Monday, June 14, 2010

Why I'm Not Boycotting BP

I've received a fair amount of e-mail lately--form letters from various organizations that have me on their mailing lists; "real" messages from real people that I really know; and messages from presumably real people whom I know only via the interwebs--encouraging me to boycott BP.

In my youth, I was pretty well inclined to boycott businesses and products that seemed particularly odious. And to this day there are plenty that I tend to avoid--Walmart at the top of the list; big surprise--but I wouldn't go so far as to call it a boycott.

And right out of the box I rejected the idea of boycotting BP.


Innocent bystanders.

Look, I'm as nauseated as anyone about what's going on in the Gulf of Mexico, about the people who were killed when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, about BP's ineptitude and its putting profits ahead of people. And if I had a really good way to hurt BP, believe me, I'd use it.

But in practice "boycott BP" really means "boycott service stations and convenience stores that carry the BP brand." And that would injure the "innocent bystanders"--the kid working the cash register for slightly more than minimum wage, maybe--way more than it would hurt BP.

Besides, the amount of business I run through the local BP-affiliated convenience stores is practically nil already. I would have to start shopping and fueling there exclusively for the next six months in order for anyone to notice the blip when I then withdrew my business. Not worth it.

My sentiments are not rooted entirely in nobility, mind. There's a visceral component as well. I was jettisoned from my position of nearly a decade with the local office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (see my previous posts, Said, and Done and What Passes for Christianity) when too many people in too many congregations, mad at the national ELCA organization because it voted last summer to move toward doing away with bigotry against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, decided to express their anger by withholding funding from the national body. Unfortunately this has the effect of withholding funding from the local synod as well (for some non-givers this effect was unintentional; for some, not), and the ensuing decline in receipts led to the elimination of two positions (including mine) and the near-elimination of a third.

Innocent bystanders, caught in the crossfire of unthinking and uncaring people.

Well, having been on the receiving end of that kind of thinking--if "thinking" is the word I want--I'm not in a real hurry to practice it. Actions have consequences, and not always the consequences we intend or expect.

Certainly I won't go out of my way to start fueling at BP stations in my community. But nor will I boycott them.

Then if the kid behind the counter loses his job, at least my conscience will be clear.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Another Good Way to Alienate Customers!

I have now spent nearly three hours over the course of two days attempting to access my pension account from my former employment. What a colossal waste of time--some of it my fault, but much of it the fault of an astonishingly badly designed system.

My quest began last week, when I contacted my financial advisor and asked him to be thinking of what I might do with the small amount I have in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pension plan. From the moment I was informed that I was to be cast out of my nine-year position with the ELCA's South Dakota Synod, I knew that I would not keep my money in their pension fund for long. A report on National Public Radio the week before last, indicating that religious organizations are exempt from federal laws that protect workers' pensions, which can and does result in workers, as usual, getting the short end of the stick when their church-affiliated employer decides to terminate the plan, reminded me that I have a few pennies entrusted to a religious organization and that I might be better off getting them into a secular account quickly.

In preparation for my meeting with my financial guy, I had the brilliant idea of printing out my most recent account information, rather than rely on the latest quarterly report.

And the fun began.

I went online to log in to my Board of Pensions account. I haven't done this very often--maybe twice--so the first hurdle I encountered was not knowing my password. I set up the account so long ago that I didn't have it in my password database. I made a few likely guesses, to no avail. The website does of course provide a "forgot my password" link...but there's a catch: I not only needed my password, but also the e-mail address I used to set up the account!

Do you have any idea how many e-mail addresses I have?

Further, since my former employer used the e-mail system at Augustana College, and the college changed its e-mail format--and since the synod subsequently set up its own e-mail address scheme--I had no fewer than seven e-mail possibilities from the office alone! And the Board of Pension's website is not set up to deal with that possibility.

So I hit the "contact us" link, explained the issue, and waited for a reply.

I didn't have to wait long, so points for them, but the reply wasn't that helpful. It boiled down to speculating that if I hadn't accessed my account for an unspecified while (true that) the system might no longer remember me. The suggestion was to try entering as if I were a new user and set up a new account.

But in the meantime, I found a note on which I had recorded my password! No e-mail address, alas, but with the password I should be able to work out the e-mail address.

I made a list of likely addresses. Eleven of them.

