Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Report From Hell - One of a Series"

It happens to everybody. Today was my turn.


For a number of years, we’ve been signed up with a low-priced, long-distance service called Telecom USA. Really liked it. No basic fee. Pennies a minute to call England and Canada. I have family in Canada, and Anna spent her “Junior Abroad” year in London. Telecom USA has been extremely useful. For “useful”, read “cheap.”

They liked me at Telecom USA. I could tell. Every few weeks, this cheery-voiced young woman – she was automated, but cheery-voiced nonetheless – she’d call me, and thank me for using Telecom USA. And I’d say, “You’re welcome.” I am unfailingly polite to the automated.


June the tenth, I receive my most recent bill from Telecom USA – five dollars and forty-three cents. The bill is not due till July the first. I’ve got three weeks to pay it. I set the bill aside.

Three days later, on June the thirteenth, I’m surprised with another letter from Telecom USA. I open the envelope and take out the letter, wondering what it could be. It turns out it’s not good.

On the top of the letter, stamped, bold and in “caps”, are the words: FINAL NOTICE. This already seems odd, since I had never received any previous notices. The letter makes it sound like I’ve been holding out on them. It’s an admitted flaw of mine. I do not respond well to unwarranted accusations of wrongdoing.

I read the FINAL NOTICE letter.

Dear Telecom USA Customer:
Your cancelled Telecom USA account has an outstanding balance.

I immediately get angry. I know I’m going to have to call these people, and if you’re a regular reader, you’re aware how uncomfortable I am on the telephone. Especially talking to strangers. This would definitely include strangers who see me as a deadbeat.

I’m a Good Boy. I pay all of my bills on time. When I go on vacation, I pay them early. How dare they FINAL NOTICE me!

Why am I going to have to call these people? Because there are two mistakes in the letter’s first sentence. As far as I knew, my Telecom USA account had not been cancelled. And there was, I was certain, no “outstanding balance.” I only recently received my last bill. And the payment wasn’t due for three weeks.

I’m a busy man. I have blog posts to write. I can’t waste my valuable time dealing with people sending me erroneous FINAL NOTICE letters. On the other hand, I can’t have a cancelled long-distance service. What if I have to call long distance?

I have no choice. I pick up the phone. And I call the number provided in the letter.


I wade through half a dozen cycles of “series of options” instructions, till I finally get to a person.

“Customer Service.”

They were unaware they were being ironic. Unless they’re the same guys who called Fox News “Fair and Balanced.”

With patience mixed with indignation, I inform “Customer Service” that I have no “outstanding balance”, and demand that he explain to me why my Telecom USA account has been cancelled. “Customer Service” tells me that, before he can help me, I have to call the “Collection Department” and speak with them.

I (reluctantly) call the “Collection Department.” (That’s where the deadbeats call.) But because I want the process to move forward, I do. There I encounter the only sweetheart in the entire operation. Her name is Cecilia. Cecilia senses from my urgency that I’m on a rampage. (Before the call, I had instructed myself to stay calm. I “lost it” in about thirty seconds.) Working in the “Collection Department”, Cecilia deals with “unpaid balance” people all the time. Her experience tells her I’m not one of them. Her trust in me turns down the flame.

Cecilia, who’s based in St. Louis, volunteers to guide me through my ordeal, an ordeal that involves speaking with people from around the world, some of whom speak so quietly, I can barely make out what they’re saying. “They’re not as outspoken as we are over here,” explains Cecilia.

The problem was this. It’s a circle. The first “Customer Service” assistant Cecilia transferred me to explained that he was unable unblock my service until a “Customer Service” assistant in another department reactivated my account. When I was transferred to that department, however, the assistant there referred me to the department where they unblock the service. Cecilia immediately jumped to my defence.

“We’ve already been there.”

It was a heroic effort. And heartily appreciated. Unfortunately, it didn’t help. For the next half hour, I was ping-ponged between the department where people told me I needed my account reinstated and the department where people refused to reinstate it. After three round trips, leaving me exactly where I had started, Cecilia offered some sensible advice.

“If I were you, Earl, I would give up.”

I thanked Cecilia for her help and her company, and unhappily took her advice. But not before being informed by the last “Customer Service” assistant I spoke to that Telecom USA had recently been sold by MCI to Verizon. I was then asked if I was interested in signing up for a new long-distance service with Verizon.


I hung up. After allowing myself some “seething time”, I called AT&T and signed up for a long-distance service with them. The rates are higher. I’m going to miss those automated “Thank you’s.” And I’ll probably never get to talk to Cecilia again. But what are you going to do?

