Friday, April 12, 2019

Short Takes: Investment Fees, Downside Protection, and more

I wrote one post in the past two weeks:

Consumers Can’t Avoid Computer Bots

Here are some short takes and some weekend reading:

Tom Bradley at Steadyhand looks at the current landscape of investment fees. Costs aren’t dropping in all areas.

Dan Bortolotti answers a reader question about downside protection with stocks.

Big Cajun Man has some tax trouble and shows what can happen to this year’s taxes when a previous year is still in dispute.

The Blunt Bean Counter discusses the issues occupying his time this tax season.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Consumers Can’t Avoid Computer Bots

You may have heard some people complain that when they used online chat on some big business’s website, they were chatting with a computer bot instead of a real person. You might think this isn’t a problem for you because you don’t use chat features on websites. Think again.

The dream of big businesses is to run their customer interfaces with computers rather than employees. Most of the time I actually prefer to do things myself on a website, such as banking transactions, travel packages for my phone, and even some troubleshooting. However, there are times when we need to speak to a person to solve a problem.

After you’ve waded through phone menus, listened to music for several minutes, and finally get a person on the line, you may not really be getting human responses. Increasingly, call center employees just read computer responses off a screen. As these computer algorithms get more sophisticated, call center employees make fewer decisions on their own.

Even your local bank branch will have you interacting with computers. It’s common for bank tellers to try to upsell you on bank products. One time I happened to have a view of the teller’s computer screen when the upsell came. The exact language the teller used appeared on screen: “Hey, have you thought about opening a TFSA?” This is creepy, and it’s getting progressively more common.

With each passing year, customer-facing employees of big businesses have less discretion to make their own decisions. They can’t overrule computer decisions. For now, what they can control is what they enter into the computer. I remember pointing out a small dent in a stove being delivered to my house. The delivery person said “so you’re refusing delivery, right?” He had his finger hovering over a small touchscreen waiting for my answer. I wasn’t sure how to respond. “If you refuse delivery, they’ll send a new stove at no extra cost to you.” I was being helped to give the right response so a computer would decide to send me a new stove.

A few years ago, my bank upped the amount of cash I could withdraw per day from cash machines, but I had to do it in two transactions, and I was getting hit with two withdrawal charges of a dollar each. The branch manager reversed one of the charges, but told me she wouldn’t be able to do it again in the new year because much of her discretion was being taken away. Even branch managers have to do what computers tell them to do.

The next time you’re frustrated with an employee at a big business, remember that getting angry at the employee doesn’t help. Low-level employees have little discretion; company policies are set at headquarters and are transmitted throughout the business by computers. Be polite, stand your ground, and maybe the employee will poke the computer in such a way that you’ll get what you want.