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January 2000

Robert Vahid Hashemian Telecom Mayhem — Welcome To The Jungle


Pandora’s box. Look up the phrase “Telecom Act” in a future thesaurus and this may be suggested as a synonym. Now that we have hit Y2K head on and the earth seems to be still orbiting the same old sun, we can start to turn our attention to other issues brewing in the shadows.

Well, not so much in the shadows anymore considering the $129 billion merger deal going on between the number 2 and number 3 long-distance carriers, MCI Worldcom and Sprint. Unless you have been comatose for the past four years, you have certainly noticed that the telecom landscape looks nothing like it did in 1996. The fact that a call to the next town in your state costs twice as much as calls made to the other side of the world should be proof enough. I don’t want to sound ungrateful here. The Telecom Act of 1996 had the best interest of the consumer at heart and in some areas has been very effective. I bless it every month when I receive my international phone bill. In other areas such as local calls, where the Baby Bells still have the stranglehold, the Act is making inroads although the consumer has yet to see the full potential benefits.

But not everything is rosy. For all the good that the Telecom Act has done in the past few years, there have been areas where it has caused a disservice to the consumer. Literally. Sometimes I wonder if the Act has a hidden clause in which it prescribes eliminating service altogether. The spirit of the Act has been to promote fair competition and eliminate monopoly, the very ingredient a free market society needs to fuel its economic growth. Regulation has always carried a stigma of being detrimental to economic prosperity — but competition with no regulation could be worse than monopoly itself.

Today just about any sector wants to be free of regulation. Their justification: Regulation stifles competition and that is bad for the consumer. But what would happen if there was no regulation in the financial and banking industries, or the airline industry, or the healthcare industry? We all agree that lives would be at risk if the government gave free reign to anyone trying to set up shop in these types of businesses. The chaos that has followed the Telecom Act is perhaps the result of the fact that anyone can become a phone company overnight and compete. Yes, competition is good, but is the consumer getting a fair shake? Perhaps we as consumers are somewhat to blame. In our lust for bargain hunting, we have become less wary of fraud, bad service, and barely legal maneuvering by the countless phone companies that have sprung up like mushrooms in the past few years. And their marketing noise continues its deafening pace in TV ads, radio commercials, print pages, and of course, the Internet. I wonder if the authors of the Telecom Act ever considered the impact of the Internet on the telecom industry?

Moving from circuit-switched to packet-switched networks, Internet telephony technology has allowed us to cram many times more connections on a line than we could ever imagine just a decade ago. At the same time, the cost of buying, deploying, and managing the equipment to qualify one as a phone company has plummeted. CTI EXPO™ features a Next-Gen Telco in a Booth attraction that is nothing short of incredible. Big companies are buying each other up, small companies are sprouting up all over (some of which are secretly owned by the big companies), and, in all the fracas, customer service is being cast to the four winds. Perhaps the consumer is not yet the winner in all this. I am a consumer too, and here is my story. I have chosen not to mention the company names involved, but rest assured: They are or were real telephone companies (or so I hope).

After years of being bombarded by commercials from different telephone companies at home (rebate checks, 1-800 this, and 10-10 that), we decided to give them a try for our long-distance service about three months ago. The first company we used was a 1-800 access number company. The customer service was fine and the price was okay, but the billing was a nightmare. There were charges for calls never made. Then there were different charges for different hours when we were promised the same rate around the clock. Their customer service department was good about correcting these mistakes, but the next bill would have a new round of errors.

So, on to a new 10-10 company with better rates we went. We were very happy with the service for about a month, and then the service started to break down. Sometimes the calls would not go through, other times we got a fast busy tone or a recording. The problem got progressively worse until no more calls could be made with the 10-10 number. Perplexed, we tried to contact the company’s two 800 numbers, but those numbers also ended up in a recording explaining that the number was no longer in service. Their Web site was still alive, so I sent an e-mail asking for help. I received no response. The company seemed like it had vanished from the face of the earth. To this date we have no idea what happened to the company. Rumor has it that its 10-10 service still works occasionally, but I just called their 800 number and it continues to be out of service. Bankruptcy perhaps? Who knows? Their Web site is still around, existing in perpetual absurdity.

So we moved to another company whose advertising had caught my eyes in Time magazine. Five-cents-a-minute international calls around the clock. This sounded too good to be true (turns out it was). I went on their Web site and indeed, there it was: A five-cents-a-minute calling plan just as claimed in their ad. Still feeling skeptical, I called their customer service number and the agent indeed confirmed the rate. I specifically asked her if there were any hidden charges and her answer was no. So I asked her to sign me up for the plan as long as I was on the phone. To my surprise she couldn’t sign me up, and instead I was told that I could only sign up on their Web site. What kind of company would turn away a ready, willing, and paying customer on the phone? Sure the Internet is popular, but there are still more people offline than online. Undaunted, I went online and signed up for the service — and after submitting the form, I saw it in small print: There were the hidden charges I was afraid of all along. There was a monthly fee, as well as connection charges per each call. Feeling angry and stupid (to have believed their claims) I searched for a page on their Web site to cancel the plan. Obviously, no such page existed. So I called back the customer service number and asked the agent to cancel our plan, to which she replied, “Call tomorrow and ask for the Web guys. I cannot cancel your order from here.” “Web guys?” I asked. It was not a joke. The next day I called back and asked for the “Web guys.” But they were too busy to accept my call. Instead the agent took my message and promised to pass it along. If the customer service was substandard, the “Web guy” (who turned out to be a woman) proved herself worthy and cancelled my plan, leaving me a voice-mail message to that effect. Later on I checked my credit card statement online and verified the cancellation.

As a contributor to Internet Telephony magazine, I have always wanted to try a true blue Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP) for home, and this was my chance to make it happen. So I surfed on to a well-known ITSP’s Web site and checked their international rates. They weren’t the best, but I was now determined to use an ITSP. Having been stung by bad customer service departments, I decided to give them a call first, if I could find their number. I scoured their Web site for a customer service number but all I could come up with was a toll number for existing customers. I called the number, and after a long wait time was connected to a pleasant agent. He told me that I had dialed the wrong number and then gave me a toll-free number to call. Only the toll-free was dead with a recording hanging on it. So I called back the first number, waited through the Muzak, and got the same agent as before. With many apologies he proceeded to transfer the call himself. More Muzak and then I was disconnected. I called back, Muzak again, and another agent picked up and tried to transfer me. After some more Muzak, I came right back to the same department and the first agent, who by now knew me like his twin brother. After some more apologies he went to look for the correct number. More Muzak. Finally he gave me a new toll-free number, admitting that the old toll-free number was disconnected without their knowledge. So I called the new toll-free number, and someone picked up and said, “Hello?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point, but managed to explain my intention. I was told I had contacted the wrong department, and I was yet again sent to Muzak land. Finally I reached the correct department, the correct agent — everything was going to be just fine. Except that rate I had seen on their Web site was not available in my hometown.

The story has a good ending, however. For the past month we have been using a 10-16 service and it seems to be stable. So far. And so here was one sample of the Telecom Act’s legacy. Too much chaos from too much competition. Too much of anything isn’t necessarily good. The Telecom Act and the ensuing competition are proof why. I am not sure how we can fix the current mayhem in the telecom market. Maybe more regulation? Maybe more accountability? Or just plain old monopoly? Okay, maybe not. Perhaps we should send a copy of C@ll Center CRM Solutions™ magazine to every single telephone company? Heaven knows their call centers need a solution really bad. Let me hear your suggestions. c

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of Director for TMCnet.com — your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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