Thursday, February 26, 2015

Customer Service

See here for more info on this

I am always delighted when I receive good customer service, and, when you stop to think about it, anything else just doesn't make sense for a company that wants to succeed. Yet, amazingly, there are so many companies where absolutely no effort is put into ensuring customers concerns are taken care of with the least amount of delay and that the customer is not left with a bad taste in their mouth.

I know that I will not only become a loyal repeat customer when I receive good customer service, I will also be free advertising, in person and on social media, and here on my blog, for that company. Of course, the corollary is true. I will make as much noise, if not more, when I receive bad customer service, and I will never return to that company again.  Repeat business is, or should be, very important to any company.

A situation that arises when a customer returns again and again to purchase a good or service from a business. Offering repeat business is the hallmark of a steady customer that is usually highly valued by businesses that they patronize since they typically require minimal additional marketing efforts to retain.
Read more:
And this excerpt sums it up:
According to our analysis, 25% to 40% of the total revenues of the most stable businesses in the SumAll network come from returning customers. Even better, steady customers help businesses weather lean economic times; businesses with 40% repeat customers generated nearly 50% more revenue than similar businesses with only a 10% repeat customers. 
Read more:
And one of the driving forces that is improving customer service across the board is Social Media, more specifically Facebook. Whenever anyone feels they have not received the service they believe they should, it only takes a second to find that company's Facebook page and express your disappointment - believe me, that brings a very speedy response. I would suggest that everyone does try to go back and update the page with any positive feedback should it exist.  Using the Pavlova's dog theory perhaps we can all be instrumental in encouraging improvement in this area.

The companies where good service has confirmed me as a repeat customer include Michael's (see my blog here), Amazon, Zappos and Philips - that is Philips Appliances.  To illustrate my point, my experience with Philips was almost a lifetime ago in Ireland - in the mid 1970's. A time and a place where customer service had not yet been invented. Philips replaced a fridge freezer without question, when ice started to form on the back of the unit - on the outside. This in itself was unusual (both the ice and the replacement) but the appliance was just outside it's warranty period and so, replacing it - free of charge - was unheard of!

Everyone knows about the legendary customer service both Amazon and Zappos are so rightfully proud of.  Check on this article about Zappos customer service.

Guess no one in AT&T or Suddenlink read those reports.

I have had some bad customer experiences, but AT&T has got to have been the very worst, after 18 years I still won't entertain ever using any of their services again, and have no hesitation in advising family and friends to avoid them.

What on earth did they do to me to deserve that? Well, a few things, but I guess the crunch was having a customer service representative hang up on me. Now, if you knew me, you would know that I am a very mild mannered person, I am certainly not aggressive nor prone to being abusive, so I assure you I did not deserve that! Actually no customer does, even if they are abusive.

It started with a $500 phone bill.  I had cell phone, two land lines (one for a modem) and my Internet service from AT&T - I am sure I would have had UVerse too if it had been available 1995.  My phone plan was optimized for international calling as that was pretty much all I did back then and my monthly bill was always around $130. I was horrified to get a $500 bill and when I called customer service I was told I had changed my plan.  No I didn't! why would I? The representative I was unfortunate enough to get was rude from the start - and it took about 20 minutes of hold time to get him. He was very unhelpful, so I asked to speak to a supervisor - that was when he hung up on me.

See here for the full story
I called back and another 30 minutes of hold time I got another representative and asked to speak to a supervisor immediately. I was told the only way to do that was call an automated system, leave my number and request a call back from a supervisor. I did this, and the message I left was that if I did not receive a call back within 30 minutes I was canceling all my services and moving to MCI - the immediate competitor at that time - 30 minutes later, with no hold time, I was speaking to MCI and within 10 minutes had moved all my services to them. It was another 20 minutes before the AT&T callback. I told them it was too late I had moved to MCI - the supervisor confirmed for me that it was the correct move, as she very rudely told me I should have waited for my callback.

And most recently, Suddenlink amazed me by showing that they really didn't care what their customers thought. They are our Internet and TV provider, and they also supplied our home security system which is wireless, and up to recently we were very happy with them - the technical support has always been first class and the service has been reliable.  However, a couple of months ago our alarm system started to cause problems, we had issues with the backup battery system, and eventually they told us that the 4 year old phone system needed to be upgraded. They also insisted that the existing system had to be replaced with a new one as it was not possible to upgrade the unit we currently had.

