At a quarter past 5 this morning, my phone started vibrating on my bedside cabinet. My wife stirred next to me, asking “What’s that?” At that time in the morning, in the middle of a REM state, your mind starts racing, your heart starts pumping and you’re thinking someone in your family is hurt, sick, in crisis.
Several times over the last year I have had battles with American Express charging me whopping late payment fees for my account. It transpires that we did automatic payments the day prior to the due date through the National Bank (now ANZ) but it typically took 3 or more days for the money to trickle through to Amex, even though our bank statements showed that we had made the payments on time.
We asked for explanations from the bank and from American Express and no one could explain. It just seemed to go into a black hole and of course no one really understands black holes yet, so they couldn’t explain where the money went, why it took so long, nor how a few days later it would appear, LATE, into our Amex account. Maybe it has something to do with cosmic string overnight cash rates, but if so, the interest certainly didn’t come to us to help pay with the late fee.
So we agreed with Amex that we would pay several days earlier than the due date (funny how they ping consumers when the average company takes 72 days to pay their 20th of the month accounts) and they put us on a text service where they would let us know when the account was due and when they received the payment.
Up until now those TXT messages came through at a reasonable hour, but this morning (maybe reduced fees for out of business hours SMS?) they decided to TXT me at 5:16 AM.
Well thanks Amex, I know you aren’t going to charge me a late fee. but I haven’t slept since you woke me up and have a long day ahead with important business meetings. I just want you to know that this is not cool or helpful, and I’m kinda annoyed. I’d ring you and try to wake you up, but I’m sure I’d end up talking to a nice person somewhere in the world where it is business hours.
Perhaps someone can look into your systems and think about putting in a few rules?
I’ve just got back from a break in Rarotonga, which was a wonderful place to visit for peace and rest. It was thought provoking even though thought was not high on my agenda.
I finished a piece of music I had been working on and called it Rarotonga, which you can find on Youtube and my About Songwriting blog. While there I attended a wonderful gospel church service where I had some great singing. This was followed by a bountiful morning tea put on by the open generosity of the locals.
Most of the church service was in Rarotongan Maori, however 2 words that I did understand were Climate Change. In a country where most of the land is very close to sea level this is a real challenge. You need to spend a little time on a South Pacific Island to understand what is at risk.
The one thing you must do when visiting a new country is visit with the people. 3 things stood out:
1. Everyone expressed their gratitude that we visited and explained that their country was entirely dependent on tourism.
2. Every person had at least 2 or 3 jobs and good pay was considered to be about US5 an hour. Other than Sunday’s, most people would be working 12+ hour days.
3. There was a sub economy operating below the cash economy. People trade goods or services. It might be people swapping fish for Taro or playing music in return for food and the ability to promote and sell merchandise such as CD’s.
As you do, when you deliberately disconnect from the grid, you catch up with reading and I got to reading up on Life Inc by Douglas Rushkoff. One of his arguments is that the world’s economies are driven by corporations, banks and other large entities who perhaps care more about themselves and keeping communities reliant on them than helping the people they serve gain any level of independence.
I was blown away by some of the examples of alternative trading systems he came up with, although I don’t know why. Barter as a concept is probably as old as mankind, but a new economy seems to be reemerging in innovative ways. I’ve known doctors who accepted fish or other produce from patients who couldn’t afford to pay fees in New Zealand. I’ve known plenty of people who share their specialties, a plumber who does work on an electricians home and the electrician is owed a favor by a motor mechanic who then does a job for the plumber for free. The traditional economy still gets revenue from the parts that are used, which includes all the traders and of course tax in all its forms.
From a business point of view, I use Bartercard and they are a great organisation who I recommend. They have Bartercard Maps which uses GeoSmart Maps technology to help you find what you need based on location. However, fundamentally it is still a form of currency and our accounts department and Inland Revenue treat it no different than cash. In some cases, such as accommodation I also sometimes feel that the product you get is a little less quality than you would get if you were paying cash.
One good thing about Bartercard I like is that it is local, at least it encourages companies to use local suppliers. Despite our position, I feel many organisations in NZ from Government Departments through to consumers do not consider supporting their local economy as a major factor in making purchasing decisions.
I don’t want to go into any real detail about the examples in Rushkoff’s book, because that’s what the book is for and you might want to read it. There are some great deals on Amazon. I don’t think you’ll find it in your local bookstore.
Here’s a couple of cool examples.
CSA or Community Shared Agriculture. The concept is that people not only commit to buying their produce from a particular local farm, but they even commit to doing a small amount of work on it to help support it. This gives some security to the local farmer, but also helps build local community spirit and has people involved and doing something they would not normally do in their daily lives.
