Coffee heat rising

Good Corps, Bad Corps…

The other day, Budgeting in the Fun Stuff remarked on Frugal Scholar‘s rant about the excruciating customer service emanating from Virgin Mobile. Both bloggers asked readers which corporations are best and worst in the customer (dis)service department.

Apparently they touched a hot button. They each got a slew of responses. Among them, we see that Comcast is roundly hated. Free Money Finance is locked in combat with that worthy organization—as his saga unfolds, it’s hard to tell whether Comcast is merely incompetent or deliberately obnoxious.

Yesterday while I was driving up to the optometrist’s office, what should I hear on NPR but this interesting story. It suggests a new tool for hacking through thickets of bad customer service, at least in some instances: small claims court.

Dartmouth Professor Charles Wheelan was subjected to United Airlines’ latest insult to passengers, a $25 charge for checking his bag. When they lost his luggage, they refused to refund his money. So he took them to small claims court. So far, he has yet to see either the bag or the refund, but, as he notes, even though the action cost him $72 in court fees, revenge is sweet:

Turns out that it’s [the $72 trade-off] actually really important in terms of economics. It’s essentially vengeance, and vengeance has a technical definition, which is you’re willing to harm yourself in order to impose harm on somebody else. Now when we do that, what the behavioral psychologists have learned, is it makes us feel good. It lights up the pleasurable parts of the brain just like doing other things that make you feel good. So vengeance might actually be quite rational.

United crossed the wrong guy when its baggage handlers threw musician Dave Carroll’s expensive guitar across the tarmac, with predictable results. His revenge came in the form of a hilarious (and infuriating) YouTube video that, says he, “became one of YouTube’s greatest hits and caused an instant media frenzy across all major global networks and sources (including the likes of CNN, the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone Magazine & the BBC to name a few)” and spawned two more videos. He may never have extracted the $1,200 it cost to repair his guitar from United, but the resulting publicity boosted his career, probably returning that much and more in increased revenues.

Well, most of us don’t have Dave Carroll’s talent. But it’s not hard to put up a talking-head video on YouTube describing some egregious example of customer disservice, and the idea of taking the SOBs to small claims court over money owed has its charms.

My own strategy is first to bypass the CSRs by tracking down the names of upper management at the corporate headquarters and firing off a dear-sir-you-cur letter. Often this will get results, or a simulacrum thereof.

If the go-over-their-heads gambit fails, then I head for a regulatory agency or an attorney general. Many of these customer service fiascos amount to fraud or theft—when they stonewall you or outright lie to you, they’re ripping you off. The trick here is to go to the AG in the state where the company is headquartered and send a copy of your complaint to the AG in your own state.

When a company operates across state lines, as most of the faceless monsters that have developed immunity to customers do, then a fraudulent action becomes…yes…a federal case! Corporate America, as we have seen by the vast corporate donations to doctrinaire Kill-the-Beasters’ political campaigns, really dislikes dealing with federal regulators and attorneys general. So if you can’t get any action from a state attorney general, kick it up to the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, or the U.S. Attorney General. You’d be surprised how fast a call from any of these entities will settle your complaint.

Frugal and Budgeting ask readers what are their choices for best and worst customer service. My all-time worst customer service nightmare is Qwest, an outfit with whom no one should ever do business. Videlicet:

Back Again—Temporarily?
“We Value Your Business”
Unbundled! Qwest Strikes Again
What Happens When a Live Qwest Guy Shows Up
Qwest Redux: How Do These Companies Stay in Business?
Qwest: The Saga That Will Not End
Qwest Update

The best? It’s hard to think of many, since retailers and service providers now will openly tell you that the old saying to the effect that “the customer is always right” is dead wrong. CSRs apparently are encouraged to be rude and trained to bounce off complaints like tennis balls hitting a concrete wall. In my experience, the only outfit that’s consistently shown excellent customer service is the Mayo Clinic.

