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People-who-are-so-dumb-they-need-a-keeper dept.: Consumerist reports “Hundreds Of Thousands Of People Are Still Renting Home Phones”
Would you pay a company a monthly rental fee for the remote control on your television set? No? How about the MP3 player you carry around with you? Still no?
Of course you wouldn’t, because such items are relatively inexpensive to purchase, and you’d be a fool to pay several dollars a month to rent something that you could buy for only a few dollars more.
But there must be a lot of fools out there…
And proving the saying that “there’s no fool like an old fool”, many of the people still renting these phones are elderly, and a high percentage of them aren’t even using the phones they are supposedly renting anymore!
Please, if you have any elderly people that you care about in your life, make sure they aren’t falling for this scam!
- 3 On Your Side: Elderly Still Renting Home Phones (philadelphia.cbslocal.com)
I’ve said it before and I will say it until the day I die — the larger a corporation is, the more evil it becomes, and that’s true even if your corporate motto is “don’t be evil.” Mottoes don’t necessarily translate into actions. Well, I think maybe people are finally starting to see through the “don’t be evil” snow job that Google’s been shoveling at us — consider today’s article in The Consumerist:
If you’re considering porting your mobile phone number to Google Voice instead of to a new carrier, consider this: free or inexpensive phone services have a hidden expense: customer service. When Peter’s number port didn’t work, Google’s customer support structure left him with no real-time support options and no way to get the attention of anyone who could actually help him.
Full story here:
Google Has Great Services For Customers, No Customer Service
Many users will put up with a lot of shinola out of a company when they are getting something for free. But if Google Voice ever becomes non-free, the shinola is going to hit the fan, and I’ll bet that in no time at all there will be several state regulators and possibly the FCC breathing down their necks, as customers complain to those regulators about the abysmal customer service (or what passes for customer server at Google, which means you might as well put your complaint in a hermetically-sealed mayonnaise jar and leave it on Funk & Wagnalls’ porch).
From Stop the Cap!:
And when I read something like that, my thought is, if they are willing to pull this shit in California today, what’s to say they won’t try it in other states in the near future? If it were me, until they come to their senses and stop doing this, I’d avoid Frontier like a village infested with bubonic plague on the side of a hill next to an active volcano with an active nuclear waste dump at the center. But, that’s just me and my personal opinion — what you do is up to you.
United Airlines fliers must now ask yourselves: If I speak to a flight attendant will I get thrown off the plane?
Saw an item on The Consumerist site today, entitled “United Removes Passenger From Flight After He Asks Whether A Meal Will Be Served.” It contained a link to an original blog post that details the story of one Joe Sugarman, an Internet marketing consultant who was on his way home from a seminar in Austin, Texas (why does this sort of crap always happen in Texas or Florida?). And his blog post tells the story:
I get to the airport, boarded my plane and I’m sitting in first class. The flight attendant was right in front of me and was curious if they were going to serve meals onboard. So I asked her, “Are you serving any meals during our flight?”
She looked at me kinda funny and said, “I can’t answer that for security reasons.”
A little puzzled, I wondered how it affected security but I let it pass as she went into the cockpit. About three minutes later, two armed Austin police officers boarded the plane, looked at me and said, “Sugarman, follow us.”
Picking up the story a bit further down…
Finally a United representative approached me with my bags and said “We are taking you off this flight for security reasons.”
“Why” I asked.
“You apparently asked the flight attendant if the Police were onboard,” said the United representative. We’re not taking any chances and the captain asked that you be removed.”
“But I only asked her if a meal was being served,” I said. Only to be told that it was her word against mine and the Captain was not going to take any chances based on what the flight attendant claims I said.
Thrown off the plane for asking if a meal was being served was ridiculous. And why would I care if there was a policeman onboard anyway?
Strangely, United had a customer service representative ready and willing to book Mr. Sugarman on the next flight, so apparently at least someone in United has common sense. But, as The Consumerist said about the incident,
… WTF, seriously flight attendant? You couldn’t even say, “I beg your pardon” or “Would you repeat the question” to confirm that you had an evil ‘sploding terrorist on board?
Then there is the lazy Captain, who apparently could not be bothered to go talk to the passenger and do his own assessment of the situation.
Mr. Sugarman further comments,
Another thing that puzzles me is that I am what is called a 1K flyer on United flying over 100,000 miles a year at a minimum. I have flown 2.5 million miles on their airline through the years as well. Couldn’t they use common sense and realize that I didn’t suddenly go off my rocker after being such a good customer of theirs. And why did they believe the flight attendant over me when they let terrorists on board with bombs in their suitcase? Can you make sense of this?
