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A couple of weeks ago, I was in San Francisco and my friends and I were heading to the delicious Volcano Curry, where you can find decent portions of Japanese-style curry being served for a relatively good price.

On the way to the restaurant, I withdrew some cash from an East West Bank branch.  Upon seeing the ATM action, a person in the group asked if I banked with East West, and if I liked the bank.

“Oh actually, I have an account at Charles Schwab Bank, and they refund all ATM fees.  They’re pretty bad ass.”

“Ah, is Schwab a good bank then?”  the person asked.

“Good service so far. Haven’t got screwed yet so I like them.”

Its funny that my immediate thoughts and standard to the quality of a bank is how much, if any, has the bank taken advantage of me.

Charles Schwab, by all accounts, has very decent banking and financial products.  While I haven’t used my brokerage account heavily, I have used my checking account and debit card extensively while traveling , knowing full well that I’ll get a decent conversion rate if I withdraw cash while abroad, and the convenience of having any ATM fees refunded is also a nice perk.

Each time that I’ve called Schwab with a question, my call was answered promptly by a U.S. representative in a professional and courteous manner.  And yes, my questions and concerns are dealt with within the duration of the call.

Despite all these positive attributes, the quickest way I can convey to a person how much I like my bank is how little the bank has screwed me over.

What strange standards we have these days.

It’s been awhile since I’ve highlighted worthwhile customer service stories. Here’s a decent customer service done-right story straight from today’s Reddit front page:

Trader Joe’s did something awesome!

My mom is very worried about my grandfather, age 89. He’s a retired engineer and a navy officer of WWII who lives on his own in an apartment complex. He hardly keeps enough food for himself because he feels as though he can drive out whenever he’s hungry (and live off of cereal and prune juice). The problem is that he got snowed in today. He told my mom that one day without food couldn’t hurt, but my mom would not accept that. She ended up calling a bunch of places trying to find one that would deliver to him. She eventually ended up asking if Trader Joe’s did delivery and they told her they could in this instance. She read out a big order and then proceeded to ask them how she should pay. They told there was no need to pay and said, “Merry Christmas!” Trader Joe’s doesn’t do delivery, nor give food out for free normally. I’m glad to see people out in the world care about strangers and help out.

Follow-up: They delivered the food within 30 minutes and further clarification from my mom reveals that when she was ordering food, they kept suggesting other items for him (he’s on a low sodium diet). He ended up getting a few days worth of food from them. In case people are wondering, it’s the Trader Joe’s in Wayne PA. The funniest part is now my grandpa is trying to leave his apartment in the snow to thank them, but I think we’ve stopped him.

Via [Reddit.com]

Kudos to Trader Joe’s and whoever handles their social media marketing for keeping on top of things and responding to the story (the Narwhal is a nice touch too).  I hardly ever shop there since I’m kind of a cheap ass (though from reading the comments I may be making too much of an assumption about its prices), but businesses that are pro-customer should always get a shout-out.

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So I just got off the phone with American Express and got my Blue converted to the Blue Cash.  Although I was routed to an oversea call center, the total call time including wait time was a relatively short 6 minutes and 23 seconds.  Not too shabby.

After the painless customer service call center experience, I realized that the experience I just received was rather rare and uncommon.  Most calls to custom service call centers are plagued with incredibly long wait time with a mix of service reps who can’t help, won’t escalate your problem, or can’t resolve the issue you’re calling about within one phone call.

Here are three financial companies that I don’t dread calling:

1. American Express

I’m not sure if I’m just lucky or if American Express customer service personnel are just a cut above the rest, but I’ve consistently received top notch service from each of the time I called American Express.  In fact, just two years ago when my friends and I went to Hawaii and had questions regarding the car rental collision service coverage benefits, a friendly rep spent the lengthy time on the phone with us, going through the card benefit and breaking down the pros and cons for us.

This isn’t to say that American Express is a perfect company, as with any such large corporation, I’m quite sure there was instances where customers have received bad customer service, but overall I’ve received great service and thus American Express easily made this short list.

2. TradeKing

TradeKing, the discount broker that consistently received high marks for customer service and satisfaction, is one of the company I’d have no trouble calling.  Whether its the online chat service or a call to their customer service line (1-877-495-5464), TradeKing was always available to provide me with friendly and timely customer service.  This probably reads like a gigantic corny customer service testimonial, but it honestly is nice to be able to not dread calling a customer service phone line.