My question to you is this:

What has worked best for you to cut through a customer disservice fiasco?

Snail-mail vs. electronic payment

Are there bills that you refuse to pay electronically, or am I the only maverick running loose across the range?

These days, I pay all monthly bills by EFTs, except the phone bill. I never trusted Qwest, which in the past was prone to sending incorrect statements full of phantom charges. But because they had been OK for several years and because I no longer make many long-distance calls, I opted to let them engross money from my checking account. That was a mistake—it added even more aggravation to the late, great Qwest saga. So, when I switched to Cox, which after all is just another giant squid of a telecom corporation, I decided to keep its tentacles out of my bank accounts.

Cox’s statement hasn’t arrived this month. It’s usually here by now: last month I wrote a check on the 6th, meaning the bill would have been sitting around the house for several days by then. The bill actually isn’t due for another couple of weeks, but they claim you need to get the payment to them ten days before the announced due date, to ensure it posts on time. So I had to call them on the phone, navigate the infuriating punch-a-button system (is there any question why so many Americans have high blood pressure?), then find out what’s owing and what their mailing address is.

Snail-mail is so passé that the employees don’t even know what the company’s address is. It took the human I finally reached two tries to find what she thinks is the correct accounts receivable P.O. box.

There are some corporations, IMHO, that can’t be trusted. The phone company is one of those: I want to see the bill before there’s even any possibility of money being released. Ditto that for credit cards. I never pay credit-card bills electronically: I do not want Visa or American Express to have any access of any sort to my bank accounts, other than through a check. I want to be able to see and confirm each charge in each billing cycle before sending money.

A credit-union rep once remarked that it’s not a good idea to pay insurance companies electronically, either. I do: long-term care and life insurance premiums are EFTed to the relevant companies. But I don’t pay the annual homeowner’s and auto insurance that way. Too squirrelly: you never know when they’re going to run amok with the premiums, so I want to minimize potential hassle if I decide to switch insurers.

What bills, if any, do you pay the old-fashioned way?

Qwest update

Yesterday while I was at work Julie called from Qwest’s corporate headquarters in Denver. She left a phone number that, believe it or not, dialed straight through to her, unfiltered by any gate-keeping robots.

Butter would not have melted in Julie’s mouth. She was soothing, she was apologetic, she was smooth.

Julie revealed that when the Josh claimed he could save me $10 on a “bundle,” he really was claiming to “save” that amount on a much larger set of services than I had or wanted. In other words, his scam scheme would save me $10, all right: off a much larger bill! I said he had led me to understand he was going to reduce my existing bill, and that I never asked for nor needed any of the extra bells and whistles. It was thanks to the Josh’s deceptiveness that I ended up with a doubled bill.

She said she would deactivate all the extra services he had put on the system and cancel the long-distance “membership plan,” which costs an astonishing $30 annual “membership fee” (give me a BREAK!) and $20 a month for the privilege of being billed 2.9 cents per minute of long-distance talk. If you’d prefer not to pony up the monthly premium, for just the thirty-dollar annual rip, you can talk for 5 cents a minute: exactly the rate Cox charges with no extra fee.

She also agreed to cancel the cell phone contract, effective immediately.
*****Ta DAAAA!*****

Since I’d already canceled Qwest’s phone disservice and am about to cancel its DSL disservice, all I really wanted from this transaction was to get quit of the extra $30/month ding for the cell phone that I hardly ever use.

She said the various credits for all this canceled service would appear on the December bill. The $170 inflicted by the Josh’s “bargain” still is to be extracted from my checking account the first part of November, but the final bill will show a bunch of credits. She asked that I not cancel the automatic bill payment until the final bill comest through in December. Reluctantly (as usual), I agreed to this.

So, since I can’t afford a $170 phone bill, now I will have to transfer money from savings to cover it—timed perfectly as I’m looking at a possible layoff. Thank you SO much, dear Qworst. It also means, of course, that I’ll be buying less than planned in the way of Christmas presents next month. Merry Christmas, dear Qworst!

