this is August and July 1st was Happy HST Day here in McGuintyland, the $154.99 has now been charged HST and not GST alone, as per the original letter sent to me.

    Sadly, my mail comes too late to tackle this until Monday. Your homework questions are:

    1) Do you consider 8% of $154.99 ($12.40) an Impact or a non-Impact?

    1a) If Impact – for the money or for the principle?

    2) Should I have continued to call month after month or am I to blame for giving up and relying on that darn billing team (who ultimately, I duly acknowledge, did a fine job 8 months after my first call)?

    3) Will my telephone call involve buck passing between these two icons of business?

    4) Will I get the $12.40 back?

    5) Will I decide to repay interest-free over 12 months (assuming that customer-friendly option is available) just to be a BAD consumer?

    6) How many other Enbridge/DE customers are in this situation?

    Lastly, Ellen I love reading all of your readers’ comments here, as I sincerely find them all to be both interesting and enlightening, whether I agree with all of them or not.

    I’d love to have you run my scenario by a lawyer. Call it the case of “To HST or not to HST”.

  7. rayray

    Aug 21 2010

    It’s nice what you are doing, Ellen, but at the end it comes down to us the customer. In numbers, we can create change.

    I cancelled all my Rogers services 2 weeks ago just for this reason of CHANGE. Quit the whining, people, and create action.

  8. JimE

    Aug 21 2010

    I’ve followed Ellen Roseman for a long time. In my opinion, reader Geoff’s label of her as “Company = Bad, Customer = Good” is unfair.

    Over the years, Ellen has consistently tried to be champion of the underdog, and many times that underdog is a customer. But she is fair in dealing with companies, too. She doesn’t “call out” companies like Bell, Staples, Future Shop, TD Bank, etc. without giving them a chance to respond or rectify an error. In many instances, those companies react positively, and everyone comes away happy. But sometimes, those companies don’t do a good job of correcting the problem, and she takes them to task.

    Ellen, keep up the good work.

  9. Ellen Roseman

    Aug 22 2010

    Thanks for all the great comments. I was on vacation away from home and felt your uplifted by your support.

    JJG, you don’t have to pay the HST. If two big companies can’t bill you on time because of computer upgrades, you’re not to blame. If you get nowhere, let me know and I’ll make sure they reverse it for you.

  10. jamie

    Aug 23 2010

    Ellen Roseman can help resolve issues even when she isn’t involved.

    I’ve been trying to get a local Loblaws to stop incorrectly collecting rst/gst and now hst on “free item” or “buy 1 get 1 free” manufacturer coupons for months. Everyone at Loblaws from their 1-800, email csrs, senior tax analyst and a senior VP have agreed I was correct and they’d ensure it was dealt with at the store. In between I’d had the ON rst office send a field rep to the store. As far as I can tell, no action at all was ever taken.

    So after they got it wrong again, staff argued incorrectly, and the manager on duty claimed to have never even heard of the issue, I emailed them again on a Friday night. Very similar to what I’ve told them a number of times before, except I also linked to your Star column on Subway charging 15 cents of tax in error and taking 5 days to respond while I’ve been dealing with Loblaws on the issue for 5 months, suggesting that might be of interest to you.

    A Loblaws exec tried to call me Saturday morning, emailed me, then reached me Monday promising action at the specific store and to look into if it is an issue at other stores (I believe most if not all Loblaws owned stores have been incorrectly collecting tax on these type of coupons for years). It remains to be seen if anything comes of it, but I’m convinced the very different tone of the response this time was a result of name dropping Ellen Roseman.

    Strangely Loblaws didn’t bother to ask how much I’ve been overcharged, and no one has ever offered to refund it. They really don’t get customer service, at all.

    If you can’t get your issue dealt with just the mention of Ellen Roseman might jolt them to quick action

  11. Geoff

    Aug 23 2010

    oh a column just about me? 😉

    Eleen, lets be real. It’s true I think you like to help people, but Torstar is not a charity.

    I think its fair to say that you have an objective (to gain readers) and that to meet that objective its most palatable to create a narrative that says ‘companies bad, customers good’.

    That whole billing thing with enbridge is a good example where its not so cut and dry that enbridge is all at fault or that its even a bad thing (me and others talked about the billing being a free loan) but Ellen you didnt talk about the positives of this mistake, just the evilness and ineptude of the big bad company.

    Also customers have the biggest club in the weapons bag against companies – they can stop being customers. When does that or caveat emptor come into play?

  12. John from Ajax

    Aug 23 2010

    Ellen, keep up the great work. We need advocates like you.

