Just how untransparent can they be?

March 24, 2009

In the snailmail today was a notice from Bell Canada:

We’re going green.

Dear R LEE

We are writing to notify you about an important change to our eBill program.

You are currently receiving a paper invoice, along with a monthly email notification advising you that your online bill can be viewed by logging in at the Bell Web site.  Following your next bill, we will be discontinuing your paper invoice to help reduce paper waste and protect our forests.

If you would prefer to continue receiving a paper bill in the mail, you have the option of keeping this arrangement now and in the future.  Simply log in to bell.ca/staypaper and click on “I wish to keep receiving paper bills”.

Thank you for choosing Bell.

Jim Myers
Senior Vice-President, Customer Experience

OK, let’s start with “We’re going green.” — this has become the “ISO 9000” of the 21st century IMHO.

What I mean by that is back when the ISO 9000-series standards were first developed, they were initally the business equivalent of cod-liver oil — they were told it was good for them, but implementing the requirements for certification wasn’t always terribly palatable.

For companies that already had good quality and documentation practices in place, it wasn’t that difficult, but for many it was a real sea-change — and when they came out the other side, they probably really were better companies, with more consistent quality in their products and services (note: I didn’t say better quality, since implementing any of the ISO 9000-series requirements doesn’t guarantee that quality will improve, just that you will have documented the quality — good or poor — of what you do.)

But as more and more large companies insisted on their vendors being ISO certified, an industry of consultants sprang up around certification (and training to go with it) to make it cheaper, easier and more palatable, with the result being that getting ISO certification became a part of the price of entry into the game.  I won’t go so far as to say it became meaningless, but it certainly has lost some of its value as a differentiator between a supplier you want to deal with and one you don’t.

So, what I mean is that being green in the noughties is something companies have to do just to stay in the game, and which any good profit-seeking company will want to spend the least amount of money on to acheive the appearance of.

Which for me means that they may as well have said “We’re still here to make as much profit off you as we can.”  Fair enough, that’s what they’re in business for — I just object to the lack of transparency in cloaking it with green.

Next: I don’t particularly enjoy having them shout out my name in the salutation, I mean really, how hard is it to automate putting it into proper upper and lower case letters…

Then, the use of the Royal “We” — alright, so that’s a stylistic letter writing formula that I’m quibbling about, but the letter is written over the name of one individual, the Vice-President of Customer Experience.  Why not say “I am writing you…” — it’s certainly not as if the whole company was in on writing the letter…

OK, on to the part that really gets up my nose:

Following your next bill, we will be discontinuing your paper invoice to help reduce paper waste and protect our forests.

Now, as an individual concerned with the environment, I will certainly choose ways that I can “reduce paper waste and protect our forests”, but their statement says that they will be doing it for that reason.

Which is a load of crap: they’re doing it to reduce their costs and maximize profit.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have a problem with a company wanting to make a profit and reducing costs can certainly be a legitimate way to do that — I just take issue with it when there’s a attendant increase in the cost to society as a result (but that’s a rant for another day…)

So if they would not be so untransparent and just admit that they’re eliminating the paper bill using a “negative option” strategy (something which got the Rogers Cable company into hot water some time ago…) I would happily elect to not receive the bill in the mail.

Maybe if enough of Bell’s customers insisted the same thing, that they come clean and say the reason for eliminating the paper bill is to cut their costs and increase their profit, before allowing them to discontinue sending it, then maybe they’d do it.

Well, I don’t plan on holding my breath waiting for Mr. Myers to ‘fess up and admit that Bell is just trying to squeeze a few more pennies of profit out of each customer this way, but if you are a customer of Bell Canada and feel the way I do about this, then why not let them know how you feel and just perhaps we can get him to do it — particularly if we all threaten to click on “I wish to keep receiving paper bills” if they don’t.

And thank you for choosing Unconventional Wisdom.


Required Read… er, Listening

April 30, 2008

If you do nothing else this week, go listen to these two podcasts:

Oh, and if you still happen to have an hour left over, go listen to the DicksnJanes podcast episode #149 wherein K, I and some friends and acquaintances from podcasting help The Scarborough Dude celebrate his 60th birthday this past weekend.  Happy birthday, Dude!

And while you’re at it why not go read Bob Goyetche‘s excellent rant over the morphing/rebranding of Podshow into Mevio (WTF???  Just what kind of drugs were they on when they came up with that name?) – the comments are particularly worth reading.