3. ING Direct

From the first time I forgot my customer login number to the few times I’ve had trouble with my account, ING Direct phone reps were always able to help me.  This is a reason why I continue to have my account and a relationship with the online bank, despite the fact that their savings APY rate is not as competitive to their competitors.  When it comes to high-yield savings account, I’d always refer first-timers to ING Direct, as their speedy service and transfer makes ING Direct an ideal recommendation for online banking novices.

Got other companies (even non-financial ones) that you don’t dread calling?  Got ones that you hate to the very bone of your being?  I personally hate calling T-Mobile and Time Warner.  Feel free to praise or rant with me.

Shop till you drop, yo.

Any feedbacks and a few clicks on the voting poll will greatly be appreciated.

I’ll be flying out tonight to New York City (bleh to long flights) to attend a small blogging conference being held on Wednesday by the good folks at Consumer Reports, and one of the topics — is of course — on how new medias (social networking, blogs, videos etc.) are helping consumers in today’s busy marketplace.

So, on that note, here’s a quick poll for your clicking pleasure (comments are also greatly appreciated, click here if you don’t see the poll in your RSS reader):

[poll=2]

For me, depending on the item… I will research extensively via search engine, head to one of the specialized niche message boards, read about user opinions… and hopefully by the time I’m done fiddling with all that, whatever it was that I wanted to buy would be out of my mind.

And then, if I really do in fact need it… I’ll use various price comparison engine; search for coupons and deals; read reviews on the web retailer I’m considering buy from; and finally make the purchase.

I guess I could make it easy on myself sometimes and just buy it all on Amazon.

P.S. Never been to New York City before, so one of the first place I’ll check out is the American Natural History Museum. Yeah, you bet your ass I’m a nerd.

Creative Commons License top photo credit: Armel*

Rockstar Termie!

Post Highlight:

  • Consumer Action Handbook published every year by the US government.
  • “Uncle Sam’s bible for the buyers.”
  • Handbook includes tips on consumer credit, consumer privacy, product warranties, and more. Link to free copy below.

Every year, the swell people at the United States General Services Administration produces the Consumer Action Handbook, which AARP likes to call “Uncle Sam’s bible for the buyers.”

Indeed, if you read through the entire book, you will most likely become the Gandalf of savvy consumers (didn’t he die at the end or something though?). Here’s 13 quick tips from the handbook, in case you’re curious, and also in case you have a 1996 PC that crashes whenever you load Adobe Reader 3.0.

  1. A deal that sounds too good to be true usually is! Offers that often fall into this category are promises to fix your credit problems, low-interest credit cards, deals that let you skip credit card payments, business/job opportunities, risk-free investments, and free travel.
  2. Extended warranties or service contracts are rarely worth what you pay for them. See page 2 of the handbook for questions you should ask before you say yes to one of these contracts.
  3. Say no to credit insurance offers. Often offered with credit cards, car loans, and home mortgages, it is almost always better to purchase regular property, life, or disability insurance.
  4. There is no universal three-day cooling-off period. Don’t be me misled into thinking that you have an automatic three days to cancel a purchase. Only a few types of contracts give you a right to cancel.
  5. Think twice before sharing personal information. Protect your privacy and avoid unauthorized use of your personal information by following the advice on page 39 of the handbook.
  6. Beware of payday and tax refund loans. Interest rates on these loans are usually excessive. Even a high-interest cash advance on a credit card could be better option.
  7. Not all plastic cards offer the same protections. Your liability for the unauthorized use of a gift card and debit/ATM card may be much higher than the $50 maximum on your credit card.
  8. Real estate agents represent the seller, not the buyer. When buying, consider hiring an agent or lawyer who represents you.
  9. Home improvement and auto repairs are the subject of frequent complaints. Second opinions are especially important when you are dealing with a repair service you do not know.
  10. Think twice before you rent-to-own. Interest rates on rent-to-own purchases can be very high. If you miss a payment, you could end up with nothing. Consider other options such as buying second-hand at a thrift shop or through ads in your local newspaper.
  11. Don’t buy under stress. Research suggest senior citizens, people in crisis (e.g., coping with a death or debt), college students, small business owners, minorities, and immigrants are especially at risk of being victimized. Avoid making big-ticket purchases during times of duress.
  12. Be cautious of “Buy Here, Pay Here” lots. If you decide to buy a car from a used car lot, be sure to read all the papers before you sign. Don’t sign contracts that allow the dealership to change the finance rate AFTER you leave the lot.
  13. Work-at-Home ads usually don’t pay off. Be especially wary of ads that promise huge annual salaries; they often require expensive upfront fees with no guarantee. You risk losing your money and wasting a lot of time and energy.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Lloyd Budd

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I just came back from abroad, and after weeping a little bit over my thinner wallet, I made a mental note to myself to never underestimate my spending ability when currency conversion is involved; but, that’s a post for another time.

