10 Things We Hate About ISPs and Cable and Phone Companies

Her voice is urbane, saccharine-sweet, maternal. She is grateful that I telephoned; my call is important to her. I hate the sound of her voice. [via pcworld]

It's the recorded voice you hear when you call your cable, telephone, or satellite TV company. I saw the owner of that voice on TV once, on a news show, recording her happy, reassuring, tranquil little messages in some voice-over booth in Burbank. A pretty mom, late thirties, tanned--exactly what you'd expect.

To me, her voice has come to represent everything that irks me about service providers. It's the first thing I hear after something goes wrong with my service, and I have to set off on the long march toward getting the problem fixed. Her voice is a bad omen, often foretelling protracted service outage, long consultations with bored/impatient/arrogant/not-so-bright phone reps, missed appointments, false promises, and strange charges on my bill. That's what this story is about.

Auto-Attendant Horror

You're usually not in a very good mood when you hear her, and your frustration is usually on the verge of getting worse as you begin your trek through menu options that are supposed to help you reach "the best person to assist you". Here's me talking to her:

"No. No. I want to speak to a person. A person. No. No. Agent...agent...agent...agent. Hello? Hello? Helloooooooo?? Agent. Agent. Agent. Agent. [sound of finger pounding on zero key]. Agent! Agent! Representative! Human! Human! Why you dirty #$@!&#$&!#!$%#!$%^$%@#@#$#$%@#@."

Some service providers empower the automated attendant to do a lot more than just field and redirect calls. Some arrange for her to do actual customer support. This is convenient for the service provider, but tough for you if your problem doesn't fit into any of the slots anticipated in the prerecorded script she uses.

Beth Morgan of Southern Pines, North Carolina, knows the drill: "She makes me go through all kinds of grief, such as turning my computer off and on, unplugging my cable modem, etc. Then she tells me she doesn't understand what I mean, and suggests we start over when I get so frustrated that I start screaming for help. When I finally do get to a live person, they make me do this all over again."

The auto-attendant also seems ready at the slightest slip-up to send you off to the company's online help pages (even when you're calling because you can't connect to the Internet!) or to dump you out of the system in some other way that doesn't cost the company time or money.

Only as a last resort, it seems, will the auto attendant lady put you through to a real human being--a rep, not a replicant. And even then, depending on your problem, the human being might set you off on a wild transfer-fest complete with exasperated agents and plenty of hold music.

The auto-attendant, the voice of the interactive voice response (IVR) systems used by service providers everywhere, hint at a larger, uglier truth: After the service provider has signed you up and begun tapping your bank account every month, the honeymoon is over; and the company would really rather not hear from you except in the form of that monthly electronic transfer of funds. That's because nine times out of ten, your call costs the service money. It's hardly surprising, then, that the IVR system seems intent on throwing up barriers to your effectively registering your complaint with a real person. It may even throw in the old "our menu has changed" message, in case you've memorized (poor you) the exact sequence of numbers needed to get through to a human rep quickly.

There is another way. I found a wonderful site called GetHuman that lists quick ways to bypass the IVR systems of about 900 US companies, including all major service providers. At AT&T Wireless, for example: "Press 0 at each prompt, ignoring messages."

Give Me the Best Deal, Too

Starting about five years ago, service providers became hell-bent on selling consumers a triple-play of TV, phone, and Internet service. The all-in-one deal was supposed to save us money and simplify our bills. But competition to sell the bundle has been fierce, and service providers continually offer new and better deals to steal customers from each other.

Try getting one of these deals from your current provider, though, and you'll be told that your contract is "locked in" at a certain rate for a certain period--and that you're not eligible for the advertised "promotional rate."

If you complain loudly enough, the service may reduce your bill slightly, as sales trainer Laurie Brown from Ferndale, Michigan, found out. "I discovered that I was paying double for my cable bill [what] my friend who had the same service four blocks away in the same city [paid]," Brown says. "After many angry calls I got my bill reduced, but I will never trust them again."

To the service provider, the "lock-in" pricing strategy may make perfect business sense; but to many customers, it seems like an unfair punishment for their unwillingness to jump ship. "The cable and satellite companies would never think to reward customer loyalty by lowering prices," writes Judy Nichols from Wilmington, North Carolina. "They are far more likely to announce a rate increase because they've expanded the basic service by offering more channels that you will never ever watch."

