Thursday, 30 June 2016

Customer Service Expectations

Expectation level for customer service


Today's post is brought to you by rage...

I've been dealing with some pretty crappy customer service recently, and it has left me questioning what my expectations should be. In this day and age, we have constant access to information and methods of communication, and that has definitely altered what I expect from the service industry. 

Here's the backstory:

I was given a really generous gift card for AMA from my parents for my 30th birthday a couple of months ago. Their idea was that they could send us on a nice trip. Sounds fantastic right? It is! That is until we actually decided to go for it and book something. Let's just say AMA has not exactly made this easy! We're really close to their Kingsway location but their hours are really limited, so it's nearly impossible for us working folks to make it there during the day. A couple of weeks ago there was a crazy seat sale to Paris, and that really got us thinking about jumping on one of those deals for a week in Europe. I looked on the AMA website and found the name of a travel agent on their website who was listed as a Europe expert and emailed her...she was out of the office for the next few days. Ok, no problem. I then called into their call centre instead and proceeded to talk to a not so helpful agent that couldn't find any seat sale prices for Paris ("maybe we don't have that deal"), whatever. A few days later I heard back from that first agent I emailed, but not until after the sale was done. Fine, we've moved on...Paris felt like a bit of a pipe dream anyways. 

Fast forward a few weeks to this past Monday, and there were a new batch of deals to a bunch of European destinations! We narrowed it down to either Lisbon or Barcelona, so I again emailed that first agent to see if we could make it work. Heard back from her on Tuesday (late) just saying to call her in the office on Thursday. I was a little worried about missing out again, so I attempted to book the flights through the AMA website myself. After trying out a bunch of options I got a pretty much perfect flight plan, clicked check-out, filled out all our info, went to pay and bam...can't even use gift cards on their website! AHHH!! Frustration level rising! Emailed screenshots of the flight plans to that agent and then called her first thing this morning, no answer, left a message...it's now 3:30pm as I write this and I'm still waiting for a callback. I then took to Twitter, where the AMA Twitter rep was shockingly helpful and had someone email me ASAP. Turns out it was too little too late, as the seat sale had ended and prices were now doubled! At this point, I am pretty much fuming and super disappointed about missing out a second time on a fancy trip for a such a great price. Now I know this is a total luxury and it's not a trip we'd be going on if it weren't for the great gift from my parents but I'm left feeling like it really shouldn't be this hard to give a company your business. 

Another thing is, AMA actually charges you for booking through them...about $60 per person I was told. So that would mean that even though I sent them the exact flights I wanted I would still have to pay them $120 just to use my gift card. 

Now that I've had a little time to cool my rage it got me thinking about what we expect from customer service. I think I'm reasonable to be annoyed at this whole run around but I also think it can be a challenge when we're expected to answer ASAP with our constant access to cell phones, email and social media. Is that just what customer service is or do we need to cut people some slack? I kind of think that if you are in a field (like travel) that is time-sensitive it really is important for you to be accessible, and if you're not you need to provide another option (maybe an out of office message with someone else's contact info). I was actually pretty shocked when I got much better assistance via Twitter than I did over the phone or through email, both of which seem more personal to me. 

Social media is still relatively new and has to be a huge challenge for large companies. It feels necessary for them to have a presence but that also means they have to be responsive, both timely and accurately. What's the point of Twitter if not for immediate (and pretty much 24/7) assistance? Unreasonable, sure; but it seems to be the way the world is going. I feel pretty lucky to be in a business where instant responses aren't necessary and normal business hours are still valued. If clients email me at 5pm they rarely (if ever) expect a response until the next day. If they all of a sudden started contacting me through Twitter though, I would feel much more pressure to reply ASAP. Any of us who are on social media have seen examples of companies who kill it on social media (Wendy's) and those who get slaughtered (United Airlines). 

Anyways, this rant is now longer than expected but what good is a blog if you can't use it as an outlet sometimes ;) 

What are your thoughts? Do you have certain standards for good vs. bad customer service? 

Update: After posting this rant I was contacted by an AMA manager who felt horrible for what had transpired, and she was able to arrange an amazing trip for us to Barcelona at a similar price point to the deal we had found. You can find a full recap of our trip here. Not only was AMA able to get us a good price on flights, their knowledge of the area really came in handy on figuring out where to stay and what to do so don't let my initial rant scare you away from using a travel agent :) 

Expectation level for customer service

Friday, 24 June 2016

The #Brexit Victory

The impact of #Brexit

If you have any presence on social media, you have likely seen #Brexit popping up everywhere the last few weeks, and even more so yesterday. Britain held a referendum yesterday on whether or not to remain a part of the European Union, and after all the votes had been tallied up, it was decided they would leave. I’m actually pretty shocked by the decision, I knew it was going to be a close vote but I really thought the ‘remain’ side would come out on top, but it ended up being the ‘exit’ side with about 52% of the vote. David Cameron has already announced that he will step down as Prime Minister by October (he was in the stay camp). Global markets have also taken a hit today, and the British Pound plummeted by 10% reaching its lowest level in three decades.

