More companies charging to talk to a customer service rep

Companies have added yet another obstacle to talking with a live person about a question or concern: fees.

More businesses are subtly discouraging calls to customer service agents by charging for the conversation, as well as directing people to websites or automated phone systems. Some banks, computer companies, travel agencies and satellite television and cable companies are adopting this practice. [via baltimoresun]

Consumer groups worry the trend will only continue as companies look to cut costs.

"I have often thought we would face it in other industries as well," said Linda Sherry, a spokesman for Consumer Action. "It costs a lot to have live people answering questions. But to us, it should be a part of the cost of doing business."

The fees continue a long-term trend of companies cutting back on customer service and having consumers do more on their own. It comes as grocery and home improvement stores direct shoppers to self-checkout lines and some banks charge for using teller services after a certain number of visits. Other businesses are using live chats on the Internet to discourage in-person or telephone discussions.

Sherry said charging fees for talking with a customer service representative has been most prevalent in the computer software business. She said consumers can spend hundreds of dollars on a complicated computer system; then when they have problems setting it up at home, they have to pay more money to get customer service help.

Dell, for example, charges $59 for trouble-shooting software problems.

Some companies say they are trying to keep their agents available for people who really need them and to discourage people from overusing the system.

DirecTV doesn't charge for general questions. But it will charge $5 for calling to order a pay-per-view movie with the help of a customer service representative rather than doing it with the television remote control or through the Internet. There is a $1.50 charge to order through the company's automated telephone service. The fees have been in place for several years, according to the company.

"It helps both our agents and customers," said Robert Mercer, a spokesman with the satellite television company."It makes the most efficient use of our agent's time so they are available to help our customers with issues that require live agent assistance."

Cable company Comcast said it doesn't charge to order pay-per-view movies through a customer representative.

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