What's wrong with this country?

A recent survey found that over ninety percent of consumers are unhappy with customer service. Automated phone systems are often frustrating. Agents are untrained in the product or service. Offshore call centres are staffed with people who cannot understand or speak English. Large companies, mostly cable and telecom giants are viewed as greedy and out of touch with their customers.

What’s wrong here?

For whatever reason, companies have insulated themselves from actually dealing with customers. They put all kinds of walls up to protect themselves from criticism. They all profess lofty goals of offering exceptional customer service, yet their policies and procedures fly in the face of this goal. Call centres are measured on taking the least amount of time to deal with customers on the phone and not on the results of these calls.

My own experience over many years clearly shows the decline in customer service. Just a few examples –

I got word that the call centre where I work was looking at upgrading all their antiquated computers. Given that this was my business for almost twenty years I wanted to submit a proposal. I am a Dell fan, so I contacted their Enterprise sales department to build the initial quote for 600 work stations here in London. I also told them there was a potential 30,000 if we won the world wide contract, which only a company like Dell could handle. I got the usual form response that someone would contact me soon. Despite follow-up emails no one ever responded. Is Dell so comfortable that they can afford to ignore this type of contract?

Having been a fan of President’s Choice products since the day they came out, I sent a proposal to Loblaws suggesting they try a new concept store where you would be able to eat healthy meals, eat-in or take-out and sample their PC products. Nearby there would be a PC store where you could only buy PC brand products, along with fresh produce from only local growers, who would also setup farmers’ markets on Saturdays to promote their products carried in the store. I had researched a location here in London that would be perfect, a closed fast food joint out front and a closed dollar store, the perfect size for the PC Brands store. The response? Thanks for your letter. blah blah blah. Yeah, I’ll be really ticked off when they open this concept and it goes across the country.

After lying in a filthy bed in forty degree heat at a shelter I designed a shelter that provided some dignity for residents. I saw it as a public/private partnership. I overheard a staff member talking about a new resident and how they could make sure they got their $46 a night. Seriously? This for a disgusting bed in a dorm and eating mostly donated food? That’s over $1,200 a month. Where is all the money going? I contacted several local builders and sent my detailed renderings of a better shelter concept. Not a single one responded. One in particular owns several empty buildings around town which could easily be converted to my concept, but he would not even meet with me.

Thirty years ago I was involved in installing computer networks, desktop software and even computer furniture. It was the early days of both networking software (Novell ELS 1.0) and Microsoft Windows (3.1). On one customer site I had a particularly challenging install that involved an issue with the network card in the server. At 11:30 PM I called Microsoft and was soon on a conference call with customer service and a technician, who helped me solve the problem. Fast forward to today and just try to speak to a real person at Microsoft. They want something like $90 for fifteen minutes and that’s after you go through a myriad of pushing buttons trying to get to the person you need.

Even more telling is that over ten years ago, when I was working for Northern Computer in Kelowna, I developed a detailed proposal for what today we call the Cloud. I had worked with a number of small businesses who needed access to a computer network, but did not have the funds to buy their own hardware or software licenses. I worked with a local ISP (Silk Internet) who committed to buying the required hardware for a data centre where customers would share server space. I got all the way up to an assistant to Bill Gates, who told me Microsoft would NEVER share software access over the internet. How things have changed today! After I had developed a full desktop model for Windows and access from anywhere, something common today, Microsoft refused to even look at the site for fear of intellectual property concerns by their lawyers. Instead of losing market share to companies like Google, today Microsoft could have been the market leader without question.

Of interest is that, after Microsoft refused to look at my proposal, I contacted Google, Netscape, Apple, Facebook and several venture capitalists who had been involved in the internet. Not one of them responded, yet today they are all using some form of what I had proposed. Shortly after I had contacted Microsoft they launched several of the features that had been part of my proposal. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Over the years I have sent proposals, large and small, to many companies. Here in London Tim Horton’s has a small store downtown, with no seating and it’s always a crush of people trying to get their coffee fix. They also close at 6:00 every night, even though the downtown is swarming with people who would want Timmies. There was an empty store in a building right across the street, and next to McDonald’s, with plenty of seating and right on the corner where all the buses meet. I wrote to Tim Horton’s to suggest this was a perfect location. I got the typical “thanks for contacting us” form response, but nothing else. I sent three follow-up emails, again with no response, most importantly one after Quiznos had closed in the location, mostly because it took way too long to get service for people on limited lunch hours. Nothing. I sent a letter to Tim Horton’s Head Office, expressing my frustration that no one had responded to my emails. No surprise. No response.

