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Requesting Asylum From Bad Telecom Customer Service

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions


I’m a Vonage (news - alert) customer, starting today. That’s not shocking, you might think. But it’s the long, strange trip to Vonage that contains the story. Let’s call this “A Lesson About Bad Customer Service,” and it starts with SBC.

I moved into a new house in December of 2004. One month before that, I saw the house for the first time. The sellers were present when I looked at the house. They showed me the house’s quirks: a spot of strange hybrid plumbing, the secret to keeping squirrels off the birdfeeder (the secret is that there is no way to keep squirrels off the birdfeeder) and the places where ants come in during the spring.

Fast-forward one month. I was the proud owner of the house. What I didn’t have was phone service. After about nine exchanges with SBC and their claims to have sent a technician to investigate, they informed me the problem was in the house (which I doubt, since the former owners’ phone worked just peachy). I could get it fixed, they said, two weeks from Wednesday, and I would have to pay the technician’s hourly rate.

My second-to-last communication with SBC was some variation of, “Please take your overly expensive phone service that I barely use anyway and insert it into the location upon your person which undoubtedly contains your brain.”

Not long after, I received a call from a “customer defection specialist” at SBC. “But why are you leaving us?” she asked. I explained the sordid situation to her. “Oh, no,” she said. “I could get a technician out there tomorrow, and you wouldn’t have to pay for it.” (In other words, “Oh, sorry! We mistook you for the sort of customer that will lay down and let us run over you with bad service while we take your money. Now that we’ve found out you’re not, we’d really like to give you some good customer service, starting now.”)

“Too late,” said I. “ I’m going VoIP. I do not need your silly copper wires.”

Since my cable provider does not offer the third leg of triple play (phone service) in my area, I was forced to go elsewhere. For reasons that are unclear to me now, I chose AT&T CallVantage. I believe my decision had something to do with AT&T’s claims of better E-911 service than Vonage.

I should have taken warning from my account set-up process. I was told by the call center agent that she needed my credit card or checking account information for automatic bill payment every month. I told her I didn’t want that...I was glad to pay the bill via their Web site, but I wanted to determine when it was paid...not them. “No, sorry,” she said. “We don’t do it that way.” I said, “You mean, unless you can automatically deduct the charges from my account, I’m not ‘allowed’ to have your service?” She prevaricated more than a White House press secretary, and because I’m a Taurus known for sheer doggedness, I finally got her to admit that this was true. If I had no credit card (some people don’t) and didn’t want to give them my checking account information, they wouldn’t “take” me as a customer. Right.

After installation, I was quite happy for a while, though I was ever aware that I was paying $5 more per month than I would have for Vonage. “It’s because of the better E-911,” I told myself. “It’s worth it.” Then I got my first message. How exciting! Log on and get your phone messages over the Internet. Until I tried it. AT&T’s CallVantage service uses a bewildering method of message delivery that usually resulted in me being presented with copious offers for hip-hop downloads, but seldom resulted in me actually listening to my messages.

I called them. “How the *&@ do I get my messages?” I was given a scripted response that told me exactly nothing. I mentioned the “V” word (Vonage) and was offered four months of reduced-rate service. (Touchy about that $5 premium, are we?) It was at this time I noticed that Vonage was offering a “low usage” package for $15 per month. Since I barely use my phone anyway, this was appealing. Months passed. The messaging situation didn’t improve. “Look,” I said. “I’m a technology editor and I can’t figure your system out. Shouldn’t that tell you something?” After multiple e-mails, which were becoming increasingly colorful on my end, I was told to “call the help desk.” I said, incredulously, “You want me to place a help desk call, which will cost you about $50, to inquire how a standard features of your service works? Are you nuts? Why can’t you just send me step-by-step instructions or an FAQ list? I cannot be the only person calling about your basic operational procedures. Do you send them all to the help desk?”

I was told someone “would get back to me” within two days. I’m still waiting. No, scratch that…I’m not waiting anymore. This time, I didn’t even bother to tell them to insert their service next to their brains…I just defected to Vonage, and thanks to that telephone number portability legislation that the telecoms lobbied so hard against, I was able to take my phone number with me.

On my last e-mail to AT&T, I wrote, in large letters at the bottom, “YES, THIS IS A CUSTOMER DEFECTION WARNING E-MAIL, IN CASE YOU HADN’T SPOTTED THAT YET. WHAT YOU DO NEXT DETERMINES WHETHER I REMAIN A CUSTOMER.” Never heard back from them. Needless to say, I’m no longer a customer. Based on my history, I have low expectations from Vonage, but hope to be pleasantly surprised. But even if their customer service is as hideous as that of my previous telecom carriers, at least I’m paying half as much for the service. Customer abuse doesn’t gall quite so much when it’s being offered at a discount.

The author may be contacted at [email protected].


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