All this doom and gloom seems to spell trouble for Britain. A bid advantage of being in the EU was free trade between European nations, and that will now come to an end for Britain. Being a net importer, they are going to face issues on getting the goods they need into their border as I’m sure the EU will force their hand with some pretty hefty taxes. The decline in the currency will also impact anyone from Britain wanting to travel outside the country, and the volatility in the markets is already affecting people’s investments.

What does all this mean for Canada?

Britain and the European Union may be way across the ocean from us, but this doesn’t mean we will be left unscathed by the referendum results. Even though the British currency is taking a hit, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is a good thing for us. The US dollar is seen as a safe haven right now, and that will likely mean an influx of people buying US dollars which has an adverse impact on the Canadian dollar, which has already been hurting the last little while.

Canada also has a trade agreement in place with the EU and through this Britain sits as our third largest trading partner. Leaving the EU will take Britain out of that trade agreement and could potentially limit Canadian imports into the nation.

Global market volatility is a biggie for anyone with investments. Even if you aren’t directly invested in Europe, you are likely to see some fluctuations in your portfolio and if you are, well, hang on! If you are feeling like taking a jump, the big drop in UK markets means it may not be a bad time to buy some British stocks.

A Canadian interest rate hike will likely also be delayed which will keep mortgage rates low, and won't do anything the rising concern of a housing bubble. A strong US dollar and weaker Canadian dollar puts pressure on the Bank of Canada to leave rates as is. Good news, bad news I suppose. For those with current variable mortgages or those looking to re-negotiate a mortgage soon, it means you won't see an increase in your payments, but the scary housing market situation will be sticking around.

Your summer vacation to Britain may have just gotten cheaper. There was a cheap seat sale to Scotland floating around last week so if you jumped on that now might be a good time to load up on British pounds and save yourself some more money on your vacation. With that said, if you have plans to vacation just about anywhere but Britain you are likely looking at a heftier price tag because of the low Canadian dollar.

Conclusion:

We’re in for a bit of a rough ride in regards to currency and the equity markets for the next while. Canada obviously won't be impacted as much as Britain, but we’re also not completely sheltered either. The process of the UK actually exiting the EU will be lengthy, and it will be interesting to see how that is actually accomplished and plays out…we’re looking at years not days. 

The impact of #Brexit

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Edmonton Summer Festivals

Summer is officially here and in Edmonton that means it's festival season. We are known as Festival City for a good reason and although there are a growing number of winter festivals, it's summertime that really shines. 

Now, this is in no way a complete list of all the happenings around town, but I've put together a few that are on my must-do list this year. 



Freewill Shakespeare
I'm hardly a huge Shakespeare fan but spending a sunny (hopefully) evening sitting in Hawrelak Park and watching some theatre sounds like a pretty darn good time to me. The festival kicked off yesterday (June 21st), and performances will run right through until July 17th (every day of the week but Mondays). Tickets are available from Tix on the Square, or you can just buy walk-up tickets at the event. There are two different show options, Romeo & Juliet or Love's Labour's Lost. I'm leaning towards Love's Labour's Lost because I've never seen or read it, but Romeo & Juliet is a classic...decisions, decisions! 



The Works Art & Design Festival
Outdoors and FREE, those are the two big selling features of The Works Festival for me. And you get to see some pretty fantastic art displays while you're at it. The Works sets up shop around downtown Edmonton from June 23rd until July 5th, and this year there will be 55 exhibits featured at 29 different venues. Find a nice day and head downtown to stroll around and check out the creations. There is also a stage set-up in Churchill Square that will play host to a variety of musicians every day of the festival from 12 pm to 9:30 pm.



Street Performers Festival
This is always a fun one for all ages. From July 8th to 17th Churchill Square will be taken over by a bunch of street performers from all over the world to delight the crowds with their ridiculous antics. Performances will run from 11:30 am to 11 pm every day and each night ends off with a group show at 10 pm. Quick tip, I've always found the group shows to be a little lame, so I recommend heading there earlier to catch some of the artists performing their full sets. The event is free to attend but make sure to bring along some cash to pay your dues at the end of each performance you watch. 



