Inconvenience Charge

You know my pain. You've dialed the number, desperate to talk with a human being, only to get Jane, the voice. Just follow a 15-level, automated response system that requires you to concentrate, concentrate, concentrate and push all the right buttons on your touch-tone phone. Then, you hold for 20 minutes before you hear you are about to be transferred. Finally, you get disconnected. So, you call back.

Today, it might be about your car insurance or the electric bill. Tomorrow, it will be the phone or cable.

It's upsetting to think about how much time we lose in this process, and how much money we sacrificed by giving up and just paying the extra $9 or $12 or $19.29 to avoid the ordeal of what they call "customer service."

Every time we let one go and give up, we give Corporate America permission to hit us again, which it does, even harder. The discrepancies are getting bigger, the hold times longer and the representatives nastier.

Those times I do make a fuss, I have to ask to speak with a supervisor almost every single time. I've lost count of the times I've had to ask the supervisor to transfer me to his or her supervisor. When I get really frustrated, I write a letter to the CEO. That generally gets some sort of result.

A problem with delivery of my Gateway computer. (They kept saying, "The computer's on the truck") led to my writing the CEO and getting a $50 gift certificate. Delta messed up on a flight change and the CEO responded with a $150 voucher. The rude Hertz employee who told me to make sure I returned my malfunctioning rental with a full tank of gas resulted in my getting a free day's rental.

They do that as part of good customer service, but good customer service should come without having to push or beg for it. Unfortunately, the pushing and begging has become such a part of our everyday experience that we are shocked when things work without our having to make a fuss.

In the past two weeks, Sprint PCS tried to overcharge me $95, my health insurance company rejected a claim it should have quickly paid, TECO did not process my online payment and I got a bill from VoiceStream, charging me a $9.99 monthly fee. That one is especially interesting. I terminated my service with VoiceStream last July.

One of the things I want to do with this column is give you some power. Whether it is fighting city hall or some automated voice system, I want to help minimize the angst of being. So, I'm asking for a little information from you. I want to know how you've won your battles to right the wrongs that have befallen you. Whether it's getting justice from your child's principal or from a huge conglomerate, I'd like to learn what works so I can pass it on to everyone else.

I'm going to share my experience with VoiceStream for two reasons: One, it shows the risk of giving a company access to your bank account through easy pay plans; two, it shows that we are not powerless as consumers. I hope you have a few stories to share too.

This big adventure started with a sea-kayaking trip off Longboat Key, when the waterproof cell phone case I'd bought leaked and ruined my phone. I called VoiceStream, told them how the water had corroded my phone overnight, haggled about the cost of a replacement and finally agreed to pay $20 for a different phone — as long as I'd send the damaged one back.

Two weeks later, VoiceStream notified me that it had gone into my bank account and taken $70 from me because technicians determined that my phone showed signs of water damage.

"I'm going to report this to the Florida Public Service Commission," I told the customer service rep — and his supervisor — neither of whom would make an adjustment.

They practically laughed in my face. The PSC has nothing to do with cellular service. But, some kind soul at the PSC told me to write the Federal Communications Commission, which I did.

I also wrote VoiceStream via its Internet complaint system.

VoiceStream sent an e-mail giving me 48 hours to cut and paste my complaint between two paragraphs in the e-mail form, then re-send it to them.

More than a dozen times, I did just that. Every time, an e-mail came back saying, "We have not heard from you concerning your request for support in the 48 hours since we sent you a response. Consequently, we have changed the status of your question to SOLVED."

What did I expect from a company that printed the customer service number in type half the size of the writing on the rest of the bill? They posted no address for headquarters on their Web site. No place to vent to the CEO.

The day my contract ended, I canceled my service and signed with Sprint.

Then, a few weeks later, a miracle happened.

A federal agency did its job!

A desperate-sounding woman from VoiceStream left two voice mails, pleading with me to call immediately so we could resolve my FCC complaint. When we were done, I was getting my $70 back.

A statement with my credit finally came when I was traveling to promote my book, which had just been published. They could take money out of my account but, apparently, could not put it back. I figured I'd call and ask for a check after the book tour chaos ended. Three weeks ago, I opened an envelope from VoiceStream and, guess what? The company was wiping out my credit by billing me for monthly service.

I told the moron in customer service that I had not had phone service from VoiceStream since July.

"Well," he said, "You will need to pay us $9.99 next month."

"I don't have a phone with VoiceStream," I said again.

"You need to pay $9.99."

"I need to speak with a supervisor," I said.

Magically, I was disconnected. The supervisor had no record of any credit, but the minute I used the secret password, "FCC," he swore he'd take care of everything. A week later, a check for $70 arrived by express mail.

The lesson here? When you have a problem on your cellular bill, say "FCC." I've done it my new carrier, Sprint, which overcharged me every month for the past three months, by nearly $300. The minute I say "FCC," my bill is fixed.

I know you've fought your own battles. Tell the rest of us how you won them.

I don't have time to help solve your problem with your HMO, cell phone, newspaper delivery or utilities bill because I'm too busy languishing on hold for someone to fix my bills.

But, do share any tactical moves that will save the rest of us a little grief.

Meet senior editor Fawn Germer at signings for her best-selling book, Hard Won Wisdom, at Walden Books in International Plaza Saturday from 12 to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. Contact her at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 134.

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