It also means I won’t be fully disconnected from Qworst until the first week in December, at the soonest. Meanwhile, she said the Cox service will start on October 30 but the paperwork will not go through until November 3. She also said that, contrary to what Cox’s “Rose” told me, Cox has to request the DSL disconnection, not me. Qwest cannot cancel it at my request. I said Cox had told me that after the serviceman came by and installed the new Internet connection, I had to call Qwest and tell them to end the DSL service. She said Cox is supposed to do that.

So it looks like that will be another bone of contention. {sigh} When will this be over?
Previous chapters:

Back Again—Temporarily?
“We Value Your Business”
Unbundled! Qwest Strikes Again
What Happens When a Live Qwest Guy Shows Up
Qwest Redux: How Do These Companies Stay in Business?
Qwest: The Saga That Will Not End

Consumer Headaches: 15 ways to get help

My two-month-long fight with Qwest, which barring a stroke of luck will no doubt go on a lot longer, would have been lost early on if I were not adept at writing the dear-sir-you-cur letter (more about which in a later post) and experienced with tracking down corporate executives and agencies that regulate commerce.

Consumers have more resources than you would think—and certainly more than outfits like Qwest think you will find out about. Qwest is the worst I’ve ever dealt with: combatting serious problems that might damage your credit rating or cost you big bucks requires you to roll out the big guns—state and federal regulatory agencies, attorneys general, and possibly even a paid lawyer of your own. But for smaller fry, there are easier ways.

Consumer protection resources fall into two groups: those you can and should take advantage of before you do business with a retailer, contractor, or service provider, and those to whom you have recourse after you’ve had a negative experience. Here are a few worth knowing about:

Before the Fact

The Better Business Bureau.I’ve never found a complaint to the BBB effective after the fact, but it’s a place to check before you do business with a chosen company or contractor. Though the group doesn’t seem to do much about complaints, it does at least keep a record and will let you know the company’s history.

Your state’s registrar of contractors. This is a very powerful resource. States regulate a wide variety of contractors, and in doing so they gather consumer complaints. Before hiring a contractor, get his or her contractor’s license number, call the state agency, and find out what complaints have occurred and how they were resolved. Some states turn filing a complaint into a major hassle; that means that if the agency shows a complaint record, the incidents in questionprobablywere serious.

The Consumerist. Simply enter the name of the product or the company you’re considering into this site’s “search” box and all sorts of enlightening reports will come up. This is where I learned that Qwest had pulled the “let us give you a cheaper package” scam on other customers. This site is so useful it’s worth bookmarking and revisiting regularly. This site also lists the names and addresses of many high-ranking corporate executives. Thanks to The Consumerist, I finally tracked down Mr. Ed Mueller, Qwest’s well-hidden chairman and CEO.

The RipOff Report. Unlike the Consumerist, which carries a fair number of positive reviews, the Ripoff Report consists mostly of angry complaints. Some of these must be taken with a grain of salt. It’s useful, however, simply to compare the volume of complaints registered for two similar companies. Also, if the same issue appears over and over again, that should tell you something.

Consumer Reports. This site supplements the print magazine, and unfortunately you have to subscribe to get much value from it. But it does have a few free features. By and large, Consumer Reports reviews are more useful when they address things mechanical or electronic rather than in matters of taste.

Google. Enter [“name of product or service”] and “consumer reviews” with each word string inside quotation marks. This will usually bring up several sites, some more useful than others, where people hold forth about their experiences with services and stuff.

After the Fact

Get Human. This excellent resource lists strategies to reach live human beings at companies and organizations whose representatives barricade themselves behind telephone punch-a-button labyrinths. Bookmark it!

Corporate headquarters: This link offers some leads. Also you canGoogle the company name + headquarters, or try The Consumerist. Don’t be shy about going straight to the head of the company.

