Personal betterment course has the worst money-back guarantee - Macleans.ca
 

Personal betterment course has the worst money-back guarantee

It’s a fine line between tough love and ‘tough luck, pal’


 

Photograph by Chris Bolin

With a shaved head, tattoos and a penchant for speaking his mind, 32-year-old James Derlago may not be the first person you’d expect to find disclosing his innermost thoughts to 30 teary-eyed strangers in a self-help course. Yet, nearly two years ago, Derlago, a garage-door installer from Red Deer, Alta., spent a week at a community centre doing just that. He’d signed up for the free Personal Best (PB) course on the advice of his girlfriend, who’d tried it. Derlago figured he had nothing to lose: after the death of his mother the world had seemed to turn grey. At first Derlago was enthusiastic about the course. He was connecting with others and felt capable of turning a corner. He happily signed up for the second in the three-course series, this one with a $2,100 price tag. For a time, he joined the ranks of Personal Best’s passionate supporters, lauding it to friends.

Then a rare disorder took away his hearing. He couldn’t work, and suddenly money was tight. To his disappointment, he realized his new disability would prevent him from getting much out of the second course, so he sent PB a brief email explaining the situation and requesting a refund. What he assumed would be a minor administrative matter, Derlago says, morphed into months of hostile emails, an unresolved complaint to the Better Business Bureau, and an unrefunded $2,100 fee for a course he didn’t even take.

Derlago, dealing with a new disability and dramatic life changes, was stunned. “I look at this, and wow, if I heard this [from someone else], I’d be disgusted,” says Derlago. “This person lost his hearing, he’s now deaf, and they’re still keeping his money? That’s evil.” But people in the pull-yourself-together trade don’t always see a complaint as a simple business transaction. Derlago was soon deeper into this than he might have expected.

Personal Best is something of an Alberta phenomenon. Since its creation in the ’80s, it has served more than 30,000 people, most of them in that province, according to Jay Fiset, owner of Personal Best Seminars Inc. The Calgarian bought the non-profit’s rights and assets from its previous owners in 1991, when it was on the verge of financial collapse. In his 20s at the time, Fiset had taken three PB courses, which he says helped him reconnect with his high school sweetheart (now his wife) and rebuild family relationships. Determined to keep PB alive, he paid off its debts. Now a for-profit corporation, PB has grown steadily, expanding first in Edmonton and Red Deer and more recently in Grande Prairie last fall, despite the recession.

PB offers a variety of services—life coaching, couples’ weekends, and so on—but most clients start with the Personal Freedom training program, comprising three courses. Level one is typically offered for free, provided participants stay to complete the five-day, 40-hour course. Courses usually involve about 30 to 35 students and are based on what Fiset and Rae-ann Wood-Schatz, who owns the licence to market Personal Best in Alberta, describe as group exercises designed to help people apply the course material to their lives. There is a paid facilitator, and a loyal group of volunteers (all alumni) who do everything from cueing the music to cleaning up.

Like other businesses of its ilk—sometimes known as large group awareness trainings—Personal Best operates mostly by word of mouth. If you don’t know someone who’s taken the course, you’ve probably never heard of it. It does have a loyal following. On Facebook fan pages, enthusiasts like Roman Wasarab sing its praises. The Edmonton-based government employee heard about PB through his trainer at a time when he’d plateaued with his fitness plan. “I knew there was something in my head that was preventing me from moving on.” He took three PB courses. He lost about 90 lb., ran three triathlons in 2009 and organized a charity fundraiser—largely because of PB, he says. Financial administrator Lee Cardwell is only slightly less enthusiastic. She signed up at her son’s PB graduation ceremony and, despite initial skepticism, was won over. Recently she assisted in creating a non-profit to help teens financially so they can participate in PB.

Derlago was just as keen at first, but in retrospect he sees red flags. He recalls an exercise from the first course in which participants formed two parallel lines and were asked to interact with the person opposite: they could shake hands, maintain eye contact or hug. By the end, everyone was hugging. After the break, Fiset pitched PB 2. “You just stepped outside the box and you’re open,” says Derlago, who recalls that most signed a contract committing to pay about $2,100 for PB 2. Others signed up for multiple courses. “People were ready to sign over their houses.” (Fiset notes participants are only pitched twice, and this pitch was made before people went home for the night. “The course isn’t a marketing experience,” he says.)

Having been reassured by a verbal money-back guarantee, Derlago was shocked to later read the fine print and realize the refund clause on the contract he’d signed had a big caveat: to claim the refund you had to complete the course and write a letter within 10 days saying you weren’t satisfied. Without taking the course, all Derlago could do was to transfer the registration to another person. He says when he found out, he tried the first option, asking Wood-Schatz to enrol him in an upcoming course so he could complain and get his money back. But she refused, he says.

Wood-Schatz, for her part, maintains that was always an option, but she wanted to avoid it. “The energy that will bring to the rest of the group isn’t helpful,” she explains. She says she explored different options for accommodating Derlago, even suggesting an interpreter, as she has done for previous deaf students. But being newly deaf, he could neither sign nor read lips. In the end, there was no resolution, but Derlago managed to sell the course at a discount, taking a $500 loss. Wood-Schatz says she helped arrange this; Derlago says he found the buyer on Facebook.

