Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Your Mistake, You Suck It Up

When I was a child - maybe 7 or 8 - we were visiting family friends. My sister was the same age as their daughter, and I was feeling excluded. I found a way to get their attention, but bending the needle on the record player they were using.

I got in trouble, and I faced a serious consequence. I had to pay to have the needle fixed. It was a critical lesson for me to learn at that age. The fact that they were ignoring me and wouldn't play with me wasn't an acceptable excuse, and if you damage something that belongs to another person, you take responsibility for it. I believe it cost me $8, which back then seemed like a lot of money, and I'm sure it was to a child my age.

The weight of the consequence drove the lesson home.

These days, all too often, people don't take responsibility for their actions. On the one hand, sometimes I can understand mitigating circumstances. On the other, I've worked with too many children over the years to know that automatically going to the excuses is a good thing. It isn't. There's a real lack of respect and common courtesy being bred amongst an alarmingly high percentage of youth today, and I do believe part of the reason is because of the lack of consequences.

They aren't being taught that respect. They see it everywhere in society.

Now, I had my first baby-sitting gigs at the age of 11, and my first newspaper column at 13, and I also had my first job at the age of 13. I was a cashier in a store, and I made $3.15 per hour. Back then, I didn't handle closing out my till at the end of the day, and I was oblivious to the idea of being short. It wasn't until I moved on to other jobs that I started to deal with that, and learned I had to account for all the money in there, or missing from there.

Fast forward a few years, and I was working at Canadian Tire. Someone bought a swing set for their kids. In fact, they had a huge order, cartloads of stuff. This was pre-scanner days, or early scanner days, I guess. No hand-held things for you to move around and get the awkward stuff - you had to key in all those numbers. I was all too familiar with this, because I worked in receiving as well as cash during my CT days, so I'd spend a few days a week labeling products and getting them out to the store, and a few weeks getting them out of the store.

Anyway, I missed an item. The swing set.

Because I knew who'd purchased it, I was able to call them and explain my error. I still remember the guy on the phone saying, "And if we don't come in and pay, you'll have to pay for it." Yes. But he didn't torture me for long. He automatically said, "I'll be in this afternoon."

Such purchases were often handled by floor staff who read out the product numbers to us, but that doesn't matter. End of the day, I'm responsible for what's in my till, and what isn't.

Now, what exactly is the point of all this personal history? I hate service bills. Absolutely hate them. Don't mistake me - my credit is clean - but I do have an issue with some services that work on billing systems.

For example, let's start with the energy provider here - not Enmax, I don't live in the city. The other one is who I deal with. A few years ago, I went on the monthly budget plan, which meant my bill should be the same every month - annual year's usage averaged out. Now, after two years of living in the same house, being billed monthly, you'd think they'd have a fairly decent idea of our energy usage. Seems reasonable to me.

It took forever for the bills to level off. Being told they'd be the same every month, it was a frustration to me that they still went up and down. Finally, they seemed to hold the same amount, for about three months, and then I opened a bill for over $1000. I can't remember the exact amount. I think it was about $1200.

Our monthly bill average had been under $200. Bear in mind, I'd been paying it every month too.

I blew a gasket. I called them up and asked what was going on. After all, I pointed out, we hadn't cut a hole in our house to let all the heat out.

Their response. "We made a mistake with your billing going back eight months."

You know what I would have liked to say to them? Well, yeah, you probably know.

My ex used to work in billing for different phone companies (not all in Alberta, and one of them was a US company, actually, so no assumptions about which ones). The only reason I mention it is that I'm aware of the fact that these companies often neglect to bill people for months - I know it from someone who was hired to create programs to clean up the problems.

So, switch gears. In the past two weeks, friends have told me a story about one of those phone companies, not billing them for several months. All of a sudden they get a bill for four figures. Ouch. What I want to know is, if the company can decide not to bill for six months on a monthly service, why do they think they can come after you for it later? And why do they think you should have to pay immediately?

In fact, they paid the bill, and the phone provider still cut off their service because they considered the account bad.

Yesterday, I again heard another story about bad billing, and this one had a kicker of a consequence to it. I happen to know for a fact that the company (who shall remain nameless, although I certainly don't plan to shop with them again myself and am glad I canceled my card with them a few years ago) sent bills for several months that said amount owing: 0.00 and in the space where you put in the amount to pay they put DO NOT PAY.

I saw the bills myself. No, not mine, but I had seen them.

They put a black mark on the person's credit report, saying they hadn't paid their bill for several months.

You know, if you let someone walk out of a store with merchandise they haven't paid for, and they attempted to pay for it, it's your mistake. If they come back and pay (if you even notice and ask them) then you're lucky.