How many customers fell for that one? Fortunately my husband has worked in technology for years, and not only is he very smart, he is also very frugal - he loves nothing better than to scour the Internet for days finding a better deal, and he had already sourced another supplier that was cheaper than Suddenlink and had good reviews. When we told Suddenlink's representative that we knew it could be upgraded and if they wouldn't do it we would switch to a company who would they didn't care. He called Smith Thompson and they confirmed that the system we had could certainly be upgraded and yes, they would be happy to upgrade it for us. So, for very little cost we got a better system, and reduced our monthly bill.

Suddenlink had already dropped a number of channels from their TV package and increased the cost, and for that they appear to have lost a number of their TV customers as there are alternatives and it is not difficult to find the rumblings of unhappy customers on the Internet.

Here is a very interesting site, though I question the results because it think it is a known fact that the majority of people only voice their opinion when that opinion is bad.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tax Preparation

This year, like every other year since I came to the US, I started preparing my taxes the first week of February, using Turbo Tax DeLuxe (TT), and for the last 4 years I have used the same program to help my mother in law to prepare her taxes. TT is easy to use and efiling is a wonderful invention. However this year, due to some serious mistakes by Intuit and the designers of TT, some functionality was excluded from the installed DeLuxe version, and, in order to get these extras users were required to pay more. H&R Block (HRB) used this as an opportunity to expand their customer base. They offered their tax software free to anyone who had purchased Turbo Tax DeLuxe.

I had no reason to be dissatisfied with TT - I didn't need the extra funtionality, but I also saw no reason to not try out HRB, especially as it was going for free. So, I followed the instructions and sent off an email. Within two days I had the software installed on my computer alongside the already installed Turbo Tax.

I then set out to complete our taxes for 2014 in both programs to see if there was much difference between them. Both came up with identical results, however I had one small complication, a slight overpayment into my 401K which HRB resolved for me without any fuss, whereas TT advised that I needed to request a payment from my 401K and the associated 1099-R and some other form I would need to complete. HRB handled the overpayment as income, a solution I found much easier. And while I suspect somewhere in the future that small overpayment may be double taxed when the time comes to take distributions from my 401K, it is still a better solution for me.

I found a Consumer Reports comparison of these two tax programs online, see it here. Overall I agree with them, however I felt that TT interface was somewhat slicker, but HRB offers free In-Person Audit Support, whereas you do have to pay TT for this. The other big difference appeared when I was assisting my mother in law with her taxes. TT showed her owing over $500 in taxes, HRB on the other hand came up with a figure of less than $30 owed. I input the data three times in each program, same result each time. So, I printed out the two 1040s and compared them. The error in TT was immediately obvious.

I did one last complete run through on both returns and filed through HRB and I am afraid that TT has lost another customer, as I am sure I am not the only one who took HRB's offer and discovered the software to be as good, if not better, and cheaper overall. Too late Intuit back peddled and announced that they will roll back their greedy changes. HRB got some extremely inexpensive and very effective advertising handed to them on a plate by Intuit.

For many years I have been an advocate for TT - now I will be lauding HRB to anyone who cares to listen, while at the same time wondering if there were other years where errors in the software had caused differences in the final results. I will never know, because one thing is for sure, I am not revisiting my tax preparation for previous years, once is difficult enough! I absolutely hate doing tax returns, which is why I tackle them at the earliest possible moment.

So glad that is over for another year!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What about our elderly?

While helping my mother in law to do her taxes, I was horrified at how little income she had, or more correctly, how little she would have had if he late husband had not been a very hard working and frugal man. He spent much of his life working three jobs and carefully saving all he could towards their old age.

My mother in law has lived with us for 4 years now, ever since my father in law went into a nursing home for Alzheimer's. But, were she not living with us, she would be living in poverty without their savings, with those savings she would be fast eating away at her capital just to survive. She would have had mortgage payments and/or property taxes or rent, insurance, utilities, medical expenses and food and certainly her tiny pension would never cover that no matter how carefully she managed it.