State attorneys general. Few companies relish an inquiry from the biggest, meanest lawyer in the state. If you can’t get satisfaction and you have evidence that fraud or a rip-off has occurred (or is about to occur), a complaint to your state AG’s office can be an effective way to get the attention of someone at the company who will do something about your problem. If a company’s home office is located in a state different from yours, you need to complain to the AG in that state.

Your state public utility commission. These agencies also are surprisingly powerful. They have a lot to say about what a utility can charge and how it can treat its customers. I sent a copy of my letter to Qwest CEO Ed Mueller along to the Arizona Corporation Commission, with the commission’s PDF form showing which specific regulated issues apply.

County and state trade and professional groups, state and county medical societies, and state and county bar associations. Some of these organizations actually license members; others simply try to ride herd on businesses to keep up the communal image. When a sleazy used-car dealer kept telephoning me looking for some mysterious woman who had welched on her car payments after giving the outfit my phone number, I discovered a statewide trade group of used car dealers. After I contacted them, the guy gave up pestering me.

The U.S. attorney general. If you have been the victim of an interstate fraud or other crime, this is the agency for you.

The Federal Communication Commission’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau. The Bush Administration has effectively defanged formerly powerful federal regulatory agencies, among them the FCC, leaving American citizens with far fewer resources to defend themselves against predatory corporate interests. However, the FCC still does provide a fair amount of consumer information and accepts complaints or reports on a few interstate matters.

The Federal Trade Commission. This agency retains substantial clout. It oversees consumer protection in seven major areas. If my current approach to Qwest through the state corporation commission and the company’s upper management fails, the FTC will be hearing from me.

Other federal regulatory agencies. Thelen’s Construction Weblinks includes a list of federal agencies. If you don’t see what you want here, this wiki provides a few extra leads.

When you’re certain you’re in the right, don’t give up. Pursue all avenues to get recourse. Often when a company sees that you’re serious and that you will not be brushed off easily, it will capitulate or at least offer an acceptable compromise. Keep up the good fight!

Qwest: The saga that will not end

The Qwest b.s. simply will not die!

As you’ll recall, in the last episode I received a nasty form letter claiming the credit union bounced a payment (it did not) and threatening to shut off my phone service. In the ensuing call to Qworst, customer disservice representative “Brad” told me this was fixed and my bill should revert to the normal amount, around $86.

Yesterday, I opened the monthly phone bill to find a gouge for $169.03! Further examination revealed that the cost for phone service had jumped from August’s amount of $26.72 to $43.15; Internet service was jacked up from $29.99 to $89.98!!

So, with my tape recorder running (having learned from “Brad” that the recorded voice’s claim that Qwest records your conversations with its reps is not true in 99% of calls), this morning I call back again and reach one “Alex.” He is obsequiously apologetic and, when he hears the reprise of the endless story, he decides he needs someone in authority and puts me on hold while he tries to reach the “Loyalty Department.” (Yes. That’s what he called it.)

A while later he comes back online and says he himself has been on hold. He disappears again. A few minutes later, he comes back on the phone to report he still can’t get past the hold button but on reading my bill he thinks a $108.29 credit was issued on 10/16 and I should have been billed only $69.03. He says I’ll be credited for the overcharge next month.

I say I can’t afford a $170 bill this month. He says he’ll have to go to the collections department to get the overcharge removed from this month’s bill…then he notices the $108.29 credit actually was applied to my bill.

I point out that the bill is unintelligible and it’s impossible to tell whether this is true or not (after all, look at what he had to go through to come to that conclusion!). I also state that I want the automatic payment from my checking account canceled NOW, and I will pay whatever is actually owing by check. He says he’ll call collections, stay on the line with me, and arrange for the credit to go through this month.

Then I point out the weird increases in the costs of “phone services” and “Internet service.” Now he says in this case he needs to talk to “Escalations” after all. He puts me on hold again.

Forty-five minutes into the call, I’m still listening to Qworst’s annoying “Get in the Loop” ad, endlessly looping.