Now, when I read Mr. Sugarman’s blog post, I scrolled down and viewed some of the comments, and noticed this one by Robert Clay:
This reinforces something I have observed for some time. It is often said that the United States is the land of the free, and at gatherings people are often asked to celebrate their freedom. But I wonder if this is all really brainwashing. After all, for all it’s many excellent qualities America right now has the largest percentage of its population in prison of any country on Earth. One out of four people, one out of four humans in prison in the WORLD are Americans, imprisoned in America. This excellent TED talk by Chris Jordan really makes the point” http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_jordan_pictures_some_shocking_stats.html
The ridiculous experience you had is another symptom of this. Interestingly I saw a TV program where Russians were being interviewed about why they were seemingly so disinterested in “democracy,” and what came out is that they just don’t need democracy. Nobody bothers them. They get on and can live their lives without interference.
That said, I don’t suppose the authorities would be too impressed if you were a political activist pushing views that oppose their own. But it’s no different in the US. Or Singapore. Or China.
But I agree with you, it’s right to ask what America is coming to when the average person really isn’t as free as they’ve been brainwashed to believe, and freedom and America are far from being synonymous for millions of people.
Mr Clay sort of verbalizes a feeling I’ve had for a long time. When I was a kid, our teachers tried very hard to brainwash us into thinking that America was the greatest country on earth. Of course, the way they framed it was that if we didn’t love America, our only other option was to live in a place like the “evil” Soviet Union, where people might be shot for asking for a loaf of stale bread to feed their families (seriously, you can’t begin to imagine the lies we were told about the Soviet Union as kids – it actually came as quite a shock to me when I finally realized that Moscow was a major city with modern buildings and electricity, even if not exactly up to U.S. standards).
But the worst thing about the old U.S.S.R., or so we were taught, is that the people there had no freedom – the government basically dictated their every move, morning, noon, and night. The U.S.A. was the closest thing to heaven on Earth, while the Soviet Union was the closest thing to hell, and if there were other choices our teachers sure weren’t about to mention any of them. We weren’t even taught anything about our closest neighbors, Canada or Mexico, except perhaps in passing references. According to our educational experience, the only countries that mattered were the United States, England (primarily for historical reasons), Germany and Japan (primarily because of their involvement in then-recent wars), and the U.S.S.R. Occasionally we’d be taught about what we now call a third-world country, like Malaysia (where the natives were still slaving over rice paddies or running around using blow darts to get their food when they weren’t dying of malaria, according to my elementary school education), but probably only to reinforce how lucky we all were to be living in the United States.
This kind of teaching occurred with some regularity throughout elementary and junior high schools, and didn’t really even begin change until about the time I got into high school, when the VietNam War basically divided the country and started causing many people, including some of my teachers apparently, to start questioning whether the U.S.A. always took the most noble course of action. The fact that we had two fairly awful presidents in a row (Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, followed by Richard Nixon, a Republican) probably didn’t help matters any. But then the war ended and the Bicentennial came along in 1976, and that invoked a new wave of patriotic fervor.
But back in 1967, just about the time that our teachers were starting to sound a bit more enlightened, a movie called “The President’s Analyst” came out. It’s probably one of the few movies I ever saw in a theater (suffice it to say that I am not a big fan of the “theater experience”). And at the time, there was a line in the move that impressed me as being somewhat prescient, at least for the U.S.A. No, not the one about everyone hating the phone company, although I did get quite a chuckle out of that one. I actually could not recall the exact line until I went to the The Internet Movie Database, and right there it was, posted in a user review by Merwyn Grote, who wrote,
My lasting view of Soviet-U.S. relations was clearly defined after watching THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. Soviet spy/assassin V.I. Kydor Kropotkin, played by Severn Darden, explains to kidnapped American psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Schaefer, played by the irrepressible James Coburn: “Logic is on our side: this isn’t a case of a world struggle between two divergent ideologies, of different economic systems. Every day your country becomes more socialistic and mine becomes more capitalistic. Pretty soon we will meet in the middle and join hands.” Beautiful, simple logic, clearly stated in a whacked-out, slightly psychedelic satirical farce about Cold War paranoia. A gem of genius in a world gone mad.
The trouble is that, in my opinion, we’re not just becoming more socialistic – we’re also beginning to take on some of the negative attributes that our generation was warned about, only we were warned they would happen if we allowed the “evil Communists” to take over our country. Well, virtually all the recent laws that have seriously curtailed our freedoms were passed during the junior Bush administration, and I don’t think the Republican party is quite ready to take on the mantle of “socialist” or “communist”, though at times they seem to approve of actions that seem not too far removed from something Joseph Stalin would have approved of. Admittedly, the current administration doesn’t seem to be in any big hurry to give us back our stolen freedoms, and that worries me a lot – if we can’t trust either of our political parties to do the right thing, what hope do we have as a nation?