What this post is about is what I found prior to my trip, during my annual end-of-the-year cleanup (that started in 2007). While dumping out loads of cardboard boxes containing packing peanuts from my closet, I found this little faded-out gem:

Mmm... donuts

A black, extra-large (because it was supposedly cool to wear oversize clothings back then), Homer Simpsons “Intel Inside” T-shirt. My very first online purchase.

Nearly a decade ago back in 1998, Intel started an advertising campaign featuring Homer Simpson, which included related merchandises for sale on Intel’s website. Although having never seen the actual TV commercial, while browsing the web I saw the T-shirt for sale and immediately thought about the potential cool factor in wearing the shirt to school.

Being the good 15 year-old boy that I was, I asked my mom if I could use my credit card (authorized user) to buy the T-shirt.

“Mom, can I buy a Homer Simpson T-shirt online?” I asked.

“A what T-shirt?” my mom responded.

“Homer Simpson. You know, from TV.”

“Who? And why do you need a T-shirt, you have plenty in the closet.”

About 15 minutes later, I was able to convince my mom that it was (probably) safe to buy things online with a credit card, and that Intel will most likely not steal our personal information to commit credit card fraud.

So with the aid of my trusty old Intel DX4 100 along with a ridiculously priced U.S. Robotics modem, I typed my personal information into Netscape Navigator and proceeded to make my very first online purchase — a product from a marketing campaign, no less.

What a difference it’s been since 1998. Nowadays, when I make purchases online, I expect them delivered within a week. I expect prompt responses to my email, and I expect reasonable shipping rates. (No more $7.99 to ship a damn T-shirt!) I even expect easy return policies, and little to no restocking fees. In short, I have become the fickle online consumer that was irritating me just a few years ago.

I didn’t simply start purchasing things online on a regular basis since that day, but it did became more of the norm for me as I complete one transaction after the next. Things got especially easier when I realized that federal law protects consumer against unauthorized credit card charges.

Still, even with the protection against unauthorized charges, being an online consumer still requires some amount of prudence — after all, you are providing your personal information to a third party, trusting that they will secure your information with some amount of responsibility. You are also expecting a smooth transaction, free of fraud reports and claims to make.

To add more value to this post so that it’ll be a tad bit more than a simple reminiscing post, you’ll find some tips below for a safer online buying experience.

Five Tips for a Safer, Smoother Online Purchase

  1. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
    The online marketplace is an extremely competitive field, and as such, you may occasionally come across some ridiculously priced widget. Think twice before you filled out the form and hit submit! Lower prices don’t necessary equate to a scam website, but there may be other reasons behind the great price.Take my recent holiday shopping experience as an example, where I search the web for the best place to buy a digital camera. After using the usual price comparison sites, I narrow my purchasing choices down to Amazon.com and two other lesser-known online retailers specializing in cameras. The prices on those two other sites were 10 ~ 20% cheaper than Amazon! Digging further, I found out why.

    The two other retailers employs aggressive after-sale tactics, often requiring you to call them to confirm the purchase. During that call, they will try to sell you additional accessories and packages. Was a savings of $20-30 worth the hassle? At the end, I went with the sure bet of hassle-free shopping and expected delivery time frame of Amazon.com.

  2. Use consumer friendly credit cards.
    And by this I mean credit cards with easy unauthorized transaction claim process, charge back request, fraud report, and transaction dispute. Although federal law protects you from unauthorized charges, it doesn’t mean your credit card company will make the process of claim easy. Some companies have multiple reporting methods and easy reporting process while some makes it so difficult that you’ll rather just eat the cost due to the time involved. Sub-prime cards generally have a lower emphasis on customer service compare to prime rate cards.

    Buying things with a consumer friendly card will also ensure you some level of protection when the merchant don’t deliver as promised. When I buy big-ticket items online, or stuff that I’m a bit unsure about, I always use my American Express.