The system liked the sixth one on my list. Of course, I had to re-enter my password twice with each attempt. But I'm lucky the system didn't lock me out after a couple-three shots.

Okay, so now I'm in. And here's a handy button I can click on to Access My Retirement Account. Perfect!

Yeah, well, "perfect" might be overstating it.

First I get the screen that tells me You are about to leave this site. This is almost never a good sign. The screen tells me also
    To access your online retirement account you will be required to sign in at our record keeper, ACS HR Solutions.
    To sign in, use the PIN you received in the mail. If you do not remember your PIN, please select Continue and use the Forgot Your PIN? feature in the login box. You will receive a PIN in the mail. Please remember your sign-in information for future visits.
Already I know that this will not end well.

But I bravely depress the friendly green Continue button anyhow. And down the rabbit hole I go!

The entrance page is straightforward enough: A bunch of small type about the retirement funds, including information that only inclines me to accelerate my departure:
    Neither the ELCA Board of Pensions nor its funds are subject to registration, regulation or reporting under the Investment Company Act of 1940, the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 or state securities laws. Members, therefore, will not be afforded the protections of those provisions of those laws and related regulations.
Yikes! Okay what else? Ah, yes: Here's the log-in box. I need my Social Security Number, which I know, and, as promised, a PIN, which I don't. I don't dispute that at some point in the distant, foggy past the board mailed me a PIN. But I certainly don't remember it, and it seems a waste of time to go hunting for it when, I have been assured, there is a "Forgot Your PIN? feature in the login box."

And there is! So I click Forgot Your PIN?. And get a screen telling me that I need to enter my SSN first, and then click on Answer Challenge Question or Mail a PIN Reminder. Okay, that makes sense. I do so. And click Answer Challenge Question. This is looking promising.

Hahahahah! Foolish human! I am rewarded with a screen that says
    The information you entered to log into the system does not match our records.
Which does not inspire much confidence. I like the idea that my pension fund remembers who I am. If nothing else, their records should include my Social Security Number, no? So at this point I realize that I was right to experience misgivings as soon as I was told that I'd be shuttled off to a third-party site, and that my initial instinct--viz., This will not end well--was accurate.

And then, to add insult, the screen that tells me they don't know who I am concludes with this advice:
    Please Log In again now.
Uh-huh. You know, the only reason a person would be reading this message at all is that he or she could not log in in the first place, yes? So the suggestion is not only pointless but downright cruel.

And yet...

So I click the Log In link and have another go at it. This time I enter my SSN and click the Mail a PIN Reminder button. I mean, better than nothing, right? I'll get the PIN in a couple-three days, access my account, print out current numbers for my financial guy, and make an appointment with him to see what great ideas he has about putting the money in a safer place.

Except that the Mail a PIN Reminder button takes me right back to the "does not match our records" screen.

So what we have here, folks, is a "help" feature that is 100% unhelpful. It can't help you with a forgotten PIN, it can't issue you a "challenge question," it can't mail you a reminder, it can't do a blessed thing except waste your time, for it doesn't know who you are even when you give it your SSN repeatedly.

And we also have a certain growing misgiving about the management of the ELCA pension fund, if the "record keeper" doesn't seem to have a record of me.

Which, given what I know about religious organizations' exemption from pension-fund protection laws, makes me feel a little anxious.

Naturally the board's 800 number is answered only during business hours, so I'll have to wait another day to see about getting the information I need.

Oh, and I did dig through the filing cabinet and found all the information from when I signed up with the fund nearly a decade ago. No sign of any PIN, however. So we wait.

Now you may be inclined to say, "Hey, Ace, it's not the Board of Pension's fault you couldn't remember what e-mail address you signed up with all those years ago." And you will be entirely correct. You may be further inclined to say, "It's not ACS HR Solutions's fault that you can't find your PIN." And again you will encounter no argument from me.

But it is somebody's fault that the retirement-account system is badly organized and provides no help to customers who need it. I would say that that is a responsibility shared by ELCA Board of Pensions and ACS HR Solutions. And I would say that it's worse to promise online assistance that doesn't exist than to simply tell the user that he or she must call the 800 number during business hours to receive assistance.

As a lover of irony, however, I must chuckle at the fact that I entered this little exercise in futility as part of my intention to sever my connection with the ELCA Board of Pensions, so it's not like I can threaten to take my business elsewhere as a result of their goofy online account system.