Taste of Edmonton
My all-time favourite Edmonton festival that I make sure to go to (usually a couple of times) every year...because food! Taste of Edmonton is another festival that will take over Churchill Square (July 21st to 30th), but this time you'll be surrounded by food, lots and lots of food. Local restaurants set-up tents and you can purchase small sampler dishes of some of their most popular items. What could be better than an endless variety of food! You have to buy tickets to make payment quick and easy, and if you act now, you can buy advance tickets at a 20% discount. This is definitely the way to go as it will not only save you money but you'll get to skip the line-up for tickets which tends to be the longest. Another tip, try to avoid normal mealtimes. Lunch hour during the week and anytime at dinner is always the craziest but if you aim to go mid-afternoon it's usually a lot quieter so you can get your eat on faster. 



K-Days
This year K-Days should be bigger and better than ever as they have added a second stage, so you'll get double the performances...which are kind of the best part. This year you'll be able to catch shows from artists such as the X-Ambassadors, Matthew Good, Rachel Platten, Shawn Hook, Moist and many others. I'm planning to head over on opening night to catch the X-Ambassadors! All the shows are included in the price of admission, so you'll also be able to check out the midway rides, carnival games and food. Rides before loading up on deep fried food though ok? Apparently this year they have deep fried coffee...not sure how that works but I'm game. K-Days runs at pretty much the same time as Taste of Edmonton, July 22nd to the 31st this year and if you want to catch the kick-off parade, it will be held downtown the morning of the 22nd. 



Heritage Festival
Another great food festival! Ok, there's culture too, but the main reason to go to the Heritage Festival is for the food (at least for me). It always runs over the August long weekend (July 30th to August 1st) and fills Hawrelak Park with the smells, sounds and sights of different cultures from all over the world. You'll buy tickets for food/drink items but there will also be lots of other stuff for sale so bring your wallet. You can buy tickets in advance from Tix on the Square, Save-on-Foods or Servus Credit Union locations starting July 1st but there's no discount for advance tickets, might save you a line-up though. Park and ride is the way to go as there is NO parking available at Hawrelak during the event and if you want to avoid the biggest crowds, I suggest going right when it opens in the morning. 



Fringe Festival
Street performers, street food, and all the plays you could ever dream up (and some you couldn't...) The Fringe will take over Edmonton again August 11th to 21st in Old Strathcona. The play venues are kind of all over the place, but the main festival grounds are all around the Arts Barns along 83 Ave between 104 Street and Gateway Blvd. The shows (there's a ton) can be really hit or miss, so I like to hold off a couple of days until there are some reviews out to help narrow down your options. The Edmonton Journal and Vue Weekly are always good resources for reviews. The last few years the Faculte Saint-Jean has been used as a venue for a few plays, and it's one of the easiest and most accessible venues to get to. There's good (free) parking, and it's air conditioned! If you're an avid Fringer, you'll know that air conditioning is a life-saver if the weather is hot.



Symphony Under the Sky
Similar to Freewill Shakespeare but this time featuring the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra playing at Hawrelak Park. Shows will run for four nights between August 25th and August 28th. All the shows are different and include a Simon Garfunkel feature or Hollywood Favourites. Tickets are available online now, and you can choose between reserved seating or bringing your own blanket and going with general admission grass seating. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Changes to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP)

CPP and your retirement

As you may or may not have heard, there was a big meeting of the federal and provincial finance ministers yesterday to discuss changes to the Canada Pension Plan, and it looks like reform is going forward. The decision is nothing if not controversial (the government taking more of our money always is isn’t it) but I’m sitting on the pro side of the fence this time, and it sounds like the majority of Canadians are too. In a recent poll completed by Angus Reid, 75% of Canadians were in favour of at least moderate changes to CPP. Savings rates in Canada are really low, and very few of us have employers that are still offering a pension plan. Many of our retired parents have money coming in the door every month not only from CPP and OAS but also from a defined benefit pension they paid into for years. Rarely is this an option in today’s world, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the government is trying to bridge that gap a little. Running out of money in retirement is something that should concern all of us and having that guaranteed amount will help ease (at least a little) the burden that low-income retirees can place on the system.

Key Points
-CPP premiums will increase 1% for employers and employees once fully phased in
-increases will be phased in over 7 years, starting in 2019
-a $55,000 income earner will see an increased premium of $7/month in 2019 that will end up at $34/month by 2023
-currently, CPP replaces 25% of income up to a maximum of $13,100 per year; under the new plan it will replace about 33% of income and the maximum benefit will increase by about $4,000 per year
-the deal was signed by 8 provinces, Quebec and Manitoba did not sign
-CPP premiums have only been increased one time in the last 20 years

Pros
-Guaranteed income in retirement, no matter how long you live. This is a biggie and makes planning that much easier. Using your own savings for retirement means you have to speculate on how long you will live to know how long your money is going to last. Living until 105 vs. 80 will have a HUGE impact on how much money you need, but with guaranteed income like CPP or a defined benefit pension, you will continue to get paid.
-Premiums are taken straight off your pay cheque, so you never see the money in the first place. This is probably the number one tip anyone can give you about saving; make it automatic to avoid temptation!
-The graduated increase will make it less noticeable. If you’re around that $55,000 income level I talked about above I can’t imagine you are really going to notice that extra $7 you’ll be paying at the beginning…just one less trip to Starbucks a month guys. My property taxes seem to go up significantly more than that each year and I can be hard pressed to see how those extra dollars are making the city better. At least this increased payment will be coming back to me when I’m living it up in retirement.
-The household savings rate in Canada is at a scarily low 3.9% (down almost a full percent from one year ago!!!) I get it, debt levels are really high, and the job market isn’t exactly flourishing (especially here in Alberta), but saving for retirement cannot be considered optional and with the government accepting this new CPP plan they are now forcing your hand. Don’t just go and now think I’m giving you permission not to save at all because of this, you still have to if you want to live comfortably in retirement, but it’ll help.

Cons
-It will cost businesses quite a bit more when it comes to payroll, and this is especially challenging when the economic conditions are as poor as they are right now. I’m hopeful that things will have brightened a little by the time the new CPP rules come into play in 2019 but there are no guarantees.
-Those you are self-employed will take the biggest premium hike as they are responsible for contributing both the employer and employee portion of CPP premiums.
-You lose control of your money by giving it to the government. This is a big con for people who are avid investors and want to be able to pick and choose what investments make up their retirement portfolio. Sure CPP is run by investment managers who have it invested in all sorts of areas of the market, but you get zero say in how that’s done. For some people, this isn’t a bad thing (not everyone has the desire to manage their own investments), but for others, it can be a real problem.
-This isn’t exactly a con, but it is something to think about, that extra CPP amount you will now be getting in retirement COULD push you up into a higher tax bracket in retirement and limit the advantage of RRSP contributions. The advantage of RRSP’s is that you put the money in when you are in a high tax bracket (when you’re working) and then pay the tax when you are in a lower tax bracket (in retirement). If you end up being in the same tax bracket at both times, there’s really no advantage. Having extra money in retirement is never a bad thing, but this could alter your planning a little.

There you have it, a breakdown of the changes to CPP and my take on the whole situation. What do you guys think? Are you happy about the new amendments or are you hating on the government today? 

CPP and your retirement

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Do You Ever Daydream About Winning the Lottery?

Imagine if you won the lottery

How many times have you thought 'If only I could just win the lottery...' probably lots right? Me too. Today we're going to visit the world of wishful thinking and talk about how much money you would actually need to win to significantly change your lifestyle. 

A million bucks sounds like a lot of money (and it is) but it's no longer the kind of money that's going to let you quit your job and live the high-life. If you win $1,000,000 and invest the whole lot, you should be able to get about $50,000 of income without touching your principal (based on a 5% rate of return). That's a decent amount of money to earn by not really doing anything, but unless you're super thrifty, you'll have to keep your day job. To put that in perspective, the median household income in Canada (based on 2013 data) was $76,550. That extra $50k each year will give you some extra spending money, but I can't see it really changing your lifestyle. 

If we bump up those winnings to $5 million that's going to get you an extra $250,000 each year based on those same assumptions. Now we're talking, that's almost an extra $21,000 each MONTH. That's the kind of money that will let you splurge on some pretty fancy vacations, but it's also the kind of money that can get people in trouble if they're not careful. Think about it, if you win $5 million and then spend $1 million on a brand new house, $100,000 on a couple of new cars, give some money away to all those long lost relatives that come crawling out of the woodwork, decorate that new house, go on some first class vacations, etc. that $5 million is going to diminish very fast. Then you won't be earning nearly the $250,000 per year you were expecting. If you end up spending half your earnings right off the bat, you will only (not exactly the right word) have $2.5 million left to invest. That will still give you $125,000 per year of income (based on that same 5%), which is certainly comfortable but lower than what many lotto winners will expect. 

I'm sure you've all heard the stories of people who win a big jackpot and end up spending it all and ending up broke. It always sounds so shocking and that there's NO WAY you could go through money that fast but it really is a thing. It's the same idea as when you get a raise. If you don't adjust your savings rate right away you will find you just end up spending more and then wonder where all the money went. You get a false sense of security when that lotto cheque hits your bank account and won't think about purchases the way you used to. 