If not, you suck it up. If I go through a check-out and notice when I get home I wasn't charged for something, sometimes I go back. And sometimes, it's a place too far away to make a special trip.

Ultimately, it isn't my fault. I did try to pay for it, I didn't try to steal it.

But these services that bill monthly seem to think they don't have to be accountable. In my opinion, it's one thing if a mistake happens for a month or two, but to go back six, eight, twelve months and try to collect because you screwed up?

And while I'm at it, what the hell is it with people who make bills due on the 1st or 2nd, knowing so many people get paid on that day? I've resisted internet banking or telephone banking to this point, which means that it takes a few days for payments to be processed. I know some people get paid every other week, but a very high number get paid on the 1st and 15th. Why is it these services don't ask for the best billing date for you so you can pay it for the 4th, instead of making you try to pay it for the 2nd? Heaven help you if the 2nd is a Sunday and you have it budgeted from your first of the month pay.

Fortunately, I haven't had too many real problems along the way, but there are a lot of families and individuals out there, scraping by. People are busy. We also fall victim to memory - I can remember paying several bills on several occasions, but was it this month or last month that I remember, or nine months ago? It all blurs eventually. It isn't surprising that in families where spouses share responsibilities for bills that missed billing might not get noticed right away.

So why am I not cutting the same slack to the companies? Billing is someone's job. Do your job. I know sometimes software sucks and there are mistakes on the other side (and I'm prepared for a potential earful from my boyfriend, who deals with balancing the books for a company) but I'm not talking about individuals taking responsibility. I'm talking about the companies. Give your employees what they need to do their job properly instead of being too cheap to fix problems you know about.

There's no excuse for an energy company to not be able to bill a house properly for several months, or a department store. And if they screw up and do come to you with a mistake, they should offer options to work out a payment schedule so they don't cripple people with a four-figure bill and expect them to pay it immediately. If it took you six months to figure it out, you should offer at least six months to the customer to sort it out.

Suck it up.

That's all I have to say.

(Today is 'Share your billing horror stories' day. Or just something I needed to get off my chest because it annoys me.)


DC said...

You have totally struck the head on the nail with this post! I've been renting an apt and we have highspeed internet, and have been getting bills like clockwork, and then all of a sudden we didn't get a couple of bills (but didn't realize it because we were busy with college) then when we got a bill it was a huge one, and couldn't pay it right away. Then they sent us a letter to pay within 5 days or there would be 'consequences.' We eventually got the money, but it was tense for a while.
Courtesy by these companies when you have been paying your bills, and have good credit would be nice!!

Sandra Ruttan said...

And when you're in college you don't think so much month to month, but assignment to assignment.

I'm sorry you went through that kind of scenario. I completely agree - courtesy would be nice. After all, you didn't put yourself in a financial bind, they created the scenario.

I think I'm going to move to internet banking now, just as a way of preventing this from happening to me again. You never know when it might happen and you don't have the money right on hand.

Randy Johnson said...

I've had billing problems with the local hospital. I'm disabled and on a fixed income. I was sending them payments on three accounts every month: one check for each account with the account # on the memo line. All of a sudden I started getting phone calls and mail from a collection agency. I called the hospital and hears how they explained it: hospital policy was if a bill wasn't payed off by a specific date, never mind if you dent them payments regularly, they were sent to collection. I explained my circumstances. I could pay off one bill each month, but then I would have to give up such frivolities as electric, water, phone, and food. All I got was hospital policy.

Randy Johnson said...

Sorry about the misspellings. Your post hit home and I was too quickly typing my comment and not paying close attention.

Anonymous said...

I worked for a bankruptcy attorney for a month-the clients we had ran the gamut. People who just didn't think and made what were obviously stupid decisions to people who just got caught by medical problems, unemployment, and other unavoidable circumstances of life. It was really an eye-opening experience for me-I would stayed there, had my boss and his wife not been certifiably insane.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Randy, no apology necessary. I think that's pretty crummy of the hospital.

There was actually a woman (a mother of four children) who committed suicide after becoming so depressed from being harassed for a few years by Revenue Canada. They'd fallen on hard times - medical situation, and if I recall correctly, it was her who had cancer or something of comparable seriousness - and RC was merciless and went after them until she couldn't take it anymore.

It's really terrible.

Norby, Bunny used to work in collections, and there definitely are people who just don't pay any attention or who are reckless or intentionally trying to screw everyone. No doubt about it. From what I hear, it's tough work and people burn out. Might explain the boss's insanity.

Honestly, I think in order for anyone to graduate from high school they should have to take a personal financial management course.

DC said...

I totally agree with you Sandra, teaching the basics of finances, and such should be taught to you before you leave highschool.

Knowing that information is crucial to living in the 'real world,' and having a steady job. Very good blog entry, I must say... hits home with me especially.