Guilty Till Proven Innocent

I've always admired people who have empathy for others, because empathy is a virtue. So, when a VoiceStream customer service supervisor wrote in response to the recent column where I trashed how her company treats its customers, I took pause. Empathy. Imagine what it would be like to handle call after call from angry customers — many of whom have gripes about their bills that are deemed unfounded.

What would it be like to know that the next call could be even nastier than the last? Would I have the patience to handle such complaints and be courteous to one and all?

Hell no. But I don't care. How can consumers be empathetic when we're being screwed?

Customer service reps shouldn't hate us when we call them, all emotional and frustrated. They should hate their companies for making us feel powerless and ripped off. It's not the rep's fault, but it's not ours, either.

The supervisor who wrote shared information that was revealing and, at times, infuriating. She asked me not to identify her by name.

According to her, the problem isn't really VoiceStream. It's us. For every one of us with a legitimate gripe, there are 10 people who are lying, trying to scam the company out of something. They are so used to the liars and cheats that they treat the rest of us like crap.

She said customer service reps "get bitter and defensive pretty much from the get go. The customer is basically guilty until proven innocent."

Well, that's just great. The notion that "The customer is always right" has evolved into "The customer is always wrong. And if the customer really is right, treat him so poorly that he'll give up to end the agony."

Most of the people working in her call center are good people, she tells me. Polite. Professional.

"It is true that the customer service industry does attract its share of bitter, nasty individuals who refuse to give credits when they are obviously due out of sheer stubborn nastiness," she wrote. "There are those who I am convinced take customer service jobs just for the satisfaction of anonymously sticking it to people — but I must stress that this is a vast minority of the overall customer service team at VoiceStream, because they don't last very long ..."

The bad ones lose their jobs, she said. I'll bet they get bonuses.

One of the reasons we keep having problems with cellular service is that, apparently, we don't read the terms and conditions of our contracts closely enough to know when our plan gives us free long distance, roaming outside our local coverage area or extra promotional minutes. That's why we should read the contracts carefully before signing up, she said. And, she's right. But, these companies are slick enough to know that we are way too rushed at the moment of purchase to try to figure out how we're going to get screwed later. Plus, when I signed up with VoiceStream, I did it over the phone. There was no small print to read. Just a very nice woman who was more than happy to set me up.

My boss, who loves VoiceStream as much as I do, called to complain that they didn't give her the free long distance that had been promised. Well, customer service told her, show us in your contract where it says you get free long distance. When she examined the contract, the provision wasn't there, yet the sales person had specifically stressed the free long distance to make the sale.

These cellular companies change the rules constantly and mess with us when we aren't looking. How many of you have noticed that your night hours don't begin at 8 p.m. anymore, but 9?

The VoiceStream supervisor does make some other good points that will help us, whether our beef is with a cellular company or some other insensitive corporation:

Document your conversations, with the name and badge number of the customer service representative.

Ask the customer service person how much they are authorized to credit without getting the transaction approved by a supervisor. "If the amount that you are asking for is above that amount, make sure that the credit is going to be approved before getting off the phone."

It doesn't matter how mad you are. Be nice. "This rep can either be your worst enemy or your most ardent supporter."

Don't begin your call by demanding a supervisor because some of the customer service people are more experienced than their bosses.

And, writing the CEO really works because those letters are handled by different managers who "don't have 40 calls in the queue at any given time like the call center people do.

I got a lot of mail from other people, many of whom just wanted to vent their own frustrations with the endless struggle for good service.

One woman learned that the way to change an Internet airline reservation without paying the fee is to blame the computer for getting the dates wrong, and be indignant about it.

Another woman called to praise Hillsborough County's Consumer Protection Agency (813-272-6750), which quickly intervened when a contractor wouldn't fix a shoddily constructed carport.

A woman who tussled with a landlord who wouldn't refund her deposit found help from the Better Business Bureau (

There are plenty of online message boards where you can expose the bad guys for what they are doing to you.

I know.

Plenty of you are thinking, "What's the point?" I guess it is this: If you don't make a stink, it's going to get worse.

I've gotta go now. I'm calling my health insurance company to ask why they are hiking my premium $700 a year when I have never filed a claim.

"May I help you?" says the customer service rep who answers after I push just three buttons and hold only four minutes.

Well, yes, it's about that $700. How can they do this when the economy is a disaster and people are struggling to pay the old premiums?

"You can write us a letter," the woman tells me. "But, this is an across-the-board increase and it won't help. They have a letter they send back telling why the rate went up. Your letter won't make any difference, but if it will make you feel better, feel free to write."

That's empathy.

Contact Senior Editor Fawn Germer at [email protected].

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