When I’m on my deathbed, the thing I’ll regret the most will be the time I lost getting the runaround from Telecom USA. Well, maybe not the most, but it’ll be up there.


Twenty minutes later, the phone rings. It’s Verizon, with a follow-up (automated) survey, inviting me to rate my experience with their company.

“We see that you recently called us about some problem. We’d like to know how we did.”

The survey included a series of multiple-choice questions, and ended with an opportunity for an extended verbal report. I simply told them what happened. Based on the grade I gave them, if Verizon were a student, they would now be attending remedial summer school.

A three-word summary?

“I hate you!”

Okay. I’ve vented.

Now how about you?


Anonymous said...

Most companies are greedy, stupid and only give lip service to wanting satisfied customers. All they really want is our money. So the ONLY way to punish them for bad service is to take our money away from them. You did that, Earl. Congratulations. They lost, you won.
"Anonymous Brian"

Anonymous said...

Interesting. So let me see if I understand the facts correctly. You have cheap long distance service with a company that has recently been bought by Verizon. After years of satisfaction, you suddenly experience a series of indignities at the hands of your cheap long distance company until you decide to give up on them, on the advice of the company's own sweet collections person. Then, you are asked if you would like to sign up with Verizon, at a higher rate I'm guessing, now that you have given up on that cheap long distance service offered by a company that was recently bought by Verizon.

Do I have the facts right?

A. Buck Short said...

I don’t believe I’ve ever been asked to comment on a blog – at least not after having demonstrated any predilection for that once or twice before. What a country! First, I love the use of the word outspoken to mean “more clearly and distinctly,” it’s like the mildest possible strain of Norm Crosby disease has finally spread to Missouri.

I wonder who comes up with these company names? My favorite still may be Unisys, which sounds like they make men’s rooms with only a single urinal. (Frankly, urinal sounds like a small room in a Catholic church where you go to confess bedwetting?) Verizon reminds me of an old bit, I think on the Jack Benny show, when people still had Yiddish accents you could tap. I’m not sure if it was Benny describing someone else or the other way around, but one suggested the other was ”effervescent.” As in “Effervescent for you, I wouldn’t be in all this trouble.” Which automatically jumps to, “Verizon Prozac, maybe I could tolerate being enrolled in your long distance service.” Sure, a stretch, but, Earl, you haven’t given us that much to work with today.

See, your call center problem was St. Louis. (That’s the city at least half the country thinks has the arch spanning the Mississippi River.) Now, Bangalore’s a walk in the park. The park may be infested with cobras, but at least you can giggle when the other end tells you that his name is Morty.

Actually one improvement I’ve noticed is sort of the opposite of your complaint. Once you do reach a human, that person no longer seems mandated to dispatch your call as quickly as possible so as to handle a certain quota per 15-min. increment. And, as your Cecelia would suggest, at least those on domestic soil may actually enjoy talking to you. Or maybe they just don’t care anymore. But I’m happy either way, because, lately, that’s the only place I can still do my act.

Have you noticed that the least navigable telephone customer assistance systems seem to be those of the phone companies themselves? Maybe just too telephonically sophisticated for their own good. The VM menu gives you 5 options (and that’s even after you’ve already been through the Spanish prompt, which you only assume is asking you in Spanish if you want to listen in Spanish, and then, again in Spanish, telling you to press 1 for English). You have to listen to all 5 options twice to take it all in, because all the time you’ve been hoping the next prompt will be the one you need – and never is; so you select the closest possible category, like assuming, “Do you want to kill the president of the phone company?” comes under “Fat chance, press 3.”

Of course each of those 5 prompts then forces you into deciding between 5 additional sub-prompts – bringing our total tab to 30. It’s Sophie’s Choice where she’ll take her own sweet time in getting to you, despite overwhelming appreciation for your business.

The worst is when they don’t even give you the number to push to talk to a live “representative” until you’ve fully traversed the fiber optic cable that goes all around Robin Hood’s barn. Oh wait, that’s not the worst. The worst is when you eventually find out that elusive portal is “press 9,” but when you think you can outsmart them on the next call by pressing 9 right way, you get “I’M sorry (always with that odd emphasis on 'I’M' assumed to suggest, 'sure nobody else cares about your sorry ass, but in my own humble voice-synthesized way, I’m trying to fake it', I do not recognize that command."