    While I consider myself a capitalist, I am also a realist. I admit that I am somewhat mystified by Geoff’s comment about “the biggest club in the weapons bag.” and “caveat emptor.” While it might be true that if we do not like the service provided to us by small-town retailer “ABC”, we can often shift our loyalties to mom-and-pop retailer “XYZ”. In doing so, we consumers “vote with our wallets”. But increasingly, the Canadian economy has become dominated by monopolies and oligopolies who remove that club from our bag. How do I stop buying gasoline? Will I get a better price shopping at Shell rather than Petro Canada? Can I cost-effectively go “off grid” to buy my electricity and tell Veridian to shove it? Can I opt out of the debt retirement charge showing on my electricity invoice and tell OPG to shove it? Can I (legally) buy beverage alcohol from a competitor to the LCBO? With increased levels of corporate concentration in industry comes increased opportunties for executive greed to flourish. We need other weapons in our arsenal to protect ourselves as consumers from exploitation. Ellen Roseman offers such a weapon within a forum such as this.

  13. Geoff

    Aug 24 2010

    @ John – the answer to some of your questions is yes, but in a few cases its not, true. But thats not my point. My main point is simply that Ellen very rarely seems to find ANY fault with over demanding customers, and disagreeing with a company doesn’t equal being wronged ipso facto.

  14. Ace82

    Aug 24 2010

    @Geoff – that’s not entirely true. I have seen Ellen’s entries on this blog directed to some customers that they are on their own because they are being overdemanding.

    I am a small business owner by night, a support manager by day and a customer at all times 🙂 I think I have a very strong grasp of this concept.

    While I agree there are many overdemanding and overexcited customers, part of what Ellen is trying to do is equal the playing field. The customer doesn’t always “win”.

    With one-sided contracts created with the company (and not the customer) in mind, the spirit of the contract seems to prevail when Ellen enters the picture. Interesting…

  15. Geoff

    Aug 24 2010

    Ellen – your post would go a lot further if you didn’t acknowledge that even when you feel conflicted, you still take the case.

    “Finally, I’m feeling conflicted about the many complaints I get about energy retailers. Yes, their salespeople lie all the time. But why do people believe what they’re told? Why don’t they read the contract and cancel? Why do they say yes when the company calls to confirm they know what they’re doing? ”

    Good start, then two sentences later:

    “Still, I handle complaints for those who are older, living on low income, new to Canada or new to homeownership. I also work with people who insist the salesperson deceived them. So, there aren’t many I turn down.”

    One wonders how many you take on when you’re not conflicted. Please don’t think I’m defendiing these guys just that you’re biased by default in favour of the customer and should label yourself as such. Even your tagline is ‘on your side’ fer crying outloud!

  16. John from Ajax

    Aug 24 2010

    I read today that Tom Adams, a former executive director of Energy Probe, predicts that energy prices in Ontario are “going up like a rocket.” If anyone out there has any ideas on how we consumers might shop elsewhere for our energy to avoid the pillaging that Premier Dad is inflicting on Ontario, I am all ears. (In the name of Green Energy. What a laugh.) I’ve extracted a few paragraphs from the news item, the full version of which appears on the following link:

    http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/22082010/71/central-hydro-prices-rocket.html

    “You are going to get screwed, and it’s going to be painful,” Adams said. “We’re talking about hundreds of dollars a year out of your pocketbook that didn’t need to happen. I’m livid about it. People should be outraged.”

    “Hydro One, which operates most of the province’s long-distance transmission lines, has asked for a hike of 15.7 per cent in 2011 and 9.8 per cent in 2012. If approved, the increases would apply to the transmission portion of electricity bills.

    “Ontario Power Generation, which produces about 70 per cent of Ontario’s power, has asked for a 6.2-per-cent price increase effective next March. It scaled that back from 9.6 per cent after pressure from Energy Minister Brad Duguid.

    “Hydro Ottawa customers have already been hit with a double-digit increase this year, thanks to rate hikes approved May 1 by the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) and the imposition of the harmonized sales tax July 1.”

    Here is an example of Big Business (even if they are Crown Corporations) controlling all the plays. Nowhere for the consumer to go. And you thought you hated Eco fees? You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet.

  17. bylo

    Aug 24 2010

    Geoff, “those who are older, living on low income, new to Canada or new to homeownership” are the most vulnerable to sleazy salespersons who represent shady merchants. Not everyone is perfectly fluent in English, knowledgeable in Canadian contract law, able to read and hear without difficulty, etc. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, surely they do and surely they need someone like Ellen “on [their] side.”

  18. Geoff

    Aug 25 2010

    @ bylo – my point exactly – by default Ellen is ‘company bad, customer good’. Not that it’s right or wrong, but that’s what she’d be labelled as.

  19. bylo

    Aug 25 2010

    “my point exactly”

    No, it’s not your point. I’ve tried twice now to explain it to you. I’m not going to try again. You and I have completely different perspectives on this. Let’s just leave it at that.

  20. Geoff

    Aug 26 2010

    Bylo -I understand what your saying. But this isn’t about the energy marketers or if Ellen has reason to take the position she does, just that its the default position she takes. Like to hear what ellen thinks.

  21. brian

    Aug 27 2010

    Hi Ellen,
    I agree that you (and other, though too few, consumer columnists) “play an essential role in keeping businesses honest”.

    But to say “the media” plays this role is an over-generalization. In fact, much of the mainstream print media is devoted to recycling infomercials under the guise of “news”.