What most amazes me is the fact that on this paltry income, she is still expected to pay taxes. Her social security is equivalent to minimum wage, the required distribution she gets from the money they so carefully saved is less than half of that - and is taxed and the small pension she gets paid from her late husband's contributory pension plan is also taxable. When we completed her taxes she still owed the IRS over $500! I don't understand how it is that people who are filthy rich pay less taxes than everyone else while so many of our elderly live in poverty? How can that possibly be equitable!? If we can't increase the minimum wage in Texas, currently $7.25 per hour, at least don't tax it! Currently a single person earning $15,600 per year (and tell me how can anyone live on that?) will pay 10% tax on the first $9,075 and 15% on the balance. Lucky married couple with only one working, will pay 10% on the lot - leaving them $14,000 approximately for two people to live on - again I ask how do they do it?

For the elderly on Social Security (pension) so long as you are getting less than $12,000 per year, you do not get taxed, however if you were wise enough to save for your retirement, you will pay taxes on income from those savings - and over a certain age (currently 70.5 years old) you are forced to take a minimum distribution, if this brings your total income over $15,000 per year, you will be taxed at 10% - that is so long as it remains below $19,050 - after that princely sum, your tax bracket is 15% rising to 25% if you managed to make more than $35,243.

According to these facts, and I could be wrong, if you manage to save for retirement, but don't save a huge sum of money, you will actually be worse off than with no savings - because a small amount will push you into the taxable income bracket without being enough to cover taxes and still have sufficient to live comfortably.

Something is seriously wrong when there are a small percentage of people with so much money, paying so little in taxes, while so many elderly people are living and dying in poverty - and so many children starving in this country, a country that prides itself on being the leaders of the free world and used to be known as the land of opportunity.

My mother in law is one of the lucky ones, she does not have to pay out for property taxes, mortgage, rent, utilities or even food. But it made me think of all of those elderly people who do not have family to care for them, and who never had the opportunity to save for retirement. What sort of a life do they have. It horrifies me.

According to research, US poverty rates are highest for people 65 and older, with 10.5% living in poverty, a large number of these are single or widowed women.

There are also sharp racial differences in the data: the rates are at least 3 times higher for Hispanics and African-Americans ages 65+ than for whites 65+.

I came to this country 20 years ago, following a divorce and the financial devastation that causes, and while I have been saving diligently ever since, I know that there is no way I can ever consider retiring. I must work for as long as someone is prepared to employ me, because the alternative is to quickly reduce to living in poverty. 20 years is not long enough to accrue sufficient finds to retire on. And on that note, I might add that I am horrified when I hear of young people who are not putting money into 401K or other retirement accounts.

Hang on, I am also elderly come to think of it - however I am lucky that I am still gainfully employed with the prospect of being so for the foreseeable future.

And now I have to go look for a definition for that ridiculous statement. Foreseeable future? that is very much a subjective thing I am sure.

Here is what Macmillan Dictionary describes it as:
  • at a future time that is not very distant, and that can be at least partly guessed from present conditions
  • for as far in the future as can be determined, based on what is known now

Friday, February 6, 2015


Quite a significant event occurred today. I received a 1099-MISC from Amazon Digital Services - for royalties paid to me during the past tax year on sales of my book - I am guessing this is for the Kindle sales, and no doubt I will receive a second one for the royalties paid on sales of the paperback version. There is absolutely no risk that either of these forms will in any way complicate my income tax returns this year, but nonetheless I couldn't be more excited.

I didn't write the book to be a best seller nor in the hopes it would be made into a movie, actually I didn't really intend it to be a book - a fact that will become obvious if you read it, it really is more a series of essays. I wrote it because I couldn't stop myself. It had to come out - and it was most definitely a very therapeutic exercise.

None of the milestones since I published it, gave me greater satisfaction than actually putting those words on paper. Of course I was excited when I received the first package of paperback books with my name on the cover I had designed. I was extremely excited when a few people actually purchased the book. Very grateful for the reviews some people went to the trouble of writing on Amazon, and taken aback by the nice things they said about the book. I was more amused than excited when I received my first royalty payment. But none of this can compare to the emotional benefits I received from putting those words on paper. Just as physically emptying a stomach of poison makes a body feel better, emptying the mind of all the unpleasant and traumatic memories allows it to heal. And to actually receive a few dollars (because I promise you, it is just a few) is most gratifying.