I’ve got two words for you…

October 15, 2007

Softwood lumber.

Ah, well… hope springs eternal, according to this article on the BBC News website about the WTO ruling that the US has illegally subsidized cotton farmers.

Best of luck, of course, to the Brazilian and West African cotton farmers who are among those harmed by the US subsidies.  Things will be looking up for you Real Soon Now.

People like that make me cranky

September 4, 2007

Unfortunately, I can’t seem to turn up a link to the piece that aired this evening on the CBC news (not The National; it was CBC News: Our World, I think — we were watching on Newsworld, in any case) which would have provided some of the details, so bear with me as I recall things as best I can.

This piece dealt with a Canadian who had travelled to the US, where he’d made some purchases using his credit card including software for the GPS in his car — an Audi, you could tell clearly from the 4-ring emblem on the trunk. The point of the piece?

He’d been charged an extra fee on the foreign exchange purchases he’d made — extra, as in above the exchange rate for the date. And he had called the bank to complain about this; they informed him that the fees were clearly explained in the small print (his words) on his statement. He said, showing the statement to the camera, that it was printed “faintly” and said that the person he’d spoken to claimed that “they had been having some problems with the quality of their printing” (or words to that effect — again, _his_words_, as they didn’t have anyone on from the bank IIRC), the smug implication being that the bank was being (or at the very least, approaching) deliberately deceitful.

Well, let me say that both K and I could quite easily read the fine print on the screen — on our not-HD, not large screen (20″) TV. We could see that it said foreign exchange transactions were subject to a fee of 2.5% on top of the current exchange rate. Sure didn’t look deceitful to me…

They also trotted out some dude from a consumer organization — can’t remember its name — who went on about how this “hidden” fee added up to millions, if not billions, of pure windfall for the banks, on the backs of beleaguered consumers.

Now, I’m not an apologist for banks or other for-profit businesses — those who know me, know I’m fairly left leaning, socially conscious, yadda, yadda. But I also understand quite well that profit is not an inherently evil thing. How some people or corporations go about achieving their profits is another thing, and I know there are plenty which pursue profit at all cost to the detriment of society (well, *some* parts of society  — usually the parts that can least afford to be screwed over to the benefit of someone who probably already has more than enough, several times over… did I mention my socialist leanings?), the environment and so on.

The report went on to show the Canadian government’s web site where the foreign exchange fees charged by the major banks on their credit cards are listed. They all charge 2.5% — perhaps there are others, not shown, that have lower or higher fees.  Given the competition between credit card providers (seems like I get Yet Another “You have been pre-approved for a <fill in name of a credit card brand here> card!” mailing at least a couple of times a week… I start worrying something has happened to the letter carrier if there isn’t one waiting for me when I get home), you’d think one of them would shave a fraction of a percentage point off their foreign exchange fee in order to lure customers over from The Other Brand.  And then they’d all have to drop the fee to stay competitive… which leads me to think that there’s not that much room for them to move on this, or it would happen.

Now, as someone who has done a fair bit of travelling and living abroad, I have a lot of practical experience with foreign exchange. And the exchange rate that’s quoted in the newspaper, on the TV and the internet is not the rate the banks use in processing transactions — whether you’re buying (or selling to them, for that matter) actual currency or they are converting a credit card transaction.

Like any business, they buy for less than they sell — this rule works for a company selling widgets as well as for a bank buying and selling foreign currencies; it’s called making a profit, which is what a business is, well, in business for. The margin between what they pay to buy a currency and what they sell it to you for — less the costs they incur in making the transactions — is their profit. The quoted exchange rate is usually halfway between the two.

So what really gets me cranky about people like the one in the new items is this: their sense of entitlement. This person was obviously reasonably well off — the Audi, the trip to the US to buy things (hey, why’n’cha shop in Canada and support Canadian businesses?) — and yet he’s outraged at being charged 2.5% for a service, for the convenience of not having to go to the bank and get foreign cash (which, I can assure you, would not be sold to him at the rate reported in the news either… there’s still that pesky profit thing happening) to carry around.

That’s not the only reason I get cranky at this kind of whiny behaviour: you can bet your sweet assets that these people have investments (as do I, for retirement — hey, leaning left does not mean you stop looking out for yourself; you just take the needs of others into account while doing it…). And what do they expect from their investments? Why, they expect them to grow, pay dividends or interest — which come from profits. And the expectation is always that the company turn the biggest profit possible; often without regard for the impact to others.

