4/29/2008

My Financial Beating: Episode 1

I say "My" Financial Beating, because it is just that - mine. There is no 'we' here. This happened before we were Mr. and Mrs. NtJS, so the experience and responsibility rests squarely with me.

This happened while in college. While dividing up the responsibilities with my fellow house-mates, I volunteered to handle the phone bill. Probably a dumb move as this is the most complicated of all the utilities. Water, electric and gas were just divided evenly between us. But not the phone bill. Besides needing an associates degree to decipher, the phone bill was divided evenly for the base charges, but then added to each share was each persons long-distance calls. This was back when 'long-distance' and 'unlimited' were never in the same sentence. It took a little while to get acquainted with everyone's calling habits. The first couple months meant lot's of reverse phone look-up sessions as well as the occasional, "Hey, did you call Denver, Detroit or Davenport, Iowa last month?". It sucked. After a couple of months it wasn't too bad. That is, except for the billing errors.

It was an existing account that was transferred to my name. Pre-number-portability, and we didn't want to lose our phone number from last year. How would all of our loser friends from last year find us? Had to keep our number. Despite all of our time and effort and three-way calls, the name on the account was not changed, but the address was. Not a huge problem, but it was wrong and we were afraid it would cause issues, especially for the previous account holder. This began the monthly routine of calling our phone provider to get billing errors fixed. It took 4 months to get the name changed on the account, and by the time we did, I wished we hadn't.

They would bill us for services we were not receiving. Over bill us for internet access. Not credit us for last month's payment. It was one thing after another, and it usually required about 1-2 hours of my time, on the phone, every month, to get it corrected, just to get blindsided by the next bill and whatever potential hell it contained.

I finally decided that I had spent enough time on the phone with 'Janice' and 'Regina' and 'Gregory'. I'd had enough of their empty promises and meaningless confirmation numbers. Had enough of waiting until the next billing cycle to see the changes and billing corrections. It was time to deal with an inept customer service rep face to face. The local phone monopoly had, for some unknown reason, a brick-and-mortar location in a shopping center. I'm really not sure what they did there other than deal with all of the problems created by the deadbeats working the phone lines. They wouldn't screw me over if I was standing right in front of them, would they? Oh yeah they would.

One of my parents even accompanied me in an effort to not look like just some dumb college kid. It must not have worked. The rep we met with feigned sympathy quite well. She helped with all of the issues that were seemingly impossible to conquer over the phone. Then she hit us with it. "looking at your long-distance bill, sir, we could save you 15% per month if you'd switch it to us." We bit. I still have no idea why, but when she dangled the bait, we took it. All seemed to be well - we took care of the issues, the CSR apologized profusely for the problems we'd had, and we even saved some money on our long-distance. Then we got the bill.

Ug. It was sky high and it made no sense. Even short calls (in duration, not distance), were costing several dollars. Dollars! It should be 20 or 30 cents. Dollars!? The whole bill was over $300 for one month of this crap - they even charged me to connect and then disconnect my long-distance. Bill in hand, I went back to the store. The explanation left me speechless.

"Sir, it looks like we were unable to give you the long-distance service you agreed to, so we switched you to So-and-So's 'Occasional User' plan. The reason the calls are so expensive is because there is an access fee of 75 cents per call plus 26 cents per minute."
Being an incredibly better informed consumer now than I was then, this would not fly today. But as a dumb college kid, I was dumbfounded. "Huh??". This needlessly expensive long-distance plan wasn't even with this company. She couldn't help me and said that I would have to call a certain customer service number with the other company to dispute it. You can imagine how helpful they were.

That was May and the school year was over. My house-mates went home and I told them that I would let them know what they owed once I got a corrected bill. Well, I never got a corrected bill. In fact I never got another bill. Nor did it get corrected. I got a collections notice. The local phone monopoly got bought out by a larger phone monopoly and apparently my case was more than they wanted to deal with (likely one of thousands that they didn't want to deal with). Away to collections I was sent.

Dave Ramsey often says that, "You can tell when a debt collector is lying by the fact that their mouth is moving". How true. I tried working with the collectors. I tried working with the phone monopoly. No avail. One story after another. Never a consistent answer, and barely an answer at that. So I dropped it. The matter was not resolved, the bill was not corrected, and I never got any money out of my former house-mates. I should have billed them and just paid it. Instead I forgot about it, as the collectors seemed to have forgotten about me. The calls just stopped.

Well, 2 years and 3 residences later, they caught up with me. The bill was still owed, and I was still unequipped to deal with them effectively. With the threat of dinging my credit (oh my!), I paid. I was out of school and working. I had the money and chose to get them out of my life. I was beaten. I'd had enough. I'd been victimized by the phone monopoly's ineptitude and policy of screwing over the local college kids. I'd been abused and lied to by the scum collection agencies they'd sent after me. I just wanted it to be done and that was their goal.