Another scary thing (scarier actually), is how many people are actually banking on winning the lottery instead of planning for retirement. According to a study done by BMO in 2013, 34% of Canadians are 'relying on winning the lottery to fund their retirement'. Yup, 34%...that's 1 out of every 3 people!!! Does anyone actually know the odds of winning the lottery? Sorry to burst your bubble but the odds of winning the Lotto Max are 1 in 28.6 million, and the odds for Lotto 649 are 1 in 14 million. The population of Canada is about 35.16 million people, so if we just take the 34% who are counting on the lottery that would leave us with about 11.95 million. Based on those odds, not a single person in that group is going to win the lottery. How's that retirement planning looking now? Yikes. 

Sure it's fun to dream about hitting the jackpot, never having to work another day in your life and going on endless exotic vacations but those daydreams need to remain just that. You should never assume you are going to win even a small jackpot, the odds are seriously against you. Take the time to save and plan while you're young and you can reap the rewards after retirement...no lottery necessary. Building good money habits early will also mean that if you do come into a lotto win, an inheritance, etc., you'll be better at handling it and won't blow it all on a race car. 


Imagine if you won the lottery

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Do Your Parents Have an Estate Plan?

You NEED to have a Will

The focus for today is everyone's favourite topic, death and dying. I know, I know but hear me out...it's important. Chances are you will be dealing with your parent's estate at some point or burdening someone else with the chore when you pass away. Having a basic knowledge of estate planning and what documents should be in place will make the process run more smoothly. 

First things first, do you even know if your parents have an estate plan in place? If you do, great, you're one step ahead....if not, well, you're going to want to find out. It's not the most pleasant dinnertime conversation but do it anyways. You'll want to get a sense of their goals for end of life care and after death wishes as well as knowing where they're important documents are stored (if they have them). 

When we talk about having an estate plan most people know the importance of having a Will. A Will is going to outline what you want to happen to your property and money after you die. It will appoint an executor (if that's going to be you, be prepared...it is NOT an easy job). Not only will your Will (will your Will...stupid word confusion!) outline who your assets go to, it can also assign guardians for any non-adult children and your funeral instructions. I highly recommend using a lawyer to do your Will; yes it's going to cost a bit of money to get done, but it will cost a lot less than not having a Will or having a poorly written Will that could be disputed in court. A good estate lawyer will know what to ask to ensure everything is covered and your legacy will end up where you want it. There are a few stipulations when it comes to how money is dispersed within an estate. You have to provide for your spouse and any dependents (this includes underage children as well as adult children who can't care for themselves...I said can't, not won't). The amount you have to leave them will really depend on how big your estate is; if it's large it could be a small portion, but if the estate is small it could be the entire thing. Basically, you can't leave everything to your dog and nothing for your husband! 

Along with your Will, there are a couple of other documents you'll want to have prepared, these are a Power of Attorney and Personal Directive. Unlike a Will, which is for after you die, a POA and a PD are for when you are still alive. They will let you still have a certain level of control even if you are no longer able to make competent decisions. 

A Power of Attorney is the document that appoints a person (usually there's a primary and an alternate) who will act as the decision maker for your finances and property if you become incapable of making such decisions for yourself. You want to do your POA when you are in good health but it will only come into affect after a doctor or other medical professional (you can get specific about certain qualifications or number of opinions) deems you unfit to make decisions. Once that happens the person you have appointed as your attorney will take over the decision making. Obviously, you need to make sure this is someone you trust and deem responsible enough to be in charge of your finances. 

A Personal Directive is similar to a POA but it deals with health matters. Here you will be assigning someone (often the same person) to make decisions for you regarding health care and personal needs if you are no longer able to make them yourself. A PD will let you still be the boss even when you aren't able to give the orders. Included in your Personal Directive will be directions on what sort of measures to take (extensive vs do not resuscitate orders), where you will live (at home if possible or a nursing home), etc. 

Not having a Power of Attorney or Personal Directive in place can make things really difficult on your family. They will have to go to court to have a trustee/guardian appointed for you and that's a lengthy, costly and invasive process. As I stated above, this is going to cost you more in the long run than just getting an estate plan done by a lawyer now. 

A Will, Power of Attorney and Personal Directive are the three basic components of a comprehensive estate plan having them in place will make things significantly easier for your family. If you are unsure about whether or not your parents have taken this step then sit them down and have the talk. It sucks and can be awkward, but I promise you won't regret it. Maybe remind them that this is their chance to keep on parenting you even after they are gone...

You NEED to have a Will