After a poor experience with a filthy washroom at a McDonald’s I sent a letter to their Head Office. An exec did call me and tell me he was contacting the manager at the store and that they would “get back to me”. No one has called. I also sent a letter suggesting they use those little plastic shot glasses to sample their new smoothies. I have never been a fan of yogurt, but I would be willing to try a small sample. He also informed me that I could ask for one with no yogurt. Who knew? I think they would double their sales if they offered small testers, but, again, no one responds.

Probably no surprise that I’m dealing with the government on an issue that dates back over twenty-five years ago and I’ve written to everyone from the Prime Minister to the Governor General, but haven’t had a single response for three years. What happened to government for the people?

I spent several weeks developing a business proposal for a new way to connect job seekers with employers (www.PrismCareerNetworks.com). As a fan of the show Dragon’s Den I researched Robert Herjavec of the Herjavec Group and sent him the complete business proposal suggesting a partnership. His response? Nothing.

As consumers our voices are being heard less and less. These companies are putting systems in place to insulate themselves from their customers. They simply don’t listen anymore. Do you think if they did a survey asking if customers would prefer to deal with an automated phone system over a real person that these frustrating systems would have ever been implemented? No way. It’s amazing that companies are now promoting connecting with a real person as something new. Seriously?

My all time favorite was Rogers, with whom I had a disastrous experience. They frustrated me at every turn over three days, seventeen phone calls and trips by bus to their local store, only to discover that some idiot technician had disconnected my service by mistake. After all the wasted hours with them I remembered a site called IHateRogers. I went to the site and sent a detailed email to the contact number shown on the site. It came right back as “undeliverable”. I did some further research and discovered other contact addresses and sent emails off. All of them came back as “undeliverable”. I finally went to WhoIs, a site that provides the registration details for a website. Guess who owned the site? You got it – Rogers! They bought it to stifle complaints against them and promptly disabled all the contact addresses. How’s that for listening to customers?

The paradox of all these pathetic customer service failures is that other studies have shown that over ninety percent of consumers will return to a business based on the customer service they receive initially. Go figure.

Reflections on my 64th birthday

I suspect that, like many people, I am not where I expected to be at this stage of my life. In my romantic thoughts of youth I expected to have a loving family with a partner by my side, my kids and grand kids sharing their lives with me and maybe some travel once in a while. From the age of nineteen I worked hard both at my career and renovating whatever home we were in, building equity for that day in the future when we would downsize.

One of my favorite sayings has always been "life is what happens while you are making other plans". My life has been that saying personified. Although we are in control of some things in our lives, like what we do for a living or where we live, most things are a result of things beyond our control and how we deal with what happens unexpectedly.

After a life best described as what most would call "normal", a long term marriage of twenty-three years, two kids, a nice home and two cars, two things happened to change the direction of my life. The first was realizing that I was trapped in a loveless marriage that had no chance of getting any better. After a year of living apart but paying all the bills for our last house, while my wife sat doing nothing to help, not working and not even filing for unemployment, I knew it was time to end it. The other was my mother being diagnosed with fifth stage melanoma and being given only a five percent chance of surviving more than six months.

My parents, brother and sister, had moved out West in 1970 and had I not met my wife and she got pregnant I might well have gone with them and my life would obviously have been completely different. Given where I am today it would have no doubt been a lot better, for many reasons. Back then the Okanagan was full of so much opportunity, mostly in Real Estate. The prices compared to Ontario were insane. I wanted to form a syndicate, buy up properties, renovate them and put them up for rental. Homes on the lake that I could have bought for less than two hundred thousand dollars were soon selling in the millions. They weren't making any more lakefront so I knew demand would force the prices up and I was right.

With the exception of a couple of visits back and forth and taking the whole family out to Expo 86, I missed having my parents be part of my life. It wasn't my decision to move away from us but my feelings about that all changed when my mother was first diagnosed in 1991. The thought of losing my mother and not spending whatever time she had left with her made me feel selfish and guilty, especially when my own life in Ontario was falling apart. I made the decision to move out West in 1993, partly accepting that my failed marriage was over and partly to be with my mother during her last days.

When I left Ontario I naively thought that my kids would come out to visit us, especially because of my mother's failing health and because we had such a wonderful time when both of them came out for a three week vacation in 1986. As I said a tearful good-bye to my daughter I was shocked that she told me to stay out West because she knew how bad my marriage was and she said she had never seen me happier. I didn't listen and returned to Ontario mostly because I couldn't stand the thought of being apart from her. It was a mistake.

What I never anticipated was that my kids would abandon me for the next seventeen years, something I have deeply regretted every single day since I moved. My mother did beat all the odds and lived until 2007 although she suffered from Alzheimer's the last few years.