We still have that file, complete with the 'account paid in full' notice, the original phone bill from the now defunct phone monopoly, and the unfulfilled long-distance contract. These are nestled in with the various letters I'd sent in attempts to clear up the matter, other bills on the account, and the canceled checks from the payments. We'll have that file forever.

This financial beating was frustrating, confusing and drawn out over 2+ years. It left me confused about where I had gone wrong and what I could have done differently. Since then, Mrs. NtJS has taken over the responsibility of physically paying the bills. Her diligence keeps all of the bills paid and quickly notices any errors or abnormalities. It usually ends up being my responsibility to handle billing errors/problems which is fine. As I said, I'm a much more informed consumer these days. I now know how to talk to a customer service rep - what to ask for, when to raise my voice, when to ask for a manager, and when not to.
  • Persistence pays off. If you are getting nowhere with a CSR or get the feeling that they are as smart as a box of hammers, then hang up. Call back in a few minutes and try again - you'll get someone else. This works quite well, especially when you can tell that the CSR is clueless, not listening or trying to take advantage of you. Some companies, like DirecTV, can tell how many times you've called. On the third call, they pointed this out and sent me straight to a manager who took care of the issue quickly and without question. Others have no idea, and don't need to. Just plug away until you get somebody who has a clue and is willing to help.
  • Have your ammo locked and loaded. Know what happened and when. Be ready to cite the facts and be clear about what you are wanting them to do for you. Never ask for an apology - you won't get it and it wouldn't do you any good if they did. Do you want a discount? Do you want a refund? A prorated bill due to their outage or lack of service? Do all of the math yourself and have exact numbers to cite. Without this, you are just another barking chihuahua yapping about your bill to someone who really doesn't want to hear your BS. Do the leg work and make the CSRs job easy. "Here is where you screwed up, and this is how much my bill should be."
  • Play dumb. This one should be used sparingly and only when you already know the answer to the question. Sometimes it helps for the CSR to think that they are in control. Sometimes you don't know all the right terminology and want to hear it from them. Sometimes, you just want the CSR to see for themselves and state their company's stupidity out loud. "Yes, I was billed for some PPVs that I didn't order." "Well, lets see... those charges are for PPV X, PPV Y, and PPV Z, and they were ordered from this receiver on October 14th and 15th." "Hmmmm, October 14th and 15th... of what year?" "2005." "And when was this receiver activated on my account?" "October 3rd." "Of what year?" "2006....... Oh... I see."
  • Take your time. CSRs are usually expected to hit a certain number of calls per hour or some other meaningless metric based on call volumes. Anyways, they want you off the phone ASAP so they can get on to the next one. Be sure that you have more time to talk than they do. The longer you keep them on the line, the more likely they are to give you what you want as you are screwing up their average. Don't let them hurry you off of the phone.
  • Document everything. Get names, employee numbers, phone extensions, confirmation numbers, call center locations, whatever they will give you. Note the time and date of your call and what you asked for as well as what they promised you. Best case is to get any agreement in writing or at least a confirmation email, before sending any payment. Important details have a way of "not showing up in your file", so don't rely on them for anything.
  • Don't lose your cool. Not so long ago, I was fuming over a billing error. We had disputed it to no avail. Mrs. NtJS tried to handle it and they accused me of placing the order behind her back, then trying to cover it up so that she wouldn't find out. No matter how often that scenario is true, they had no right to assert it. I was ready to kill. No matter how great the urge, while on the phone with 'Jose', I never swore, never yelled or abused him. What's he got to do with it? He's just the messenger. I did however make it quite clear, in a firm, slightly elevated tone, that he was not getting off of the phone with me until each and every cent of the erroneous charges were accounted for and reversed, and the inaccuracies on my account corrected. I did once respond to his failure to come up with the right answer with, "No way, Jose."
  • Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em. Don't threaten to cancel the account unless you are ready to do it right then and there. One mention of cancellation may get you to the glorious 'retentions department', where discounts and upgrades are offered to keep you as a 'valued customer'. Or it may get you straight to the less-glorious 'cancellation department', where they confirm that you want your service shut off, do so, and then hang up. If you are ready to go, then go. You aren't meant to do business with everyone. Close your account and don't look back, but do your best to resolve the issue first. After resolving a billing issue with a belligerent service provider, I responded to their query of, "Is there anything else I can do for you today?", with, "Yes, put me through to your cancellation department." She didn't like that, but enough was enough.
We've all made mistakes - especially with money. What is important is that we learn from them and make the necessary changes in our lives to keep them for reoccurring.
Got a 'Financial Beating' story to share? Send us an email and we'll consider it for publishing.

See the original 'Financial Beating' article here.

1 comments:

Suzanne Morris said...

Reading your story makes me feel ill because I have been there. I tried to set up a landline for my business a few months back and gave up after I spent an hour on the phone with a customer service rep who disconnected me. I set up Vonage in less than 10 minutes. The local phone guys don't get it. And don't even get me started on collection agencies! Bottom feeders- all of them.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin