Monday, December 5, 2011

Hey, A T & T. Shylock called . . .

And he likes your work! Your methods for extracting a pound of flesh are infamous, but before I proceed, bear with me through the antecedent action, a disclaimer of sorts.

Long ago, dear Readers, A T & T was the only telephone company in the land. It had used its resources and government endorsements to build the finest communications network in the world. Telephone poles and wires strung across the country brought private lines to almost every nook and cranny, every meadow and plateau, reliably, predictably, and inexpensively. But entrepreneurs, innovators, and the spirit of competition came to life, protesting the telephone monopoly known as A T & T and its regional offspring. Government regulatory prowess prevailed, and A T & T lost its claim upon the nation’s customers. The whole pie was cut into slices, with A T & T having only one piece.

At the time, I sided with A T & T, believing the government should have let A T & T go forth alone. I vowed to remain loyal to A T & T as a nod to its history.

Nevertheless, as I paid my bills, I noticed more fees, new charges, and increases. Customer service faded in favor of hair-splitting: was the loss of service due to A T & T equipment? No. Pay dearly. Was your service interrupted by something outside the walls of your home? Well, then, A T & T will assume responsibility--most of the time, but all of the time if you spend a bit more each month to insure against an outside failure.

When I tired of jumping through A T & T’s hoops, I jumped ship, selected a different landline carrier, and have never looked back. Service has been reliable, predictable, and affordable. I’m happy.

Then cell phones roared to life, changing everything. A T & T offered a killer deal to employees at my husband’s place of business so our first cell phone was with A T & T, but the minimalist approach to billing, frequent rate increases, and fees that seemed to breed like bunnies persuaded us to leave A T & T once more. And, once again, I have not missed them at all. Never did I grow nostalgic for the good old A T & T days because they weren’t good, just old.

Mother, on the other hand, used A T & T for her first cell phone, her second, and her third. She had a minimal-minutes plan, no texting, no browsing--just a set number of minutes with no long-distance charges. That’s what she liked. She turned her phone on each Sunday evening and called her children and friends. Otherwise, the phone lay dormant.

Over time, however, Mother forgot how to turn on her phone. Next, she forgot that it needed charging. Soon after, she put away the cell phone charger where no one, including Mother, could find it. She wanted another, one that would work. So I took her shopping in spite of my doubts. We chose a snazzy red Nokia flip-phone because the key pad had numbers that she could see. We held tutorials all evening. I wrote out detailed directions and explained the charger.

Mother never used the phone. She could not remember how to turn it on by pressing the red button instead of the green. Most of the time, she could not figure out how to open the phone to find the red button.

Her companions tried to teach her. She gave the phone to my sister who promised to program it so that Mother could use it, but being unable to turn the phone on nullified any programming; thus, after six months, I decided to cancel the cell phone as one more unnecessary expense. My sister agreed.

This brought me back to A T & T--not as a second-hand bill payer in Mother’s behalf, but voice to voice, person to person. I hoped that A T & T had changed. I learned it has not.

The first person who answered the 800 number was not authorized to cancel the service without penalty--a charge I agreed to pay but hoped would be waived because of Mother’s disability. The young lady was not authorized to waive charges. She was only authorized to sell me on another A T & T program. She encouraged me to add Mother’s number to my own account or to buy a phone to add to Mother’s account for the low, low price of $9.99 monthly (plus fees, taxes, and the cost of a phone, of course). When that failed, she wondered if I might like to transfer Mother’s service to my personal Internet use. I declined, first and foremost because Mother’s business is Mother’s business, separate from my own, and second, because I try to avoid doing business with A T & T.

[Okay, a moment of truth: I have been tempted to join the iPhone 1, 2, 4 and 4s camps and sign a long-term deal with A T & T. I really, really want an iPhone and resent bitterly the initial A T & T-only contract for iPhones. I am now poised to jump for the iPhone, pending the outcome of the latest A T & T effort to increase its share of the market exponentially by merging with T-Mobile. I hope not to be subsumed by A T & T if the Department of Justice fails to halt the merger, but I have also begun to think of A T & T as my inevitable fate and have therefore mellowed somewhat. In other, briefer words, my husband and I have actually discussed returning to A T & T with iPhones in our pockets.]

The next person, one step above a mere A T & T Customer Relations representative, was a supervisor. I spoke to her regarding Mother’s condition and cancellation of her contract. She had been well trained to be sympathetic and to try to salvage the business. She offered a six-month suspension, for which Mother could pay $9.99 monthly(plus taxes and fees--taxes and fees are always a given), then she would only owe $102 to terminate service. The supervisor hurried on, having quickly dropped in the $102 charge, until I stopped her and asked to review.

“Let me be sure that I understand you, please.”

“Of course,” she said sweetly. To her credit, she was never unkind, snide, or abrupt.

“You have no provision for Alzheimer’s, dementia, or disability.” I simply dared not ask about death; I truly did not want to know the answer. “You will charge an early-termination fee of $126. But I could suspend service for 6 months, paying $9.99 plus taxes and fees each month for a total of sixty plus dollars, then owe only $102 more. Is that correct?”


“Why would I want to do that? Why would anyone want to do that? I could cancel now at a cost of $126, or I could delay termination for six months at a cost of $162 plus taxes and fees.”

“Well, some people don’t like to write a big check all at once.”

“Really? That’s your explanation. People go for that deal to save writing a check for a total of twenty-four additional dollars? That’s what you’ve been taught to say?”

I believe that some people cannot add quickly and would not immediately recognize the trap: that they would pay more for the privilege of prolonging the inevitable separation. I believe this would be particularly true for elderly customers (Yes, I’m in my early 60s and Mother is in her early 80s). Above all, I believe this offer is no offer at all, but the company’s version of Razzle-Dazzle Bait-and-Shift. I believe it was a heinous offer so I asked to speak to the Customer Relations Supervisor’s manager.

I began by assuring the manager, after a ten-minute wait on hold, that the Customer Relations Supervisor had been well trained and courteous, that my complaint was not with her, but with A T & T in general. He listened and parroted the supervisor, then said that A T & T simply must recover its money.

And that, dear Readers, was the final insult. I lost my temper then and actually scoffed. The company posts profits in the billions. It delivers on Wall Street. Mother paid for the phone before it was ever activated. She has dutifully paid for service--never used in the last six months--and never missed a due date. The company has lost nothing except six more months at $35.29 monthly. But A T & T wants its pound of flesh according to the contract.

Shylock would be so proud as A T & T takes its revenge upon the elderly and infirm. Way to build customer loyalty, A T & T. You just lost me--again!

Post Script: Two days after writing the essay above, I received an electronic notice for Mother’s December A T & T bill. The previous three A T & T employees with whom I had spoken, from Customer Representative to Supervisor and finally, Manager, had all denied having the authority to waive the early termination fee. The supervisor, however, stated that since monthly charges are paid in advance, Mother would not owe another monthly amount. Both supervisor and manager assured me that Mother’s account was now closed.

Still an electronic notice appeared in my inbox and announced the deduction of another $35.29, necessitating yet another call to A T & T. This time, David _______ (last name omitted by the author, me) answered. After hearing my tale, David agreed to accept another month’s charge and waive the early termination charge. He left me on hold while he took care of the matter, but upon returning to the line with the words, “Now I’ve just . . . ,” the line went dead.

I waited in the vain hope that David would call me back. He did not. So again I submitted to the 1-800 number and this time, Patty _______ (last name withheld) answered. After listening to me, she opened with an apology because no record of any conversation with David was available on her computer screen and Mother’s number had never been cancelled. (Dear Readers, be proud of me. I did not resort to cursing or screaming--although I very much wanted to do both.)

Patty promised to get her supervisor, Rusty _______ (last name withheld), involved while I held. She had the foresight to take the number from which I called so that she could call me back if necessary. (I had little faith, at this point, that such a call would ever be made, but I agreed to wait, declaring that I wanted resolution before I ended the call.)

Patty’s first offer, supposedly by way of Rusty, was to hold longer because Rusty was trying to determine, with the help of someone above him, what David had done. I asked if Rusty was trying to find David and speak with him, but alas, the answer was “no.” A T & T employees are in call centers spread across the globe (I presume) and finding David is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, especially because David’s supervisor would have to become involved and and and. . . .

Frustrated, I repeated my desire to close Mother’s account and know exactly what we would owe. Patty promised to find out. When she returned to the line, she had to tell me that the early termination fee cannot be waived and the December bill would need to be paid also. I grew louder and more firm, announcing that I had now spoken to five people personally with two more supposedly in the mix for a total of seven with none of the seven telling me the same thing or even telling me the truth. After all, the manager from two days earlier had assured me that the account was closed, $126 would be the last money we would pay, and the deal was cooked and done. David reversed all that by waiving the $126 in favor of $35.29; now Patty channeling Rusty advised that we would owe both $126 and $35.29 but not really because customers pay one month in advance so sometime in January, the advance month would kick in to nullify the $35.29--or something to that effect. Ask Patty.

I cried “foul” and threw in “specious.” Patty left to talk with Rusty again. Finally, Rusty looked at Mother’s use of the line/cell phone. It was nil, nada, null, void, nothing! This finally persuaded the elusive Rusty that Mother really did not use the phone so he was prepared to refund prior months to the amount of $100 and therefore reduce the early termination fee to $26 while the one-month advanced payment would nullify the final $35.29.

If you have followed me thus far--and why would you?--A T & T struck a deal to secure its $126 because, as it turns out, according to Patty, speaking for Rusty, no one can waive the early termination fee. The humans not in charge have to finagle a work-around to exact the $126 pound of flesh and trick the electronic Overmind into believing that it had been paid.

So I’m waiting to see what really happens. Patty with A T & T may be the proof that A T & T can adjust for medical challenges and customers in need. Or if A T & T still assesses the full early termination charge and withdraws the December bill in full without regard to the one month advanced payment, the name Patty _______ may be forever linked to misinformation and men and women who toy with the emotions of their customers, wasting their time and money and energy--just because they can. If her name is not so linked, then David’s will do because apparently, he did nothing that he said he would do.

I cannot say that Patty’s actions, however earnest she appeared to be, have changed my mind about A T & T. It still seems to be a huge corporation with tentacles that wrap customers, squeezing every penny from them.

Granted, anyone can call and plead medical hardship to avoid payment. I’m sure a few people would and do, but the vast majority of us are honest. We deal honestly with others. Businesses too quickly create policies because of a few miscreants instead of respecting the larger number of us who are honest and responsible. Believe in the majority, A T & T.

We’re doing the right thing most of the time. Deal honestly with us, and that, in the end, is my chief complaint. Five voices, five names, five different tales. How abusive would this have been if Mother were trying to conduct her own business? A T & T would have rolled right over her and never looked back.