You usually have to be willing to go to the brink of changing services to get a better deal from your provider. Clear evidence that you are prepared to cancel your service outright seems to be the only thing these companies understand. But if the service provider doesn't blink, you'll have to deal with the considerable hassle of actually switching your service to another company.

"If they would give you the best deal to begin with, you probably wouldn't consider leaving, as it's a huge hassle to change providers," concludes Lindsey Slattery of Clarksville, Tennessee.

How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?

The scenario is reminiscent of Fatal Attraction. You have a brief affair with a big company and sign up in just a few heady minutes. But if you try to break things off, it clings obsessively through endless rounds of bureaucratic buck passing and phone tag. (See our investigative feature, "Just Cancel the @#%$* Account!")

The preternaturally perky customer associate kicks you over to the tired billing representative, who transfers you to the guilt-tripping account retention and disconnections team ("Why are you leaving us? Why? Why?"). Five operators later, you think you're home free--until you notice that your online account says the disconnection will take effect at the end of the next billing cycle, not immediately (as you requested).

"Dish Network makes it extra difficult for customers to cancel--a lot of waiting on hold and dealing with pushy customer service reps," says Stephen Hansen, a marketing director from Lombard, Illinois. "First, they tell us there's no cancellation fee, and then turn around and bill us $175 cancellation fee (we had 2 months left on our contract). When asked about it, no one could explain why, and that phone call was an hour and 45 minutes long."

Lost Love and Telemarketing

And don't for a minute imagine that the day of your final bill is the last time you'll hear from your ex-service provider. The company already has your information and its minions will use that data to try to reel you back in (or worse).

"We got inundated with calls and mailings from Dish TV promising all sorts of bells and whistles--including the dual receiver we wanted replaced in the first place," reports Anne Zeise of Milpitas, California. "I had to talk to a whole lot of people before I could get off their spam lists."

Some services even robocall you--or sell your information to other companies so that they can bother you.

All Talk and No Walk

Hey, wireless providers: Stop feeding me a line about your big plans to install a new cell tower in my neighborhood. It'll never happen. Your coverage and service quality is, in real life, a lot worse than the wonders you guys promised me when I signed up, and it's going to stay that way. Just admit it.

A colleague of mine tells the story of her experience with AT&T. At her house in Alameda, California, she can get regular cell phone service in only a couple of places in her 1100-square-foot, four-room home. One of these spots is in the bathroom, with her face pressed against the window. The other reliable location is on the couch, where she must lean back to get closer to the living-room window. She can't get service in the back yard or the front yard; but if the weather is right, she can make a call from the front porch.

Last fall, a company rep told her that AT&T would be putting up a new tower in March that would greatly improve the service on her block. Months later when the service didn't improve, another rep denied that the promised tower had ever been planned. Still another rep told her that the provider deemed the quality of her service "moderate"; when asked whether there was any service level lower than that, the rep explained that in her world "moderate" was as low as you could go.

Draconian Pricing Schemes

It's the classic phone company gambit: You can use our network for 2 cents a minute for 1000 minutes a month, but that 1001st minute--and every one after it--is going to cost you plenty.

Debra Costner, a Web publisher from Sonoma, California, writes in to remind us of this pain: "How is it they can charge you 2 cents a minute for the first 1500 minutes and then 25 times that price for the next 200 minutes?" Costner asks. "It really should be outlawed! They ought to be forced to charge the overage minutes at no more than double the price you're paying for the initial minutes--and they'd still be making money. Or even better, bump you up to the next level and let you pay an additional $30 for another 1000 minutes instead of charging you $100 for 200 extra minutes."

Through the (Appointment) Window

Service providers: Stop making appointments that your people can't keep.

Just this morning I waited for the cable guy to come and pick up two of the service's boxes--and after having stood me up on two previous days, he actually materialized! His appointment window was from 8a.m. until 10 a.m.; he called at 9:55 and showed up at about 10:10. I left for work late, but feeling as if anything were possible after all.

Of course not everyone is so lucky, as I learned from a number of people who wrote in. Here's food service business owner Lisa Jessick of North Easton, Massachusetts:

"I don't know how the cable provider Comcast can think I have nothing better to do than stay at home for a 3-hour window for the representative to show up 15 minutes after the 3 hours ends and then start working for another 60 minutes," Jessick complains. "Because I have to contact the cable provider and this is all they offer, I have no alternative but to accept it. When there's no competition, the provider can do anything they want and I have to take it."