The next truly life-changing thing that happened was when my Dad died in my arms in 2005. Not only was this the most traumatic time in my life but it also sent my life into a downward spiral of bad decisions, bad timing and incredible bad luck.

Although prior to his death my father had struggled with caring for my mother, he had done nothing to get her into a care home where she belonged. His drinking escalated and he called me every night crying, telling me that he could not take this anymore, but he was consumed by guilt at putting my mother in a home. Finally he agreed to sell their place although he had no plan as to what to do when it sold. Their home was very dated and he asked me if I would renovate it for sale. I spent four of the toughest months of my life working long days, seven days a week, with them calling me from Revelstoke where they were staying with my sister, constantly pressuring me as to when they could come home.

After my father passed away and given my mother's health we decided it would be traumatic for her to lose her husband and move, so we took the house off the market. I was elected to move in to care for her, although I hoped this would be short term until I got her into a care facility. It wasn't. For months and months I did everything humanly possible to get her into a care facility with no luck. Her condition was deteriorating rapidly and she was put on an emergency first available spot basis. Unfortunately there were three hundred and fifty people on the same basis, so I had to spend my days harassing anyone and everyone who could get her into a facility. Finally I got a call that there was a spot for her and as much as it broke my heart I had to lie to her to get her to go. The day I left her there was the saddest day of my life.

How my sister ended up killing our mother by pulling her out of the care facility is another story, but it's enough to say I have not spoken to her since and I don't forgive her.

After the house sold I moved into a place where, no sooner had I got there than the by-law officer told me I had to move. On short notice I couldn't really find anything decent, but I did find one basement apartment that wasn't terrible in Kelowna. I was on my way to give the landlord the first month's rent when, for some unknown reason I checked my email. There was an email from my Real Estate agent telling me about a place In the Princess MHP that was about to go into foreclosure. He said it was a mess but I could probably just take over the private mortgage, renovate it and sell it for a nice profit.

I ended up losing my deposit on the basement apartment in Kelowna and I moved into the disaster in Princess. Even with the pad rent I was paying less than the basement apartment and I had a place of my own, albeit a mess. Thus began fourteen months of very long days, seven days a week, completely gutting the place and redesigning the layout and rebuilding it from nothing but the shell. As I neared completion I started getting opinions of value from several local Realtors. Without exception they all said it was one of the best manufactured homes in the valley and they all priced it around $159,900. At the time I had been researching other places to renovate and had found three ideal properties so I wanted to sell quickly and firm offers on at least one of these other properties. I listed the place for $139,900, much against the wishes of my Realtor.

The day before it was to hit the market one of the local Indian Chief's came out in the local paper stating that anyone who bought on native land was "stupid" because there was no long term tenancy and all the parks would be closed for redevelopment with no compensation to the owners of the homes. Overnight the market collapsed. No Realtor, lawyer or bank would touch a property on Native land. Even worse, the commitment I had for a private mortgage, just in case the place didn't sell, fell through. Even the Band's own credit union wouldn't touch financing. My world fell apart and the stress was killing me.

My doctor told me to get out from under this stress or it would kill me. The cold, grey winters were starting to get to me so I started researching somewhere warmer and settled on Panama. Another huge mistake. I left my place in the care of my electrician friend who I had let move in when he split with his wife. Another huge mistake.

Long story, but I ended up getting ripped off for everything I owned in Panama, plus the guy I left in charge of my place back in Westbank let the snow build-up on my roof, something I had warned him about, and the roof collapsed resulting in twenty thousand dollars worth of damage. If the place was unsellable before, it sure was worse now. I ended up getting less than half of what I would have gotten if I'd sold it before the collapse.

I managed to sell everything I had left in Panama and returned to Toronto to stay with my cousin. Another long story but I met a girl from London on the internet who eventually came to Toronto and for me it was love at first sight. I ended up moving to London to be with her. Another huge mistake. She ended up screwing around on me with, surprise, surprise, a guy she met on the internet. My world had been shattered yet again and now I found myself stuck in a place I loathed.

London has not been kind to me. My wacko landlady threatened to seize all my stuff so I ended up moving out with no idea where I was going. I ended up sleeping on the vacant office floor of a friends and finally got into the Centre of Hope, only to be turfed out because Ontario Works screwed up my paperwork. I then went to The Mission men's shelter, a disgusting, filthy, dangerous place. After also getting kicked out there I ended up at the Unity Project, a wonderful place full of caring people. With their help I managed to get a job at Home Depot and eventually got my own apartment. It didn't last. My contract ended at Home Depot and I was laid off along with a whole bunch of other people. I couldn't pay for my apartment but I got a call from London Housing that a place had opened up in my current building.