In Japan, the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation came up with a ‘complementary currency’ where young people could earn credits for taking care of elderly people. Those credits, called Fureai Kippu can then be applied to the care of their own elderly relatives who may live in a different part of the country. Because it is by the people and for the people, many say that the standard of support they get is far better than if it was provided by commercial caregivers.
The book also has lots of ideas about local loyalty programs that serve to build greater loyalty to local traders and creates stronger community feeling, which can and should apply to any town or village. The people who work, have restaurants or businesses near your home, are your neighbors. We are often too quick to go and give profit to multinationals, when we could be supporting our local businesses and then complain when our potential customers don’t use our services.
To a degree this blog was motivated by my trip to Rarotonga and the music I wrote which you can listen to below. But it is also out of concern for our future. New Zealand, like Rarotonga runs the risk of becoming isolated. If a war were to strike overseas and our imports (including oil products, food, clothing and technology) how well prepared are we to continue living to the standard we are accustomed to? People in Rarotonga told us about the island running out of fuel for a few days and the chaos that ensued. How long would we continue our lifestyle without petrol and diesel?
On Page 5 of this morning’s New Zealand Herald I read a story with the headline Stick to guns on fee, banks told. Now I’m the first to stand up and say I don’t understand the banking economy as well as the bankers and the politicians, the educators and maybe even Liam Dann, who says we are all behaving like whingers. No I have bumped into Liam many times over the years and the experiences have all been good, but in my mind something isn’t gelling for me. Maybe he or some others can explain where my thinking is going wrong.
First, we are in a global economic crisis and times are tough all over. I totally agree with Liam’s assertion that when I signed for a fixed rate, I signed a contract which is a legal document saying that I would pay the rate for the period on the contract and it would cost me to break it. The banks are saying that they can’t afford to subsidise the cost, but they quickly gobbled up the guarantees provided by the government to help move the economy.
Now I said at the start, that I don’t understand exactly how the banks work. I know that when I borrowed my $165,000 the National Bank didn’t rush out and borrow that sum, they would have signed contracts for millions at really good rates and my loan would have been part of a bundle which allowed them to hedge for a profit. Now I understand that the Official Cash Rate is a major influencer in mortgage and deposit rates, but a large part of the borrowing by the banks is in other countries where the rates are much lower than ours.
As to becoming whingers, I’d like to ask Liam if he thought (irrespective of the contract that was signed) we were also whingers when we saw the gap increasing between lowering oil prices and the retail price of petrol. It was public pressure that almost overnight reduced the retail price of petrol, people whinging that they thought the profits weren’t fair.
When I took out a new fixed loan of $165,000 I based my decision on the advice of bank staff, even though they were careful to say that I shouldn’t take their information as an official position by the bank, the decision had to be totally mine. But the thing is they did give me advice, and I do accept that no one saw the crash coming. On the other hand the banks also said after the problems in 1987 that they would tighten up their lending criteria, which they have obviously loosened as time went on.
Businesses have clout. In my world of business, contracts get broken when companies have the power to break them. They sign legal contracts all the time, but if they decide that their supplier is making too much profit, the implied threats come out, saying that they have a choice and even though they have a contract, often it is only as good as the money that a business wants to throw at it to defend it. This is something I do know about it. When you try to defend your contract, you use meet and discuss the situation explaining both parties points of view and try to find a common ground because you need that business relationship. This is called negotiation in my book, although some people might call it whinging.
Now I’m all for businesses making profit, it is essential for their survival and I want my bank to survive, but I want them to be fair too. The NZ Herald themselves reported that while ANZ – NATIONAL took a huge drop in profit, they still made almost $1 billion after tax. That means after all expenses were paid. The NZ Herald also reported TODAY that BNZ’s profit is up 15% on last year, so forgive me if I don’t stop and give them a minute’s silence in respect of their tough times.
So I’m trying to figure out why Liam has this perspective. Here are some things I have heard about or personally experienced about contracts in the last several years: before they
A company agrees to buy products manufactured in New Zealand at an agreed fee for a contracted period of time and a contracted price and volume. The buyer then discovers they can buy equivalent product from a Chinese manufacturer and despite the contract and the money the Kiwi manufacturer has invested in staff and plant, breaks the contract and says I can’t continue this deal because the prices were too dear. Never mind that they were already making an extremely healthy retail profit prior to breaking the contrct.
An overseas company buys a NZ company complete with its staff and operations and agrees to maintain all the contracts. They then go through the payroll on a spreadsheet and decree that all staff earning more than $X will be made redundant, but can reapply for new positions where the specification might be modified by 5% at a 3rd of what they used to do, irresepctive of their contribution. The good news for me is that they kept the people who weren’t contributing and areas where they made staff redundant and replaced them with people who were prepared to work for way less, reduced profit and revenue by in one case almost 80%. I think that strategy was illegal, but who wants to burn bridges or be seen as a trouble maker or a whinger.