Ah the simple joys of monopoly/duopoly. When you're practically the only game in town, you can count on your humble subscribers to wait for you. Drug dealers are keen on this sort of customer relationship, too.

Stop Patting Yourself on the Back (and Get Real)

What is it with you guys and your surveys? Seems like I can't have a conversation with you on any medium (phone, chat, e-mail, whatever) without your asking me for a little survey love at the end.

Of course, service providers use these surveys to develop positive-sounding customer satisfaction statistics, which they crow about endlessly over every medium they can think of. Often the provider begins asking for positive affirmation when the problem hasn't even been handled yet, as this telco customer relates:

"We'll subscribe to a new service and, after taking only the first step to completion, they'll call us with a customer service survey," complains Cassandra McSparin, an executive assistant from Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. "Sure, they've done a good job of completing the preparations necessary for what we require so we can't give them a bad review, but once they've confirmed their magnificence, we won't hear from them for a few weeks and have to push them to finish the job."

According to customer relationship management (CRM) consultant Jim Gardner, service providers often measure the wrong things to create the rosy numbers, which don't really reflect the way customers feel. Gardner explains that the cable industry claims to have achieved a satisfaction rating of better than 90 percent because its technicians arrive within a promised 4-hour window 94 percent of the time, and because these technicians address the issue on the first visit 97 percent of the time. "Trouble is, customers do not see waiting for half a day as good service, even when that time window is observed. After a 4-hour wait, resolution on the first call is a considered a baseline standard for customers, not an indication of superior service."

An independent report from Forrester Research may provide a truer look at customer satisfaction: "Looking at customer satisfaction for all subscribers to TV, home phone, Internet, and bundle services, they feel lukewarm about their providers' customer care. In fact, satisfaction levels for customer care--in any channel--fail to break 60 percent for TV, home phone, and Internet customers."

I Don't Want My Sí TV

Cable and Satellite Providers: Let me buy channels à la carte--you know, just the channels I want, not the channels you want to sell--or else I'm going to cancel the service and just download all my shows from the Internet.

And I'm not the only one. "I have to buy every package under the sun to get one [French channel]; but the package I have has five Spanish channels on it and I don't want ANY Spanish channels," says the aptly surnamed Dana Hostage, a Web entrepreneur from Boston. "Talk about being taken for a ride--I support the Spanish channels, don't want them, and can't get rid of them without getting rid of Discovery and Nickelodeon and the rest of the channels worth supporting. That bugs me no end. I want to pay for the channels I want to watch, not support the ones I don't want."

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) says that if people like Ms. Hostage and me got our wish, lots of small, niche networks would go out of business, and the diversity of available channels would be diminished. I say so be it.

'Our Time Is More Valuable Than Yours'

Service providers: Don't even think about charging me a fee for paying my bill over the phone. I'm giving you my money, and you want to charge me for the privilege? The nerve of you people!

If you're wondering why I haven't picked on service provider phone reps much so far, it's because I've been saving that for last. Many reps seem to lack basic reasoning skills and solid judgment, and service customers have had to accept the growing problem of a language (or at least accent) barrier. But the central problem is that many representatives are trained--actively or passively--to regard subscribers as revenue streams instead of as people.

This mindset explains much of the bad behavior by service provider reps that customers complain about. In fact, the mindset is moving toward a logical extreme, as service providers experiment with charging customers for everything from sending a tech out for a repair, to providing person-to-person phone support. This might look great on a business plan, but in the real world, it infuriates people:

"I'm already paying for your service; if you come out to add new service (meaning you'll make even more money from me), or to fix a problem with my existing service (meaning your company did something to interrupt what I'm paying for), then why are you charging me a trip charge?" asks Martin Kozicki, a real-estate consultant from Nashville. "Isn't it enough that I'm already giving you $150 for cable and Internet service each month--you now have to drive the dagger in harder by penalizing me just to maintain said service?"

I could go on.

I'm not saying that being a service provider is easy. And I'm not saying that everybody who complains about them is always right. Of course not. But in general, service providers and their people could do a lot more to satisfy their subscribers. Too often it feels as though these large companies want to keep customers just happy enough not to cancel, but no more. And they seem to have a thousand different ways of giving us that impression.

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