Expert Interview with Ellen Roseman on Being a Smarter Consumer for Mint

Most of us, at one point or another, have had to call the customer service line for a product or service we've purchased or want to purchase, only to have to navigate seemingly endless menus commandeered by robots or else floundering to explain our questions to a non-native English speaker answering our call a world away.

The experiences can often leave us feeling frustrated and helpless - unable to solve the problem we'd called about. And despite the digital age where communication is seemingly constant and seamless, these customer service issues persist. In fact, consumer affairs expert Ellen Roseman says that today it might be harder than ever to reach companies through traditional channels.

"Many large firms outsource service to call centers, where staff follow scripts and aren't allowed to escalate to the head office," she says. "Some customers give up because they don't have time to continue. Some go to the media to open up lines of communication."

And while the rise of social media has given both customers and companies a chance to interact more, only a minority of customers can use Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to air their complaints - the rest end up suffering in silence, she adds.

Ellen, who writes about personal finance and consumer issues for the Toronto Star, is passionate about giving the little people a voice when dealing with major corporations.

"Consumer injustices can be small - a few cents for each person - but can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess profits for corporations," she says.

And while individuals might not see a payoff after weighing the cost of pursuing complaints against the benefits of succeeding, consumer advocates in the media like Ellen know the only way to keep businesses accountable is to make sure everyone is heard.

We recently checked in with the author of Fight Back: 81 Ways to Help You Save Money and Protect Yourself from Corporate Trickery to learn more about what frustrates consumers the most in today's marketplace and get tips for how we can all be savvier customers. Here's what she had to say:

Can you tell us a little about your background?

In 1970, I started as a reporter at Style, a trade publication, writing about the introduction of long skirts after a decade of minis. The long skirt flopped and led to women wearing pants to the office. That was my first taste of a consumer revolt.

I covered consumer issues at two large Canadian newspapers and then switched to the business section, where I started writing about mutual funds. I found that area was a hotbed of consumer activism.

You've written extensively about consumer issues. What makes you so passionate about this topic?

I love telling people about injustices they may encounter in their lives as consumers and how to fight back. It's exciting to see them take up the challenge and force companies to change their ways. Governments often amend the laws as a result of media publicity.

What industries do you think are the biggest offenders when it comes to unfair practices toward consumers?

Telecom troubles usually top the list. Canadians have three big wireless providers, which charge high prices and bind customers to unfair contracts. Complaints about phone, Internet and TV service keep me busy every day.

Another big area is financial services - everything from banking to credit to investing. We have a few large banks in Canada which like to say they're on the consumer's side. But their practices are often designed to maximize profits and favor shareholders.

What are the most common consumer frustrations, concerns or questions your readers come to you with?

Consumers are frustrated by how much energy it takes to reach large companies. And when companies settle a dispute, they don't always compensate clients for the time spent pursuing complaints. So I go to bat for my readers to get them extra concessions.

Contracts can be confusing when written in legalese and laid out in a font size too small to read. Many customers don't check their contracts, but trust what they are told by salespeople. That leads to heartache when a company denies a claim as based on hearsay.

What can we do to become smarter consumers? What is the payoff for educating ourselves?

People pay attention to consumer issues only when they're researching or in the middle of doing a transaction. I look for "teachable moments," when issues are in the news and readers care about them. For example, I'll write about sewer backup insurance after a heavy rainstorm that floods many basements.

I don't expect readers to educate themselves about everything they do as consumers. There's not enough time in the world for that. But I tell them there's a big payoff for asking questions, such as: "What is the price? Can you do better? If I'm a long-time customer, can I get a better deal? What options do I have?"

What are some of your favorite resources for educating consumers?

Consumer Reports magazine is worth reading if you buy an expensive product or you want to know how long things last. I also advise checking product reviews at Amazon.com, which covers much more than books and music.

When it comes to fighting back, you can get educated at Consumerist.com (owned by Consumer Reports) and Elliott.org (a consumer advocate who specializes in travel). You can subscribe to their feeds on Facebook.

What do you think are some of the easiest ways consumers can find savings on products and services they use every day?

Check companies' websites frequently to see what special prices they offer. Subscribe to email services to get informed about deals. (This works well with airlines and tour packages.) Look for coupon offers in print or online.

Stay informed about the lowest prices offered in an industry sector and play off one company against another. If you have been with a supplier for a long time, you have some leverage and can get a lower price by suggesting that you're ready to leave.

What about some surprising/unusual/under-the-radar ways consumers can find savings?

Talk to your friends and family members about what they pay for products and services so you can see if you are being overcharged. I often hear from neighbors who check each other's utility bills to find out if they are out of line.

What are some best practices for reaching out to a company whose products and services you are unhappy with?

I suggest doing a Google search for a company's email address and phone number. Add "complaints" to the search and see what comes up. If you can't get through to a company, try reaching out through social media. The Better Business Bureau can also help you reach a firm's executive level.

Follow Ellen on Twitter and Facebook.