I’m sure if you are reading this you know of similar situations where businesses break contracts with other businesses all the time. They get away with it because one business has more power than the other and the losing party either can’t afford the cost or the consequences of fighting for what is right. If you know of cases like this, or indeed if you think I am wrong, please comment on this blog. As long as it isn’t spam or blatant advertising, I will publish your comment.
So here’s the thing. Banks used to be community organisations. You used to be able to walk into the bank and talk to the Bank Manager. They would know you buy name. They would give you advice and show an interest in you. They introduced technology that people said would turn them into machines, and in many cases it did, but the machines were of benefit to the consumer and business, such as EFTPOS (which I helped in a tiny way to introduce), ATM’s, Internet Banking and more. These investments saved them and their customers in time and money, but particularly made the banks more profitable by reducing overheads and staff.
When I first wanted to borrow my current fixed loan from my bank, with whom I had banked for almost 25 years, I actually got a better deal through Mike Pero Mortgages than I could from the bank directly. How’s that for 25 years of loyalty? I had to get a broker to get me a reasonable deal from my own bank!
So I’ve had my whinge Liam. It seems it ‘s ok for businesses to break contracts with each other and to fight for them, but it’s whinging if a consumer, a customer for many years of a bank that is making big fat profits out of their dealings with them, and gets a helping hand from the government which in many cases is as a consequence of imprudent lending, which after 1987 they said they wouldn’t do to expect a little help as well, well I’ll accept the title of whinger.
Just as a footnote, my local grocer is going back to India to look after his elderly parents after running his store here for 24 years. For all of that time, he has shown a real personal interest in every customer, he knows most of them by name. He has helped many of them out if they needed something and didn’t have the cash on them. I won’t go through all the little things he did for local people, but here’s the thing. The supermarket is much cheaper and for many people closer, but they still buy from him and he is selling a highly profitable business. Profitable not because it is a Four Square, or because of his location, but because he cares, because he is a person doing business with people and we as his customers want to do business with him.
If the National Bank doesn’t look after me, perhaps go halves on the contract difference or something that shows that they care about my business, my family and my future business (because I intend not only to be around for a long while, if the creek don’t rise, I won’t be whinging, I will be moving with my feet.
Now I am not wealthy, I live in a very average neighbourhood, far from affluent. Having been made redundant twice and suffered badly as a consequence and having little faith in the government to give me any sort of lifestyle when I retire I am being prudent. I have a small savings account (which has helped my kids from time to time with studies, with medical costs, holidays and other interests), I have a modest term deposit, suffient to cover 2-3 months of income should I be so unfortunate as to be made redundant again as is happening to many people right now. I have a mortgage on my home and a mortgage on my rental property which breaks even without paying a cent off the capital (and of course in recent times means that it is worth less than the loan (but this is for the long haul and it will come right.
Sorry, if I’m rambling, but this post is personal. If the National Bank doesn’t come to the party, I will go back to Mike Pero Mortgages who have looked after me so well in past. I will ask them to find me a new bank that will take over my term deposit, my checking accounts, my 2 mortgages, my Internet Banking, my EFTPOS account, my credit cards and will tell everyone who will listen. Liam, mate, I’m not being a whinger in my book, I believe that people do business with people. We have a choice and I will be looking very closely to see if one of the banks realises that a short term sacrifice will amply pay great dividends in the long run. I suspect that the bank that does this and continues to recognise that their profit comes from their customers will grow and thrive while the others wonder what happened.
Liam, this is starting to sound like I am having a go at you. Frankly I was annoyed to read your column in the Herald today. Factually you are on solid ground, a contract is a legal and binding document. But consumers do have power and if they don’t use it, the corporates or anyone that can will walk right over them. Over recent years Kiwis became so PC (politically correct) that they let everyone walk over them. They thought people like Americans and Australians were rude if they complained about a dirty coffee cup in a cafe. The contract was for coffee, there was never discussion over the cleanliness of the cup.That made them whingers. Now more and more people are realising that it not just about the contract, it is about standing up for what is fair, ethical, moral and just. The laws of economics are changing and people have a choice.
If anyone is still reading this soap box and agree or don’t with me, please leave a comment and tell me what you think. I would also appreciate you telling other people about this blog if you think it is worthy. Let’s remind the banks and everyone else that those who recognise and respect their customers will in future grow and thrive, those that don’t might be sitting at home reading reading the situations vacant and wondering what happened and thinking how unfair life is.
While this blog is starting to get a good following, I would love to get more readers and encouraging me to keep writing. If you feel that my blog is interesting I would be very grateful if you would vote for me in the category of best blog at the NetGuide Web Awards. Note that the form starts each site with www whereas my blog doesn’t and is of course http://luigicappel.wordpress.com.