Now someone named “Amber” gets on the line. She demands that I turn off the tape recorder, saying no action will be taken as long as the call is recorded.

Got that? It’s OK for Qworst to tape-record you, whether you like it or not, but not OK for you to record them.

She says the local service came to $22.64 with tax and that the apparent differences between the two monthly bills are the result of Qwest’s new layout for the bills—that magically, the amounts are really the same. This doesn’t sound very believable to me. She says $30 was added for a renewal fee for long distance—that I’m on a “membership plan.” I say no one told me any such thing, and that I had not signed up for any plan. She says I was billed that much last year.

Not until after the phone conversation ends do I think about the fact that Quicken is still live on my computer. When I check, I discover that no such extra fee was levied last year, so she simply lied to shut me up.

At any rate, I reply that $30 does not account for a difference between $85.99 and $169.03. She says I was billed for 2 1/2 months’ worth of Internet service because the upgrade in September was not billed at the time. She said the bill for the Internet service went up. I said I was told there would be no change in the amount due. She said that was “misinformation.” (Read: another lie?) Then she said she would return the service to 256K and backdate it, reducing the fee.

Scant satisfaction: I still have a ridiculously inflated bill I can’t afford resulting from a chain of events that started with Qwest’s DSL screw-up, entailed several examples of “misinformation,” and has wasted hours of my time.

This morning’s phone call alone consumed over an hour.

I called Cox, using a number given to me by a friend who claims to be satisified with Cox’s service. There I reached one “Rose,” who said that the midlevel Internet service runs at 9mb/second (if I’m not mistaken, that’s somewhat better than “256K”) and costs $45 a month. The phone service costs $20 a month, for a total of $65. This afternoon, when “Rose” arrives in her office, I’m switching from Qworst to Cox.

Qworst corralled me into a two-year cell phone contract about 18 months ago, and so that runs until June. As soon as it expires, though, I will let the cell phone service go, leaving me with a much more affordable phone bill. The only reason I got it at all was to have some way to call for help if I get in an accident or if my car craps out on the freeway; as it develops, all cell phones will dial 911 for free, whether or not they’re connected to a service. Not only that, but in many areas you can use an unconnected cell phone to dial a number and have the call charged to your credit card. The call may cost around $3 a minute, but that’s a far cry from $30 every month for a device you hardly ever use!

The Consumerist has published a list of Qwest senior executives’ addresses. I intend to get in touch with several of these folks and request an early cancellation of that cell phone with no gouge, given the gross mistreatment I have suffered at the hands of the company’s customer disservice staff. Interestingly, The Consumerist also reports a scam similar to the one The Josh pulled on me was inflicted on another woman. Apparently Qwest has a track record for this sort of thing.

Whatever you do,
Previous chapters:

Back Again—Temporarily?
“We Value Your Business”
Unbundled! Qwest Strikes Again
What Happens When a Live Qwest Guy Shows Up
Qwest Redux: How Do These Companies Stay in Business?

Qwest redux: How do these companies stay in business?

Oh, God, I hate Qwest!!!!!

How in the name of heaven do these outfits stay in business? I thought the whole idea of breaking the Ma Bell monopoly was to bring us better service! Man. Talk about your unintended consequences.

Well, I do have to admit that Ma Bell’s service was bad. Awful. Though at least a human being answered the phone, it was the biggest pain to have to get on the phone and deal with those people. They were arrogant beyond description, because they didn’t have to treat you decently. You had no recourse. They were the only game in town.

Today you have no recourse, either. I called the Arizona Corporation Commission earlier in the present Qwest fiasco to urge that the company not be granted the rate hike it’s requesting, because the service it provides (or fails to provide) to customers does not justify increasing our bills. I was told that DSL services are completely unregulated. Period. There’s no regulation for DSL! And that, my chickadees, is why you get shafted every time you turn around if you have the temerity to buy in to one of these systems.

Yesterday I opened an envelope from Qworst, expecting the usual monthly statement.


