Last week the Gazette published a rant by a couple of restaurant waiters, in which they angrily chastised customers for committing such cardinal sins as making small talk, asking for allergy-free meals, requesting to be seated in a booth, sending back food when it was not what they ordered, or — gasp! — failing to leave a giant tip. Judging by the tone of the rant, these two waiters probably deserve every lousy tip they get.
Now, I’ve spent most of my career working in the customer service sector in some way or another. From my student days working at Fairview shopping centre folding sweaters, to my career in account services and strategic planning for various marketing agencies, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to make sure that the customer was satisfied. It’s not easy, I’ll grant you. There are days when it’s trying, or when certain people make you want to tear your hair out. There are those clients who make you go home and cry and question your will to live. But on the whole, I love it, and I suspect most other people who deal with other human beings in some way feel the same. I get deep satisfaction from building those relationships, anticipating and exceeding expectations, and making people happy. The one thing that always gets to me is when I’m complimented for simply doing my job. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher: After all, compliments and thank yous are nice, but in today’s highly competitive world, shouldn’t good service be the price of entry?
Bad customer service is one of those universal things that can happen anywhere. People love to complain loudly about airlines, telecom companies, service providers, restaurants, hotels and stores where they had unfortunate experiences or were mistreated. They tell their family and friends. They take to social media en masse. This is hardly unique to Montreal.
What is unique here, however, is this sense that this is perfectly normal. and that nobody really needs to try harder or to do better. There are exceptions, of course. But in general, our service sector is among the surliest, rudest and most indifferent on the continent — and when called out for it, they tend to blame the customer.
Montreal’s bike-sharing system is used by thousands of people, myself included, to get around. Montreal is a city where the ubiquitous orange cone is practically a symbol, with road closures and sinkholes and traffic nightmares and transit service outages the norm as opposed to the exception. In this context, Bixi is often the least stressful and most reliable way to get from point A to point B. My morning commute by Bixi takes about the same amount of time as it would take to drive, or to take the metro. But it’s certainly nicer, more pleasant and much better exercise to hop on a bike on a cool, crisp autumn morning and enjoy the views through the park as I make my way to work, as opposed to elbowing my way onto a crowded and smelly metro, or fighting traffic and circling endlessly for parking. Plus, it’s great for the environment. Win-win, right?
But the service is in financial crisis.
We Canadians pay the highest mobile rates in the world, thanks to the entrenched Bell-Rogers-Telus oligopoly that for years has been gouging customers with impunity. The CRTC, the regulatory body that has generally been in the pocket of the wireless companies, has been taking some baby steps towards actually protecting consumers in recent years, thanks to a huge backlash and an acknowledgement that the current situation is hurting business and innovation. But these baby steps haven’t done much to stem the tide.
- Canadians will be able to cancel their plans after two years with no penalty, even if they signed a deal for longer.
This is all well and nice, considering that the three-year plan cycle was stifling innovation. But considering that there really aren’t any better options out there, cancelling and going to a competitor is illusionary freedom at best.
- Caps on extra data and roaming charges to $50 and $100 respectively within a given billing cycle.
This is perhaps the biggest win for consumers; stories of $22,000 phone bills or other ridiculous overage charges have abounded in the media lately, embarrassing providers and frustrating consumers. Even smaller amounts are ridiculous: A friend recently returned from a trip to the UK to discover a $1,287 phone bill, all for committing the cardinal sin of having forgotten to purchase a data plan, and having accessed Google Maps a few times while abroad. Such charges far exceed any reasonable costs that the providers have, and amount to a punitive tax on the unsuspecting for no reason other than they’ve been allowed to get away with it for far too long.
- Canadians will be able to unlock their devices after 90 days, or immediately if they didn’t purchase a phone on contract.
Anyone who wanted an unlocked device was already doing so on the grey market for a few dollars. It’s useful for people moving out of the country or for those of us who travel a lot; Canada remains one of the only countries in the world where you can’t get off a plane and pick up a local SIM card for a matter of a few dollars to use during your stay. (I do this all the time with my unlocked phone; it’d saved me thousands in roaming charges in countries from France to Israel to Vietnam.) But for most Canadians, with no competition to speak of in the market, unlocking your device will only allow you to switch to an equally bad provider, which is really no choice at all. All this means in practice is that providers will raise the prices of the phones in the first place, arguing that they can no longer subsidize them to as great a degree.
- Contracts must be in plain language, with wording explained clearly and with the option to opt out of all changes.
This ought to have been the price of entry and a given for anyone doing business. The fact that it needed to be said was sad. A step in the right direction, to be sure. But the Code doesn’t set out any restrictions on what the wireless providers can and cannot put in the contracts, as long as it’s spelled out in plain language.
What’s missing from this Code? Quite a lot.
- There’s no mention of the fundamental unfairness of charging for incoming calls and text messages — a particularly egregious issue considering how much spam and how often my phone rings with unsolicited telemarketing calls. When I complained recently to Rogers about the dozens of robo-calls I’ve been receiving lately (“Congratulations! You’ve won a trip!”), I was basically told that I had no choice but to pay for the calls. There’s also the fact that we take the double-charging (paying for both outgoing and incoming minutes) as a given here in Canada, when most people from other countries would find that shocking.