This is called “wanting to have your cake and eat it too”. People like this want to buy everything cheap but have their investments turn big profits. Do the math, people — it won’t work, at least not in the long run. That mutual fund you have? Dollars to doughnuts it’s invested in a financial institution or two; you want the fund to grow? Pay for it, like everyone else, in the service charges the banks make their profits from.

Myself, I prefer to deal with companies that charge a fair price for their products or services, are socially responsible (to their employees and to society as a whole) and derive justifiable, sustainable profits from their enterprise in order to deliver a reasonable return on investment to shareholders.

OK, enough ranting for now — the story on the CBC was really just a trigger for the “having your cake and eating it too” issue that’s been bugging me for a long time.


September 3, 2007

I’ve been reading a thought provoking book, the cult of the amateur (subtitle: how today’s internet is killing our culture) by Andrew Keen, which touches on the socio-cultural consequences of the supposed democratization of new media brought about by “Web 2.0”.  As I’ve not yet finished the book, I won’t say a lot about it at this point; it is, as I said above, thought provoking — but in reading it, I do find that I swing between agreeing with Keen on a point and then strongly disagreeing on another.   Often within the space of a page or two, even within a single passage.

At that, I’d still recommend reading it, even before having finished it — whether or not you agree with his conclusions, the points he raises are ones we should all be considering, as they concern more than just new media and “Web 2.0”.

What really prompted me to write was a recent post on Mr. Angry’s blog in which he speaks (in his inimitably candid and refreshing manner) about the hypocritical behaviour of big business toward copyright infringement.  His rant, er, post was prompted in turn by the situation Christopher Knight found himself in, as described on his blog The Knight Shift.

Christopher Knight is an independent filmaker, according to his blog, who created a video for his campaign for election to the local board of education.  In addition to airing the piece on local TV, he posted it to YouTube.  Nothing too unusual in that, in these Web 2.0 days (q.v. Keen’s book).

Where it gets interesting is that VH1, a Viacom show, used his YouTube video in an episode of their show Web Junk 2.0 — without obtaining permission, a clear infringement on Knight’s copyright.

Turns out this was not a problem for him — he was pleased at the exposure, even though Viacom was making a profit off his work.

Where it gets interesting is when he posted a clip, featuring his work, from the Web Junk 2.0 show on YouTube in order to reference it on his blog.  And Viacom slaps him down for… copyright infringement!  Talk about cajones

Evidently, democratization of new media a.k.a. Web 2.0 and money mix about as well as political democracy, old media and just about every other facet of life where big business thinks they can suck another dollar out of you.

When I’m done reading Keen’s book, I may have some more to say about it; even if I don’t, I suggest that it’s certainly worth your while to read it yourself.

When the chickens come home to roost

May 24, 2007

I’ve blogged about the “Low Cost Country” (LCC) phenomenon previously, so if you’ve read that post you — like me — will probably not be surprised by this latest problem reported on the BBC News website: US checks toothpaste for toxins

Now, I’m OK with businesses being in business to make a profit — hey, I have investments for my retirement and I’d appreciate it if the businesses that my mutual funds have shares in would oblige by returning a reasonable return to ensure a reasonably comfortable retirement.

At the same time, I believe that companies owe a certain duty of social responsibility to, well, society.  That is, decisions to cut costs need to be thoroughly examined to ensure that the public’s safety and security is not sacrificed on the altar of shareholder value.

More and more these days, it seems that the chickens are starting to come home to roost.


May 15, 2007

As in the sound of me letting out a biiiig breath.

Busy day: full on interview with the company that I wrote about previously, the one that held the job fair. I felt that the interview went well; there was the young woman from HR who had given me the preliminary interview at the job fair, the hiring manager for the position and one of his colleagues — a standard panel interview situation, and there seemed to be reasonably good chemistry so I am hopeful that this may end up proceeding further. I remain impressed with the company and would be very happy to work there, and this manager is actually looking to fill three of these positions (two permanent; one contract) in his department Real Soon Now, so that increases the possibility of being selected (hey, a bronze medal would be OK, right?).

And then later in the day, I went to my second ever job fair. This event turned out to be a little different than the first one; it was again being put on by a single company (it’s their second annual one) and was actually billed as a “Technology & Careers Showcase”. This is a relatively new Canadian company; they were started in 1999 and have grown rapidly.