It was a nasty collection letter claiming my bank had bounced a payment for $155.46 (!!!!!) and announcing that Qwest is about to disconnect my phone.

Say what?

In the first place, this charge is incorrect. It includes about $100 for a modem that was never installed but instead was taken back to Qwest by the serviceman whose time was wasted while Qwest was engaged in wasting my time over the DSL flap. One of the endless series of customer disservice people I spoke with over the phone determined that this was an incorrect charge and, after learning that my bill is automatically paid, deleted the $155.46 charge, posted the real amount due (which was $55) to my American Express card, and arranged for regular billing to restart next month. She said no charge was due this month.

In the second place, had Qwest actually billed the credit union, any amount they chose to ask for would have been paid. My account contained $1,600 on the day the monthly charge goes through. Furthermore, because of the late, great PeopleSoft fiasco, in which My Beloved Employer’s newly outsourced payroll contractor took to failing to pay people’s salaries (oops!), I arranged for check-bouncing protection in the amount of a full month’s pay: $3,000. So, Qwest had access to $4,600 on the day its $155 bill was allegedly bounced.

Hm. Considering Qwest’s rampant incompetence, that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

In the third place, had an automatic charge not gone through, the credit union would have informed me.

The speciousness of Qwest’s statement, then, was even more infuriating than its nasty tone.

So once again I had to get past Qwest’s enraging phone-answering robot, whose “voice” I would very much like NEVER to hear again.

Finally a human answers, a gent who identifies himself as “Brad.”

“Brad” says the bill was cut on the September 16 and I talked with “Amy,” the last Qwest human who deigned to speak with me, on the 23rd. While this may have been true, it skirted the fact that the credit union would have disgorged the $155 automatically had a charge been sent through on the billing date, around October 1. At first he thought maybe they had an incorrect bank routing number, but after some study, he couldn’t see why a bounced transaction notice would have been sent out at all.

He says one of the modems wasn’t credited because John, the dreadlocked but charming repairman, failed to provide a return authorization number. Thus the return didn’t register in the system.

“Brad” finds the $155.46 was deleted on 9/23 and then remarks, about what he’s seeing on the system, “This doesn’t make sense.” He says no late fee should have been issued.

He now adjusts the account and concludes that the account balance is 0 and nothing is owing this month.

I ask if the regular bill would be $86. Amazingly, to figure that out he has to manually add up all the charges. He says the regular bill will now be the same as it was before this time-wasting comedy of errors began.

Dollars to donuts, that isn’t the last we’ll hear of it.

If Qworst paid me for the amount of my time it has wasted, it would owe me about $240. And interestingly, Qworst may not actually be the worst of them all. Go online and check out the reviews of just about any telecom company you choose. Sunday I was at the Sprint store with a friend, where I overheard two women engaged in endless discussion with the staff (one of them had been relegated to a phone—even going in person to the store doesn’t guarantee that you can speak to a human being face to face). Neither of them was getting much satisfaction, though one at least managed to stay calm. The other was furious, and pointed out in barely measured tones that something was wrong with the way Sprint was treating a loyal customer who had paid her bills on time for many a year. As though Sprint gives one thin damn about loyal customers, any more than Qwest does!

We have only our own stupidity to blame for this set of affairs. If “loyal customers” would wise up to the fact that none of us needs a Blackberry or a cell phone or any of this other junk, telecommunication companies would be reduced to having to treat us like human beings to get our business. But because, like the herd of morons telecom executives evidently believe us to be, we stampede to buy every gadget that comes on the market the instant it hits the stores, we get gouged for services and treated like cows.

We should be as ashamed of ourselves as the telecommunications executives and our defanged, castrated government regulators should be.
The Continuing Saga of Qworst
(Notice that this stupid stuff started in August!)

Back again—temporarily?
“We value your business”
Unbundled: Qwest strikes again
What happens when a live Qwest guy shows up
Tune in next week: same time, same place!