    It seems that business columnists, unlke consumer columnists, have no interest in a critical appoach to their articles. For example, business columnists tend to unquestioningly accept auto insurance lobby assertions as truth – despite the fact that these folks are federally registered lobbyists.

    Lobbyists are spin-doctors who are handsomely paid to “educate” the media and the politicians. Nowhere is the divide between the approach of consumer columnists versus business columnists more visible than in the recent coverage of the Ontario auto insurance channges.

    Business columnists sing the praises of the auto insurers and parrot the oft-repeated accusations that higher premiums are necessary to offset the “fact” that almost half of all claims contain an element of fraud.

    Business columnists never ask for independent confirmation of this assertion. They never ask the auto insurers any tough questions. They merely recycle the infomercials produced by lobbyists and in so doing give them the illusion of credibility that they would otherwise lack.

    My point is that there are a handful of consumer-oriented journalists who look to level the playing field between the consumer and corporations. But the media’s business columnists have little interest in keeping businesses honest.

    It is as if within the mainstream print media, consumer columnists and business columnists are at cross purposes.

  22. brian

    Aug 27 2010

    Ellen – Jim Chuong’s commentary serves as the perfect example of unquestioned auto insurance lobby assertions.

    From his perspective (and likely that of most brokers), people who don’t buy back the now optional coverage sripped from the new basic package will be in “a very serious situation” in the event of a serious accident.

    But how does one reconcile Jim’s warning with the “don’t worry, be happy” message from the auto insurance lobby (which was all over the mainstream media only a few days ago)?

    “For the average person, and I consider myself as such, it’s a no-brainer,” Sulzenko-Laurie said. “I think the standard package is a very good package that would serve all of the needs that I could possibly anticipate.”

    (Ontario car insurance reforms too complex: CBC.ca)

    Here’s the thing: If it is true that the new standard package covers all the needs this IBC spokeperson could possibly anticipate, then we’ve all been overinsured up till now.

    On the other hand, if having only the standard package will leave the assets of auto insurance consumers at risk in the event of a serious collision, then the press is misleading the public when it uncritically recycles (and sanitizes) the assertion that basic coverage will suffice.

    The problem is that the insurance lobby doesn’t want to say you need to buy back what has been stripped away and is now called “optional coverage” in order to be adequately covered — because doing so will double your premium.

  23. TP

    Aug 27 2010

    Last year, the Toronto Star hosted a web chat with Toronto Star financial columnist, James Daw. A reader posted the following question. The response by Mr. Daw follows:
    ————————————————————
    [Comment From ReaderReader: ]
    Do you think Ontario residents will see public auto insurance in their province someday? I see no downside to public system. What are your thoughts?

    James Daw: Most of the private insurance companies are based here, providing employment. I don’t see it happening, if even the NDP didn’t bring in public auto insurance.

    Much of the cost of insurance is driven by the benefits paid and the lack of control over excessive claims.

    A public auto insurance system would save on marketing and operating costs, but eventually public sector unions would drive up wage and benefit costs.

    ————————————————————

    I was surprised by Mr. Daw’s response to this reader. Honestly, would unions really offset the benefits of a publicly run auto insurance system?

    The way the existing system is ripping us off makes me want to take a chance on a publicly run system.

    As for the existing system providing jobs to Ontarians, well, that seems a poor excuse for gouging Ontario drivers. Couldn’t these private auto insurance employees find jobs under the government run system?

    Please share your thoughts.

  24. AJ

    Aug 30 2010

    TP: I moved from Ontario to British Columbia, which has a public auto insurance corporation called ICBC. For the “basics” of liability insurance, you must buy the public insurance, and for the optional (additional liability coverage, collision, etc.) the public plan competes with private insurers. There are three things I don’t like:

    1. There is no competition on premium rates on the compulsory insurance. In Ontario, insurance companies could offer significantly better rates if you fit the profile of their desired customer (which could vary from company to company). You might think it isn’t necessary because the public insurance isn’t trying to make a profit, but no, basic insurance is turning a profit and the excess premiums are going into general government revenues.

    2. If you are injured and sue the other driver, ICBC represents the other driver aggressively. Remember, this is your insurance company too, but their only interest is to keep claims low under all circumstances. If you had private insurance, they may pay you, and then pursue the other driver and their insurance to get reimbursed. Since it is all ICBC, this cannot happen. And, if you think ICBC did a lousy job on your last claim, you can’t shop elsewhere.

    3. The maximum claims-free discount occurs at 9 years claims free. (Additional years claims-free only affects how much discount you may lose if you have a claim in the future).

  25. James

    May 7 2012

    Even now, these utility companies are trying to add insult to injury by charging us extra for these new smart meters. Hydro One customers haven’t been able to login properly to their website for months to see all the “wonderful” data from these smart meters, yet we’re supposed to give them even more money? http://www.smi-ieso.ca/node/2327 I’m sure I could save all sorts of money if I had any clue what my usage was.