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How to Behave Like a Canadian Customer

The Bad Guys, Ottawa, May 2012

The way companies do business and treat customers vary widely across industries—and cultures.

Guillermo, an Argentinean immigrant and a new Canadian put it this way in a recent article:

Many of us come from countries where being a customer is a blessing. A blessing for you that have the opportunity to do business with that establishment. And if you don’t like it, just get the fuck out of here. We don’t need you.

In his article, Guillermo explained Mr. Lube, an auto maintenance company, made a mistake during a simple oil and filter change. An error in the guide used by the employee led to said issue. Fortunately, Mr. Lube’s manager took the problem seriously and refunded Guillermo. He noted he felt appreciated as a customer, yet another small blessing of life in Canada.

I completely understand where Guillermo comes from. As I explained before, in France, the cus­tomer is any­thing but “king”—at worse customers are idiot, and at best a minor annoy­ance.

It took me a while to start behaving like a Canadian customer. At first, I marvelled at how accommodating businesses were because in Canada, it’s okay to return something you bought, ask for a refund, demand to speak to a manager, complain about a service etc. I wouldn’t have dared to do so in France, first because there’s little chance the business would actually care, and second because it’s cultural, French customers just suck it up.

But North Americans take their “customer job” seriously. Just go online and you will find consumer-oriented websites like The Consumerist or Red Flag Deal. People are completely okay with complaining and most businesses make it easy to do so with toll-free numbers or customer service desks.

Yet for a long time, I behave as a French customer—I suck it up.

When I first came to Canada, Feng used to work late at night and I often walked to Loblaws on Merivale for quick and easy dinner options. My favourite one was a small quiche I’d pick up in the frozen section—I loved savoury pies and I didn’t exactly have the time, skills and ingredients to bake my own. But two or three times, I ended up with a quiche with mold spots and each time, I only discovered it right before putting the quiche in the oven. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t want to walk back to the supermarket (which was probably closed anyway) yet I had to throw my dinner away. I was mad but I didn’t dare to complain. “The supermarket will probably blame me,” I figured.

I would act very differently now and you can be sure I’d complain at the supermarket! This Loblaws is awful, anyway.

Eventually, a few years ago, I made my first customer complaint. I bought a pair of Skech­ers shoes for work and the sole started falling apart after just a few weeks. I was really annoyed because those were office shoes that I only used indoors. I snapped a picture of the damaged soles and attached it to a complaint letter, along with the receipt that showed the date of purchase.

I was shocked when a few weeks later, the company shipped me a new pair of shoes. It was empowering. I loved it.

Of course, complaining doesn’t always work if the company isn’t receptive or honest. For instance, I just had a terrible experience with TeamBuy, a deal website. Last winter, I bought a voucher for two massages at Glebe Fitness. The first appointment I made in November was cancelled, and so was the second one in April. Glebe Fitness never told me the appointments were cancelled, I’d show just up for nothing. Scheduling a third appointment is now impossible, as all the dates are booked until December 2012. Frankly, I doubt Glebe Fitness wants to honour the voucher.

I emailed TeamBuy and explained the situation. Three emails and several weeks later, I finally received a very curt email fromTeamBuy offering credit towards a future deal. Considering how slow they were to reply and how bad the attitude was, I declined and asked for a refund—I don’t want to use their service ever again. TeamBuy never emailed back.

I could fight the charge with my credit card company but I can’t be bothered. But as a consumer, I will tell all my friends to avoid TeamBuy and future deals featuring Glebe Fitness.

Because that’s also what Canadian consumers do. We have a lot of choices here, and people vote with their wallets. There are plenty of restaurants in Ottawa I would never go to again, and plenty of companies I refuse to do business with after a bad experience. And there are plenty I praise and recommend—because that’s also my job as a customer.

How about you? What kind of customer are you? Have you ever complained to a business? Any businesses you avoid?


French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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