The Existential Despair of Switching Telecom Providers

It’s time to do this. You missed work to wait for a service guy to fix your broken cable box, but the tech didn't show or call. You decide to take the plunge. You’ve endured the colossal time-and-money-sucking vacuum of Telecommunications Giant #1 long enough. Time to be proactive! You’ve had this particular email address since the dawn of time, so it’s going to be painful—you know that—but enough is enough.

You steel yourself and call Telecommunications Giant #2, and after a 12-minute hold to reach a human, you announce you are interested in switching internet and cable services. It turns out there’s a sweet promotion going on; you can switch everything—wireless and security too—and you get a free iPhone! And a $200 Visa card. And a cheaper bundled monthly rate!

Here’s how it goes down:

You: Are there any other associated fees or charges?

Rep: Nope! Nothing else. I am waving activation fees, because I love you. Personally, I will do that for you.

You: Thank you. $344 a month. For everything?

Rep: Everything. Well, not sales tax. But that’s from the government, so I can’t even begin to estimate THAT. (Chuckles.)

You: Just sales tax? No other charges passed on from the government?

Rep: Absolutely not. All that other stuff is built into the $344 a month.

Hours drift by while he signs you up. Then he asks for your credit card to pay $32.16 in activation fees.

You: But you said—

Rep: I totally waved the activation fee for the internet because I love you. I said I would and I did. This here is for the security system. Nothing I can do about that—it’s what it costs to get the guys out the door.

You: But I asked—

Rep: And of course there’ll be sales tax on the free phone. That’s what, $60-some dollars? But listen, that’s why I’m giving you the Visa card. Whichwillarriveintentotwelveweeks, possibly, depending on, you know, the competence of your mail carrier. So you don't have to pay anything, yourself, out of pocket. Shoo, I am blown away by my own generosity.

You: Can I have the details of all these plans in writing?

Rep: Sure. Those emails should arrive in 24-48 business hours, again, depending on the mail. And the weather. Can I have your credit card number please?

You: Fine.

Rep: Great, great! Now, how do you want to pay the $49 internet activation fee?

You: WHAT? You said you waived that fee.

Rep: Ha ha, no. I totally said I’d waive the $100 fee, because of the deep and abiding love I feel for you. And I did that! This is the $49 fee. See?

You: I would like to speak to a supervisor.

A long hold ensues, followed by:

Supervisor: Hi there! I hear you have an understanding problem!

You: He said all the fees would be waived. Can you please waive them?

Supervisor: (cackling like Satan) No m’am. It is not possible to waive fees. Fees have never been waived in the entire history of fees.

You: I want to talk to someone who can waive the fees. Or I’d like to cancel.

Supervisor: Can’t help. I’ll transfer you.

You are transferred to 20 minutes of muzak, followed by a click and a dial tone. Fuming, you call back. You navigate through the menu and are placed on hold.

Rep: (after 20 more minutes) Hi! How can I help you?

You launch into your tale of woe, but are interrupted after several sentences.

Rep: Oh! That’s not my department. I’ll transfer you to someone who can help.

You are transferred back to the automated main menu.

Now sobbing quietly, you start again. After two more hours, you reach someone in the Retention Department. This person, who is loving and warm and just what you need after the shellacking you’ve been through, is horrified, horrified at what happened. She is totally launching a high-level investigation into the systemic human-rights abuses going on here. She may even resign in protest. But first she is making it up to you by upgrading you—for free—to the 1000 mbs internet speed if you’ll stay. And she has checked with her boss, who is in the Miami office, and they are sending you another $200 Visa card—no, make that TWO other $200 Visa cards. You’ll just need to accept some terms via email, and then the cards will be shipped. (In tentofourteenweeks, possibly.) She also gives you a direct line to their office, in case you need it.

You hang up, and wait for the emails. They don't arrive. You call the number the helpful person gave, but it’s been disconnected. You call the main number, and hold and are transferred, for hours. By the time you finally reach the Retention Department again, you are curled into fetal position, simultaneously homicidal and weepy, like one of those psychology experiments on learned helplessness.