There was a presentation by the founder, talking about the company, its products, customers and the corporate philosophy — they are very customer oriented (he said something to the effect of “we’re a little unusual; we put the interests of the customers ahead of the shareholders.” — yet they still manage to be profitable, and have grown organically mainly by customer word-of-mouth with very little sales and marketing effort) and work in collaborative fashion with many of their customers.

As well as being customer oriented, they strive to be good corporate citizens — and not just as window dressing; talking with the employees after the founder’s presentation, you can see that this is a company that walks the talk. While the objective is to be profitable (hey, it’s a business after all), they are driven by a vision of their product making a difference in the world — and unlike many modern, technology based consumer products which are often just playthings or fads, their product (not a consumer product) does provide some value to society; it’s used in the field of education.

They are also trying to encourage eco-friendly behaviours in employees (they pay up to a certain amount to employees who use a bus pass to get to work; one of the “advantages of working here” listed was “located on a bus route”), as well as providing support for health and fitness: partial subsidy of fitness club membership and free healthy snacks in the cafeteria.

And the level of passion demonstrated by the employees was pretty impressive — talking to them I got a sense that this would be another great place to work. Challenging to be sure, as they are growing rapidly, but definitely the kind of job that you could feel good about at the end of the day; where you felt you had made a positive contribution not only to the company’s bottom line (which, in the scheme of things is still important) but also to improving the quality and reach of education in the world (quite literally; although the largest part of their customer base is North American, they have customers in all sizes of countries throughout the world and are expecting to grow these markets rapidly too).

Once the founder finished his presentation, he answered questions from the audience and then a draw was held for some prizes — mainly items with the company logo, but also a $200 gift certificate to a local dining establishment (the latter prize was drawn only from the names of people — like myself — who had RSVPed that they would attend the event via the company’s website, as indicated in the newspaper ad; a fair number of attendees just showed up — the HR person in charge of organizing the event that I spoke to told this was what they had expected based on the previous year’s experience — and evidently a number of people who had RSVPed were no-shows since they had to draw several names before awarding the prize).

They also provided coffee, tea, bottled water, juice and hors d’oeuvres (a pretty nice assortment of wrap-style mini-sandwiches, veggies & dip, fresh fruit and some dessert squares) — neither the food nor the draw prizes were something they needed to offer to get people to attend; just the mere mention of “career opportunities” in the ad would have guaranteed a good turnout.

As it was, I was actually quite surprised that there weren’t a lot more attendees; in fact I had arrived fairly early myself in anticipation of this (and based on my earlier job fair experience) in order to be near the head of the line.

Except. There was no line this time. I went in to the conference centre (this one was held off-site, unlike the other one I attended) and was greeted by the young woman from HR who was organizing the event — I think I was the first attendee to arrive. We chatted a bit, and she told me to help myself to some of the bottled water that was out on a table or if I wanted coffee it would be coming soon.

So in the end there were perhaps a hundred, maybe even 150 or a bit more — I wasn’t counting, people in all who showed up. A stark contrast to the other job fair where there were probably 10 times as many. This may have been due to two factors: the first job fair I attended was with a company in a city which has seen a fair number of manufacturing and skilled trade jobs lost in the past few years and they were recruiting for a number of positions in the production side of the business; the one I attended today was with a technology (um, call it software development) company in a significantly less economically challenged city.

This is a company that has grown rapidly since it was formed and it looks set to continue growing, which is why they are looking to recruit — and recruit experienced people, particularly, as one of the hiring managers I spoke to said. While they have their share of young, recent grads, they are in need of experienced hands to help manage the growth.

There certainly seem to be some opportunities there which would be a good fit for my skills and experience; I had a very good conversation with one manager in particular who was looking to fill some positions that are of interest to me. He told me to submit my résumé with a cover letter to him, mentioning our conversation, when applying for the positions he needed to fill.

Once again, putting the “human” back in Human Resources seems to Be A Good Thing when it comes to connecting the hiring managers to candidates — you get the opportunity to put a face to a name, and have a dialogue rather than getting a two-dimensional view from just reading their résumé.

So, this is another company that has impressed me with its qualities and that I would be pleased to work for; their corporate culture is one that I wish were more prevalent, wanting to be a source of positive change in society as well as being profitable.

Now, time to wind down and have a rest… beyond these two opportunities, it’s looking like I may soon be getting interviewed by another company. Good things come in threes, don’t they say? 😉