The New Ombudsperson: Corporate Business Abuses

I don’t know what it is exactly, but a significant handful of my “independent” OO work comes from Canada.  Consumers, businesses and subjects of the Crown have no problem with emailing me in Tulsa and laying it all out on the table.  The common thread and trend is most often “unfair” corporate or institutional practices where the very rules and contracts that are suppose to be honored by “both sides” seem to be changed on a whim or ignored out of convenience; both in the USA and Canada.  This type of situation is very widespread and the more “powerful” prevail by making the rules and then punishing business customers without consideration for the economic downturn or demonstrating ethical practices.  In fact, I would question whether large corporations or institutions currently support consumers and small business interests or are they now more of a threat?  It’s very “brutal” out there right now and getting worse.  Indeed, my practice has been shaped by the “trend of the times” so as to be a truly “independent” entity in facilitating disputes and most often “advocating” for the disadvantaged consumer or partner in a less than ethical relationship with a more powerful corporate or institutional entity.

In a recent case early this year an auto repair business in Alberta first emailed and then called me about a dispute with their bank over their merchant card and POS (point of sale) equipment in their business.  The client had, at the beginning of 2010, made a change of location for their business taking a smaller repair facility than what they had previously.  They had rightfully made moves for their survival given the economy and future projections of a more lengthy “recovery” than government “propaganda” will admit.  Being a good and ethical business too they notified their “big bank” that they had their merchant services with, that they were changing locations, filed an online form to make the change, new business checks, the whole package.  Initially the connecting of the equipment to telecommunications lines for card processing continued without any problem and then about 60 days later a NOTICE came that their account had been reviewed and that they had broken the terms of their agreement and a new contract was to be signed immediately.  Nope, no collaboration, no phone call, nothing… we are all so familiar with this “method” as consumers… are we not?  The client initially did their best to try and determine which part of the contract had been violated so as to trigger the forced termination of their current 3 year agreement, of which they were 2 years into, and the warranted reasoning for a new contract for a longer period, with significant rate increases and no upgrade in services or equipment.  This went on back and forth for about 30 days and then “service” was cut off by “big bank” in Alberta.  To make a very long story short, we reviewed the documents/agreements, current online merchant offers and tried once again to engage the bank of which they refused us as having any LEGAL authority to engage them.  The client also provided a copy of an email where the “big bank” ombuds team “only considers complaints about consumer products and investments”, not merchant services.  Additionally, I could have guessed this part before calling, Ombudsman Banking and Investments for Canada did talk with us and the client in a conference call and “merchant services” are not under their auspices and they could give no other authority or alternative for filing a grievance.  This case yet again confirms “gaps” or areas of practice deemed off limits as dictated by corporate or institutional policy rather than having a policy to address any issue a customer or constituent may have.  This needs changed.

On a personal and rational level, what strikes me most often, is the “double speak” we hear in the media versus what is really going on.  In this case “big bank” had no problem cutting off the “life blood” of the business, debit and credit card transactions, in what was still technically a valid agreement.  It was at this point my OO services were over and I had to rescue a business using my years of wisdom in my “other practice” to keep them alive.  A solution was formulated and implemented in hours with  some built in redundancy and the client was back collecting payment for services rendered.  The case is still open and I told the client they really won’t press this issue until year 3 is up, but if they contact them further, contact me and then cooperate if they want the hundreds of dollars in used POS equipment back.  Don’t take it to them NOW, wait till the contract is up, keep it connected if you can.  And so it goes for now…

I have long said that to really be a good Ombudsperson in today’s world you have to first be very ethical and have a good level of courage to engage in a sort of modern day David and Goliath scenario.  The “external” organizational ombudsperson has plenty of “Blue Ocean” opportunity out there, probably won’t make the fee they would like, but can gain a high degree of satisfaction in their work.  I can report that I am working twice as hard as ever to make less income than previous years, but still, it’s rewarding to be “of service” to others.  Also, these “trends” are not over as the media tries to tell us and as a “Second Wave” of recession/depression approaches.  In my projections I predict this will continue for at least the next 3-5  years as the “common people” get pushed down and out and the “elite” as powerful institutions, continues to “consolidate power” in the newly identified “corporatocracy” and other supporting professional entities align with it.

I sincerely hope that you are “inspired” to make a difference, be proactive on a media story, and grapple with “the right thing to do” in your choices in your own practice; ethical, courageous and altruistic for your clients… it is sorely needed.

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