Edmonton graphic designer Mike Smith (not his real name) also feels misled after eagerly signing a contract during the first course. “When I bought it they were adamant in telling me I could refund it, there’s a lot of fine print involved.” For Smith, it wasn’t worth his time to take the course and complain; instead, he too sold his registration, taking a $1,000 loss.

PB’s management sees the whole matter differently. They say the contract is meant to motivate people to complete the courses, which are emotionally challenging but rewarding if participants stick around. Holding clients to their contracts is a matter of encouraging personal accountability, a cornerstone of PB, says Fiset. It’s also just business. “We absolutely—and make no mistake about it—run a business. And our business relies upon the agreements that our participants [and] students make with us.”

Shortly after the ordeal, Derlago found out he was a good candidate for a cochlear operation and, after successful bilateral implants, he’s returned to work. While he’s moved on, he says PB has shaken his faith in people. “It’s been fun fighting with a millionaire over $2,100,” he quips. (He uses the word loosely: Fiset may or may not be a millionaire, though he does take pride in his classic-car collection.) Derlago also says Fiset, who facilitated the PB 1 course he took, often told the group he ran PB to help people, not make money. “More than once he said, ‘I don’t need your money’ . . . and I think to myself, ‘You said you don’t need my money, why are you trying so damn hard to hang on to it?’ ”

Despite the criticisms, Wood-Schatz remains unconcerned. She’s confident that PB is helping, not hurting, Albertans. The organization continues to receive abundant referrals from happy customers, after all, and business is good. “Unhappy people are usually the loudest, in my experience,” she says.


 

Personal betterment course has the worst money-back guarantee

  1. Guy should have called the Alberta gov't first. One thing about Alberta that most people don't know is that it's actually fairly strong in protecting private consumers. It sounds like this would have fallen under Alberta's Fair Trading Act Section 6(3)(a), where the supplier is attempting to charge for services which they are well aware that the customer could not benefit from. Under those conditions, the customer in Alberta can apply the act and basically get the contract cancelled and fees refunded.

  2. I don't think the Fair Trading Act applies here – it's not like PB was trying to charge for services that he couldn't benefit from – clearly if he bought it, he thought he could benefit from it too. It's unfortunate what happened to his hearing, but it sounds like Rae Ann tried to accommodate him.

    I personally took Personal Best and it CHANGED my life in the most positive way. Also, when I took the level one course, the marketing was only one hour at the end of Saturday. It was explained clearly to us that this was marketing time and they clearly pitched everything how it was.

    Jay Fiset wrote a book called Reframe Your Blame and Level 1 of the courses at PB reinforces the concepts around Personal Accountability. The fact that Derlago is "blaming" PB for his misfortune tells me he probably could have had a lot of benefit from taking the rest of the courses. I don't know of any business deal or contract where there isn't fine print, so playing victim to it is respectfully LAME!

    • AMcwu- How did you get that JD is blaming Personal Best for his misfortune where in this article is there Blame on PB for his medical disorder? Please tell me where? Who are you to say he is playing victim or is that cause he took a stand against PB and shared his situation and it doesn't paint PB in a pretty light is that why you say he is playing "victim". How about you lose your hearing completly and then maybe you can "Judge" him. Rae Ann did NOT Accommodated him she did NOTHING of the sort NOTHING!!!! She was far from accommodating, what a joke!!!

      Im proud of James for taking a stand and sharing his voice about this "Great" Self help organization that again said many time "Does not need people's money" Well they sure held onto JD's for as long as possible!!

    • I took the course and found it an utter waste of time. Fiset, a crook, stole all his 'ideas' from the "7 essential habits of highly effective people", written by Stephen Covey. Fiset rebrands it as his own but he doesn't have an independent thought in his head. He is a shyster who is after your money. Do yourself a favor…stay away from this outfit and buy the 7 essential habits book…do what is suggested in the book…and you'll get far better results.

  3. I was in the PB level one with James Derlago. I clearly remember Jay saying he doesn't need our money, etc. What James said is totally correct. I have to say that I don't think James is blaming PB for his misfortune. But if you are completely deaf and cannot hear your own child say " I love you Daddy", how on earth would you take a course where speaking and listening is SO important?? I have taken level 2 as well and that is what it is… talking and listening. I don't understand how anyone can say he is playing victim. I think that PB should of understood and given him his money back. I cannot believe that a company that tries to teach us to be better people, would do that. I am sorry to hear of James' misfortune with all of this. Hopefully he can restore his faith in humankind.

  4. PB should have just gave this guy his money back but I don't think they are wrong for not doing it. Business is business and if your going to sign a contract than be accountable for it. I think it's sad that he got this disease but its not PBs fault. He ended up selling the course and getting most of it back anyways and they helped him sell it so I don't get why there's even an article about this.

    MacLean's, go find us some REAL news!!!

    • I just have to say, that PB did not help him sell the course. Rae Ann discouraged the guy who wanted to buy it from him. She was not helpful in the least bit in him selling it as she wanted to make more money for herself.

    • interesting articles. Thanks.

    • out of date articles started by people who didnt take the course themself.