  3. Use customer review websites to know the merchant better.
    Price comparison sites like PriceGrabber, BizRate, PriceWatch and many others will often have merchant ratings attach to them. If it is a big enough ticket item, read through the reviews carefully and take note of the negative ones. What problems did these people have? Do the reviews sound subjective? Is there a common trend among these negative reviews? If 10 people gave a simple “great place to shop” review while 4 others give a “bad shipping time” review, then you should most likely expect some shipping mishap with the particular merchant.
  4. Know the delivery time frame.
    Just so you don’t sit around the front porch all week long to wait for the UPS guy (for those with shady neighbors), check the expected delivery time frame before you purchase the item. What is the usual processing time frame? How long does shipping take? By what method? UPS, FedEx, DHL, or postal service?
  5. Read and understand the purchasing and returning policies.
    For purchases that warrant it, you should definitely read through the purchase and return policies carefully. What is deadline for return? Is there different return policies for different types of products? Is there a restock fee? How are exchanges handled? Sometimes, some products can be returned within 30 days while others need to be returned within 15. Some stuff such as software and media can’t even be returned if you’ve opened the packaging.

    Consider the merchant’s return process too. Do they make it easy for you to make returns? Many established retailers these days will include a return shipping label, or provide you with the ability to print one from online. Understanding and knowing the process will make it easier for you to return an unwanted or defective item — instead of simply keeping the item to avoid the hassles involved.

Got tips of your own? Or maybe stories about your very first online purchase? Do share.

I'm free after you submit your soul to us!I’m generally pretty good about mail-in rebates (in that I try and avoid them completely).

But alas, the past few weeks had me buying computer components with more rebates than I’d like to deal with. With my insurmountable volumes of To-Dos (such as eating & sleeping), I quickly forgot the three stickied rebate forms I had taped to the desk.

By the time I remember the rebate forms, they were well past the postmarked deadline. Argh. (I contemplated messing with the dates on the invoice but then I remembered that’s mail fraud. Heh. Kidding!)

Dealing with rebates can be quite a pain in the arse, but these days rebate clearinghouses are making the process just a little bit more bearable by actually informing you if your rebate submissions were qualified or not.

Here are some tips on submitting rebates:

  • Do exactly as the rebate form instructs. If they want your soul, send it in.
  • Pay careful attention to the effective date on the rebate promotion.
  • Submit your rebate forms well within postmarked deadline. Even if you are sure you’ve dropped your mail at the postal office before last collection cut-off time, your mail piece may not be postmarked on that date.
  • Submit the proper UPC or other proof of purchase. Remember, when you remove the UPC from the box, you generally won’t be able to return the item. So be sure you want to keep it before you send in the rebate!
  • Keep a record and make copies of forms and invoices you submit. Once you send them in, you’re not getting them back!
  • Most rebates are processed by rebate clearinghouses under contract (such as Young America). If you have beef with your rebate, you’ll get much further contacting the number on the rebate form than the manufacture or store in question.

Once you’ve made sure everything is completed to the letter, sit back, relax, and watch your mail box for your rebate check. It’ll most likely be processed within this decade. Sweet!

Sometimes, you just gotta pay more for better service. Here’s a post on five things I’ll pay more in order to receive better “service,” and seven other things that I don’t care too much about.

The Five That I’ll Pay More For…

1. Health care

If I can get cheaper x-rays at the local clinic versus the large regional hospital, or have my friend do some dental cleaning for free, why not? But if I ever have to make a choice between… say, a hospital that cost less versus one that’s more expensive but have better care, I’d pay more for the better care — especially if its for an important procedure.

2. Education

One of the things that I’m slightly happy about is the fact that after decades of college, I still don’t have any student loan debt. Although I haven’t paid too much for my education (state university and community college), I believe I would pay more for a better education if I was given the choice to.

This is especially true if it was for my children. Obviously I haven’t put too much thought into it, but if the insitution (whether it be K-5 or university) can provide a better education and experience for my children, I would opt for the better choice — even if its more expensive.

In short, I wouldn’t want money to be the main reason on why my children can’t attend top-tier insitutions. If anything, it should be because they’re too stupid to get into the school.

3. Auto repair

Mind you, auto repair as in — the car engine went kablooey— not “car repair” as in: a new windshield wiper, oil change, tire rotation, air filter change, brake pad/rotor/drums servicing, or any other kind of preventive maintenance care on your car.

One of my biggest beef are with auto servicing shops that attempt to “diagnose” your car and give you advice on “repairing” your vehicle for ludicrous amount of money. If your car is out of warranty and there’s a problem, take it took a reputable auto repair shop — not an auto servicing shop (especially those chain ones).