This is accomplished by implementing that same pretentious tone clearly denoting the opposite of what is actually stated, like when somebody calls you “Sir” out of a desire to distance you from humanity rather than to show any kind of respect. Yet also providing the interceptive quality of suggesting, “Well I just treated you with the illusion of respect, so it would be extremely boorish to resent me in any way, or worse, take any kind of physical action.”

A. Buck Short said...

I’ve got a semi-related rant on billing by utility companies that you’ll just have to accept you’ve opened the door to. But, if you don’t mind, that will have to wait until later today, because it’s now only 103 here in Dallas and I’ve got to go out and trim the hedges while it’s still cool.

Now, may I please speak with your supervisor? Soldier on.

A. Buck Short said...

OK, waited long enough for somebody to cut in line. I'm not busy enough to wait any longer. So here’s a theory. Have you ever noticed that no matter what they sell or what other services they ostensibly provide, today all businesses are now in the financial services industry. Late fees, interest and finance charges are no longer to encourage you to pay on time. These companies almost certainly depend on these fees for their margin of profit. Like the credit card companies – or the numbers running loan shark -- I think some of them want you to default.

A few months ago, I began tracking the window for payment between notice and payment due date on the utility and other bills we receive regularly every month. Here are a few examples.
--TXU Electric –arrived March 26, due April 9. That’s 10 business days when you eliminate weekends.
--Atmos Energy (gas bill) – arrived April 13, due April 30. That’s 9 business days.
--Dallas Water Utilities – March and April - 9 business days. Last January only 7, because of MLK Day. And that was actually just 5 days, because the city can only receive payment in person or by mail – not electronically through our online banking.

Oddly, given your choice of topic today, our land and mobile phone bills generally allow more time – but you need that, because it takes a year-and-a-half to figure ‘em out.
You might think these utilities want to encourage more rapid payment simply because of the cost of money these days. And you can certainly do that by making the due date earlier. But if that were the case, why do some (not all) of them accomplish such a terrific job of burying the due dates somewhere on the page? Who runs these billing departments, Waldo?

Ironically, the two bills we generally do receive with plenty of time are the mortgage and credit card. The mortgage comes almost a month early – leaving plenty of time to change the name of their bank or ownership of your debt. They apparently want you to pay early, because banks actually do know how to make some scratch on the the float (you’ll have to excuse; Mom was once frightened simultaneously by Damon Runyon and J.P. Morgan). Or at least until last year we thought they did.

Do the electric, gas, and water companies pay their vendors in a week to 10 days? I’m guessing their standard is still probably a month. The worst part of it is the biggest reason we’re ever late with any of these payments is because you can never find the bills in the midden heap of unsolicited mail on any cursory inspection – 89.9% of which are credit card offers from Capital One. And you don’t even want to go through those until you’ve had an afternoon to shred the unsolicited semi-confidential information from last month’s deluge. If I slip up on that, and somebody opens an unauthorized credit card in my name, I at least hope they’ll get a fair finance charge, after missing a payment.

So, is it just me, or can I get an amen on this? (Note: If amen arrives after June 30, please include two Hail Marys or one Our Father.)

Max Clarke said...

I have AT&T also, Earl.

Maybe you can get a phone card, though, that offers better rates. I've used phone cards for years, and they are generally cheaper than many long-distance plans. I have the most basic service I can get with AT&T, and then I use the phone card for long distance. The phone cards do expire, though, usually within two years, so you can't sit on the minutes. Otherwise, a good deal.

Anonymous said...

Never heard of a customer service rep just throwing in the towel like that...unless maybe it was her last day?

My phone horror story: The wife won a fancy new BlackBerry as an audience member of "The View." As luck would have it, the phone was provided as promotional consideration by T-Mobile, my wife's existing provider. She just switched over her existing acount to the new BlackBerry, which came with free service for 90 days.

Fast forward 90 days...coincidentally, it's my wife's birthday. She calls me from a pay phone. PAY PHONE? Her BlackBerry isn't functioning. I call her cell number. An automated voice informs me that service to the number has been discontinued. Long story short, some dufus at T-Mobile forgot to indicate on the paperwork that once my wife's free 90 day service was over, her new BlackBerry would revert to her original plan.

It took being switched from four departments--nearly 3 hours--before a kind customer service rep at T-Mobile got to the bottom of the problem. I insisted that she email me confirmation. "We don't do that," she said. (Gee, wonder why?). She offered to comp my wife
a month of service, which she accepted. But you can't put a price on the calls and voice mail she would've otherwise received on her 50th birtday.