- There’s next to nothing being done to address the lack of competition in the marketplace. Bell, Telus and Rogers collectively own the vast majority of the wireless spectrum. Efforts in recent years to open up parts of the spectrum to bidding from smaller players are failing, since the small players are being sold one by one to the big ones. Virgin Mobile is owned by Bell; Fido is long owned by Rogers; Telus is in talks to buy Mobilicity; Public and Wind are both up for sale. Only Videotron here in Quebec is making a go of it, since as a larger cable company it can afford to compete, but its service and offerings aren’t exactly advantageous compared to the Big Three. And anyway, Rogers and Videotron have a network sharing agreement that will effectively prevent them from actually competing. With so few choices, we all lose, regardless of market regulation or consumer codes. Since, after all, the Big Three can charge whatever they want, as long as they spell it out in plain English.
Ultimately, this Wireless Code is Too Little, Too Late. It will get us to where we needed to be as a country five years ago, but it does very little to address the future. And we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile adoption rates and technical innovation.
But, it’s a step in the right direction.
Today was the official end of the penny in Canada, as the Royal Canadian Mint halted production and went into collection mode. While pennies will continue to be legal tender indefinitely, retailers as of today will begin rounding to the nearest nickel for cash purposes.
It occurs to me that the end of the penny will bring with it the gradual demise or dis-use of a number of penny-related expressions. I’m sure they’ll stay in our vocabulary for decades still; after all, the US penny is still in circulation, and our language is slow to adapt to change at any rate. But I wonder if our grandchildren’s generation will know what we meant by some of these expressions. So in honour of the beginning of the end of the Canadian penny, here’s my top 10 for expressions that we’ll now have to change:
10. Cut off without a penny.
9. A penny saved is a penny earned.
8. Penny for your thoughts?
7. Here are my two cents.
5. In for a penny, in for a pound.
4. Penny-wise and pound-foolish
3. Not worth a red cent
2. Pinching pennies
1. …And the penny drops.
RIP, Canadian penny. I can’t say I’ll miss you weighing down my purse. But it does feel like the end of a chapter in history.
The lockout has dragged 113 days and I wasn’t holding out much hope for any kind of season, shortened or otherwise. But this morning, I woke up to fresh snow outside and a shiny new agreement-in-principle that could see the NHL returning as soon as next week:
Depending on when a new CBA is reached, the league – according to TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun – has 50-game and 48-game schedules drawn up. A 50-game season would start on Jan. 15 and a 48-game season would start on Jan. 19. The existing 2012-13 NHL schedule was already canceled through Jan. 14.
Now, there are an awful lot of people — even here in hockey-mad Montreal — who are responding with “who cares?” Fed up with the labour disputes and with the bickering between millionaires and billionaires, they’ve long since declared a curse on both houses and have merrily gone about finding alternative sources of entertainment. There’s a very real question about whether the NHL can truly recover from this, and if so, how long it might take.
But I’ve missed hockey. A lot. I daresay I’m not the only one. In absense of hockey, we naturally look for other blood sports to draw our attention. The red square protests, the Charbonneau commission, the ugliest Quebec election in decades, the rekindling of the language wars… we desperately need a distraction from all of it. And if the bleu-blanc-rouge can provide one, even in a compressed season, well, I’ll take it happily.
Welcome back, hockey. Don’t do it again.
When I started this blog a decade ago, it was as an outlet for all of the thoughts that were screaming to get out of my head. It was barely a year after 9/11, Quebec had a wildly unpopular PQ government, Israel was reeling from some of the worst years of the second intifada, I was a recent graduate from a university where campus tensions were at an all-time high, and I felt like I had things I needed to say.
Blogging was a relatively new method of communication at the time. It took off like wildfire because it provided a quick and easy way to frequently update a website. Before I launched the blog (on Blogger at the time on a Geocities domain, no less), I had a website that was coded by hand, in HTML written in Notepad of all things. I’d posted a number of rant-style “thoughts”, but the update process was cumbersome. And nobody much was reading it.
Then, I discovered blogs written by people who were saying smart things about the issues I cared about. Blogs not only provided commentary, but they provided interaction via commenting and trackbacks. It was an early form of social media that created community and led me to discover others — some like-minded, some on other side of the fence — who wanted to discuss, debate and analyze.
I wrote my inaugural post without expecting much. Ten years, 2,500 posts, more than 6,000 comments and countless friends, contacts and connections later, this blog’s still going. But much has changed. I’ve migrated from a hosted Blogger solution to my own WordPress, added my own domain name, and refreshed the look and feel (though it’s overdue for another facelift).
The world has also changed. In 2002 there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. This blog was the outlet for a lot of those random thoughts, one-off posts, links and amusing images. Today, those social channels have become much more efficient means of sharing that type of content. I blog much less frequently today. Back in 2002 I was posting several times a week or even a day, but now I might post a few times a month, if that. My posts have become lengthier, because the shorter posts tend to be tweeted or shared to my Facebook page instead.