When my car has problems that require moderate to serious repair, I take it to Herman’s Expert Automotive in Anaheim. I’ve referred them to friends and family, but some of my friends have complained that the shop is too expensive. The thing is, although their labor charges may be about $10 an hour more than some other auto repair shops in the area, I sincerely believe their price to be extremely fair and competitive, especially when you factor in the “actually-fixes-car” factor.

If I’m going to spend money to fix a car problem — especially if the problem has to do with the safety aspect of the car — I would spend more money to get it done right the first time; and if not, I’ll have the comfort to know that the shop will have a guaranteed on the workmanship and parts.

4. Internet Connection

Including this in my list made me realized how dependent I am on the Internet, and a part of that made me feel sad, but uh… oh well?

I remember back in 1995~1996, we got a separate phone line at home just so we can utilize dial-up Internet without getting interrupted by incoming phone calls. In fact, before the Internet Connection Sharing feature was available in Windows, I was using Sygate Home Network to share a dial-up connection to the rest of the household.

Thinking about it now, I’m not sure how that was tolerable but we endured the slow speed for years.

Finally, around 1999, broadband internet service was available in my area via the cable company and we immediately forked over the extra money for faster Internet. I still distinctively remember the first time I browse the web on broadband: I was downloading some adult material PC game demo at around 600 Kbytes/s. It was heavenly.

So uh… yeah. I’ll continue to pay more for faster Internet. I have to. I think.

5. Hotel for special vacation

Let’s say somehow I tricked some girl into marrying me, I’d most likely spend the extra penny for a nice honeymoon. See, the girl I’ll marry won’t care about these type of things (because you know, she won’t be materialistic), but it’d be a nice treat for the both of us, because it’s a special trip. As for hotels on general trips, read the entry below…

The Seven That I Don’t Care About

1. Cellular phone

I’ve been using a cellular phone for almost a decade now, and all the services seems to be about the same. The cellular service commercials can tout the coverage, support, and features all they want, but as far as I’m concern, they all suck, and they’re all expensive.

2. Restaurants

Some people really care about the service they get from restaurants, and I understand it completely. But for whatever reason, I don’t care too much about the services I get when I frequent dine-in restaurants.

It’s not that I like bad services, or don’t want people to provide good service to me, it’s just I don’t really mind one way or another. Bring the food to me (eventually) and I’ll be happy. If the food is good and hot, my experience is good. If the food taste like crap, then my experience is bad.

And hey, if I get truly get extraordinary bad service? I’ll be saving money on tip.

3. Hotels for general trips

I’ve stayed at numerous types of lodging through the years, and I believe I’m okay with whatever it is as long as I know what to expect. If I’m going on a short trip, or a trip by myself, I won’t spend too much on a hotel with great service or facility. As long as it’s moderately safe and clean, I’ll pick the cheaper one over the fancy one anytime of the day.

As mentioned, I won’t actively seek out crappy hotels with rude staffs, but if I’m paying $40 per night or less, I don’t really expect to be treated like royalty.

4. Air travel

After thousands of miles and numerous international flights, I still haven’t got the chance to try out first or business class air travel. Am I missing out? Probably.

But the wallet says no thanks and my brain says who cares, so unless we’re talking about air travel along with the “hotel for special vacations” listed above, I will be content with economy class, and spend the extra money on other things — like, even faster Internet connection. Heh.

5. Haircuts

I have family and friends that spend $60+ at salons to get their haircut. When my barber raised his price from $8 to $10, I contemplated cutting my own hair. I never understood the whole expensive haircut deal, especially if its for a routine haircut. I can probably understand it if you need to get your haircut done at some fancy place before your wedding, but $60+ every two weeks or every month? Not my cup o’ tea.

6. Oil change

Although an oil change is an important preventive care maintenance for the car, I generally just choose whatever quick-lube place I have a coupon to, at an interval of about 5,000 to 10,000 miles (depending on my driving habit for the period).

Again, I probably won’t choose the place that has been on the local news for scamming people, but I certainly won’t be paying more at some brand name quick-lube place just because they’ll vacuum my floors and do some crazy 30-point “inspection” on my car.

7. Supermarkets

Some supermarkets, their goods aside, do provide better services — such as the cashier check-out lines will actually be faster than the self check out lines. But yeah, I don’t care if I have to bag my own goods or fiddle with a self check out machine (not anymore anyway). When I go to a supermarket, I just want to buy the things I want at a reasonable price.

Yeah, it’ll be nice if the store has a policy of actually staffing the cashier so that you don’t have to wait a year to leave — but it’s just not something I care too much about.

So. Those are mine. What’s yours?

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