Rep: Okay, calm down. Let’s look at your plan.

You: I want to cancel it.

Rep: Well, I can cancel the internet part. You’ll have to call back to the other departments yourself. But listen, you shouldn't cancel.

You: I was supposed to get some Visa cards, but—

Rep: Yeah, no, let’s see. I’ll just waive the fees instead. How about a credit on your next bill?

You: Do you mind if I record you saying that?

Rep: That’s not permitted. It’s illegal, according to our protocol. But don’t worry, I’m recording it.

You: If you can record it, why can’t I?

Rep: Because I am TRYING to protect your confidentiality here. Now if you don't mind, let’s process the order.

You: I’ll still get the faster internet speed, though?

Rep: What? What? Hell to the no. Not possib—

You, in a tiny voice: The lady said I could have faster internet for the same price.

Rep: Bahahaha. No. Well, I mean yes, you can. Adds $50 a month though.

You: She said—

Rep: NO.

You: But no fees, though? $344 a month?

Rep: What in God’s name made you think it was $344 a month? It’s $385 a month.

You: Everyone said—

Rep: $385. Plus taxes and fees. I can't actually tell you what that comes to, though, because, you know, the government. You’ll be able to tell in month or two, when the first bill comes. Maybe $450? Oh, and that rate does not count surcharges.

You: I asked about extra charg—

Rep: You didn’t ask about SURcharges, though, now did you? Uh-uh. I know how much you appreciate my sincerity and total honesty, and I appreciate your appreciation. Thank you. Did anyone talk to you about the $980 cancellation fee yet?

You: I want everything canceled. Now.

Rep: I can’t believe you’d do that, after all this time I’ve spent being honest. Was it something I said?

*****

Although I’ve written this to be humorous, it’s a fairly accurate representation of conversations I had with two different behemoths of the telecom industry last week. It’s difficult to convey the spiral of rage and misery I endured over more than TEN HOURS of this surreal crap. If the rest of us behaved like this, civilization would screech to a halt. It got me curious. Why do we put up with it?

After conducting some stringent online polling among a couple hundred of my closest Facebook friends, I concluded that being a telecom customer is a universally loathsome experience. Everyone has horror stories. My feed filled up with images like this:

But we endure it because we think we have no choice. We’re held hostage by these companies if we want to communicate. Few of us could function without cell phones or internet. We need these companies, and they provide a valuable service. So why do they treat us with such blatant disregard?

The first thing I’m curious about—especially after the recent Wells Fargo scandal in which customers were signed up for products without their knowledge so employees could meet sales goals—is how are the low-level employees of these companies treated? Are they paid on commission? Are they penalized if they don't complete the sale, or if a customer cancels services on their call? Do they have to meet certain metrics, or they lose their jobs? Are they instructed to ignore certain questions? In a way, this gets down to the heart of capitalism: do we have to sacrifice integrity for profits?

I don’t believe so. (Amazon, for example, generally has excellent, fast customer service.) In my experience, the telecom companies don’t. I believe it could be fraudulent to quote potential customers one price, and actually charge them something else. I asked multiple times to see my quote in writing, but never received it. But if I had, it apparently would have contained completely different base pricing information than what the rep quoted me on the phone. When I followed up with a “complaint escalation” team, I was told giving inaccurate information on pricing isn’t fraud, and that it would no longer be possible to send me the emails detailing the actual costs. I was also told I wouldn’t be allowed to see a “transcript” of my calls, or a response from the original rep’s manager, because that information was “proprietary.” And over and over again, when I asked about the accuracy of the “bundled” price I was quoted, I was told I’d have to contact each department separately—no one person in the complaint department could answer questions about bundled services.

I don’t know what to do about it —other than contacting the FCC— but I do propose a new hashtag: #HostageCrisis (followed by the name of your telecom provider.) You can use it whenever you’re trapped in endless feedback loop of holds and transfers and hangups and misinformation.

Because there’s one thing these companies do pay attention to, and that’s a social media surge against them.

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