The topics of conversation on the blog have also changed. I’m a decade removed from the happenings at Concordia and can’t really comment on them anymore, and Israeli and Mideast politics make me weary and depressed so I don’t post as much on the subject anymore. These days, I focus much more on Canadian and Quebec politics — and when there’s no lockout, hockey.
Very few of the people on my blogroll from back in ’02 are still at it. Independent blogs have largely been swallowed up by larger corporate-funded media outlets. Some of the early bloggers became media celebrities, journalists or social media gurus. Others have moved onto other things. I have a lot less time these days and I blog in multiple places, so my attention is certainly divided.
But from time to time, this space still serves its original purpose as an outlet for the things I have to say. Even if those things have changed, too.
Ten years. If you’ve been reading since the beginning, thanks for sticking with me. And be sure to check out the Hall of Fame for some trips down memory lane.
Months and years of campaigning, more than$2.2 billion in election spending, over 100 million votes cast… and Americans in their wisdom decided to essentially maintain the status quo. President Obama returns to the White House for a second mandate. The Senate stays blue; the House stays red. But lest anyone was thinking that this whole thing was a giant waste of time, remember that it beats the hell out of the alternative.
I was on a plane for most of the evening, and while I was able to watch the results come in on satellite TV (thanks, WestJet!), I didn’t have internet access so no liveblogging of results. It was like a throwback to the pre-Web 2.0 years when you actually had to rely on traditional media sources for information. Well, unless you’re Barack Obama, author of the Tweet heard around the world.
The big vote
The race was close all night, but the nail-biter didn’t materialize. While both candidates were neck-and-neck in the popular vote for much of the evening, most of the highly contested swing states went one by one to Obama: New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia were called one by one for Team Obama. You could see the wind go out of the sails in the Romney camp as each one was declared, but Ohio finally solidified things shortly after 11pm ET. At that point, it was all over but the fat lady, whose singing will be heard in Florida just as soon as all those folks standing in line have a chance to vote.
So what happened to give the Obama team such a wide margin of victory, despite a 7.9% unemployment rate and widespread anger and disillusionment with the status quo?
With less than 24 hours to go until voting day in the US, it’s a classic case study in media bias to see what the various big news outlets have as their posted headlines.
Here’s CNN, reporting a statistical tie in the popular vote but an edge to Obama in the electoral college:
Here’s Yahoo News‘s election blog, “The Signal”, calling a wide margin for Obama:
Here’s blogger Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, also predicting victory for Obama, albeit with a smaller margin:
And finally, good ol’ FOX News, home of the Truthiness:
Here’s hoping that FOX is once again posting misleading wishful thinking in the place of fact. I guess we’ll see tomorrow.
For what it’s worth, I predict that Obama will win, though I think it will be close.
Quebec Solidaire co-spokesperson (and general pain) in the ass Amir Khadir has stepped down from his party’s co-leadership role, though he will remain MNA for his riding of Mercier. I’ve narrowly escaped being represented by him by about half a block — though my local Pequiste MNA on this side of the street is not much of a consolation prize. At any rate, this leaves the relatively popular Francoise David — who was out in front during much of the last campaign — as the party’s sole spokesperson for now, and presumably leaves the door open for someone new to step up as co-leader in time for the next election.
QS is probably reacting to the upswing in popular vote that they enjoyed in the last election, which didn’t translate to seats but provided them with a foundation. Khadir has been a controversial, polarizing figure for most of his political career, and QS might be banking on more success next time around with a different face on their posters. Too, they may be reacting to the news this week that the NDP is considering forming a provincial party in Quebec, which would provide a federalist alternative for voters on the left who are unimpressed with their current options. QS is unabashedly separatist, but gets a lot of support from the progressive groups regardless of their stance on national unity, and a provincial NDP could siphon off some of that support… eventually.
Meanwhile in Laval, Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt plans to announce his resignation on Tuesday, according to new reports. He’s been hunkered down ever since the testimony of the Charbonneau Commission basically followed a trail of corruption right to his doorstep.
And here on the island, speculation is rife that Mayor Gerald Tremblay will step down as well. The wolves are circling here too, and Tremblay has a negative-a-thousand percent chance of getting re-elected or holding onto his job. Though there has been no official word yet, he probably has no choice but to step aside. The only question is whether there will be anyone worthwhile to take his place.
The opposition at city hall pretty much consists of bigots and crackpots — which is why so many of us knowingly voted for the crooks in the first place. But with anger over the impunity of the corruption — and the ill-timed tax hikes — at an all-time high, there may be no choice but to let those chips fall where they may. Personally, I don’t believe that the next mayor will be any better, since the corruption at city hall is so institutionalized as to be practically part of the walls. As Henry Aubin points out, simply booting the mayor without getting someone better in as a replacement won’t help much. It’s like covering up mould and mildew with a coat of paint; it does nothing to solve the underlying issue.
The Charbonneau Commission is bringing to light all sorts of allegations that most Quebecers assumed to be true for a long time. However, it risks being used — by the PQ, by the opposition — as a sort of witch-hunt tool. If all it does is to bring in regime change, the corruption will simply change hands to the new politicians. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Update 11/05: Tremblay has made it official.