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Published on July 27th, 2008 | by Rahel Bailie


Website limitations foil free trade between Canada and U.S.

Interesting, isn’t it, how a little 5-digit code can clog up business transactions between countries?

I travel a lot on business and when my Canadian cell phone bills (about $1.50/minute, after roaming + long-distance charges) mounted, I thought I’d get myself a U.S. cell phone in Oregon. I went into the local Newberg super-grocer and asked to get a cell phone plan from a national company—in fact, the same company that is partial owner of my Canadian cell phone provider.

After the first half-hour task of figuring out whether a non-US resident could actually lease a U.S. cell phone, I was approved and paid the first and last month’s payments at the store. Because I’ve had dealings with U.S. companies before, I had pre-arranged with my client that I would rent a closet from her for $1/month so I would have an official U.S. address. (Technically, the address was for bills, though I opted for e-billing.) So far, so good.

The user experience soured when I tried to make my first monthly payment through the phone company’s site and then over the phone. Because my credit card has a Canadian postal code, it can’t be processed by the site or by the unfailingly cheerful customer service folks who answer their phones.

The zip code field can’t deal with anything other than five digits, and unlike other sites (for example,, where the customer service person cheerfully offered, “oh, for an address outside the US, you just choose Arizona and enter 99999 as the zip code”), this site needed the address to match my credit card address. So every month, I drive 35 minutes to the nearest Circuit City location where I pay my bill. Ironically, the Verison kiosk there processe my Canadian credit card without a hitch.

The assumption that consumers are within a particular geographic area is a sure way to alienate them. I’ve long resented the fact that I can’t use discount airfare sites such as PriceLine because I live a half-hour drive too far north. Their sites continue to come up in a market they don’t service; in fact, I often click their ad links as an outlet for the annoyance they cause. So when a company can’t be bothered to fix a broken technology for a legitimate market, that sends a powerful message about what they really think about getting business.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

One Response to Website limitations foil free trade between Canada and U.S.

  1. I’ve had this problem a number of times myself, mostly with US based businesses and it’s tremendously frustrating. Do certain businesses feel the Canadian market is too small to be bothered with? If they need perspective on this, maybe we suggest that they cut California out of their US market. Why not? It has the same population as Canada. I know there are significant costs associated with doing international business, but we’re a ripe market, we’re willing to buy.

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