The incident with Mr. Sugarman and United Airlines is certainly not the worst thing that’s happened to an air traveler in our post-9/11 society, but it is symptomatic of how wacko our nation has become, both in that this sort of thing could happen and that most who read about it will think, “Well, that’s just what you have to put up with when you fly nowadays.” Most people in the U.S.A. don’t even blink when TSA screeners do full body scans on children (as this article explains, “In the United Kingdom, scans are not performed on anyone under 18 because they would violate child pornography laws”). And the people of the former U.S.S.R. are probably saying, “Welcome to our world.”
Sanity tip: Consider treating your phone number like your social security number. Don’t just give it out to anyone who asks!
I know a lot of folks have figured this out already, but just in case you didn’t know, you are under no obligation to give your phone number out to anyone — well, hardly anyone. I suppose that if you are directly asked in a court of law or some similar situation, you may have to give it out, but otherwise, you really don’t. But why should you care? Because increasingly, people are failing to use good judgment in how they use your number. Politicians and non-profit agencies are the worst – they are exempt from the requirements of the Do Not Call list and they know it. And the problem today is that with all the large databases, once one organization or company has your number, there’s a good chance everyone has it.
To give you an idea of why it might be a bad idea to give your number to anyone who asks, go to The Consumerist site and read the article, Red Cross Is Out For My Blood. Then read all the comments under the article, so you understand that this is not an isolated issue.
Of course, most people want family and close friends to have their number. But when you give it to someone, consider asking them to keep it confidential. If it’s unlisted, tell them that. Tell them if someone wants your number they should ask you, not your friends or family. Tell them that if they ever give your number out without your say-so, you’ll make sure they get on a few telemarketer lists (say it with a smile, but in such a way that it will give them pause if anyone ever does ask).
Now, a lot of people ask for your phone number. It’s on forms, it’s required on web sites, etc. The main thing you want to stop is people putting your number in a computer, because once it’s in there, you (and they) often lose control over where it goes from there. The biggest problem you will have is with medical professionals. Doctors want it for legitimate reasons (to call you with test results, for example) but then they put it in a computer system that’s accessible to whatever hospital system they are affiliated with. This becomes an issue if you ever get into an honest billing dispute with the hospital and they refer it to a collection agency. If you follow any of the consumer web sites, you know that you want to force a collection agency to deal with you strictly in writing because then you have a written record of everything they do, including any violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (which can turn into cash in your pocket if you see a good consumer attorney). Michigan is one of those states that don’t allow you to record a phone call unless both parties to the call are aware that a recording is taking place, and if you tell a collector you’re recording him he’ll often just hang up and try to call back and catch you off guard. I am NOT advocating skipping out on debts you actually owe, but in my experience most hospitals have truly f–ked-up billing and they don’t feel a bit ashamed about trying to bill people for money they don’t owe, then turning those people over to a collection agency.
So as uncomfortable as it might be, I strongly suggest never giving your phone number to a doctor or hospital. If they want to call you, you can take one of two approaches, depending on how much you trust your doctor. You can say something like, “Doctor, my number is unlisted so I don’t want it entered into any computer systems for any reason. If you’ll agree to put it on a sticky note with a notation not to enter it in your computer, and then destroy it after you’ve called me, I’ll give it to you. Otherwise, give me a time and I’ll call you.”
If you don’t really trust your doctor (or if he works in a large office where it seems like one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, so they’ll probably put your number in the computer anyway) then you can try one of the approaches below. These are all-purpose responses that can be used with anyone who asks for your number – pick the one that seems most appropriate and that will cause the least hassle.
• I don’t have a phone (this is the easiest if it’s someone you don’t know, because they really can’t argue against it. Just make sure the ringer on your cell phone is turned off, so it doesn’t ring the second after you say this! Of course if it does, you can always just say it’s a borrowed phone and you don’t feel comfortable giving someone else’s number out. Not recommended for people who can’t tell a white lie with a straight face).
• It’s an unlisted number and I never give it out to anybody (say this with a bit of attitude – practice if you have to, you want to say it in a “don’t mess with me” tone of voice!).
• I just switched providers and I can’t remember my new number (you have to be careful with this one – if they really want it they may ask you to call them with the number).
• My attorney advised me not to give it out until a particular situation is settled (this will catch most people totally off guard, and if they ask what situation, you can just say something like “that’s confidential between me and my attorney for now.” Again, it’s something they usually can’t argue with).
• I’m a night worker so I never give my number out, because I don’t want anyone calling me in the daytime.
• I’m sorry, I’d prefer not to give that out (then glare at them, as if they just belched at you or coughed in your face. This often works with someone who really has no business asking for your number in the first place. If you’re really bad at telling white lies, this may be your best approach).
• I don’t give that out. Just put in your store phone number (or office number, etc. Again, the trick is to say it with attitude).
• I don’t give that out. Last time they asked they used 999-999-9999 (that seems to be a common number used in computer systems when no real number is available).
Another approach is to give them a number that you know will never be answered. Depending on your situation, this may be really easy or really difficult. You should never just make up a number, because it might actually belong to someone. But maybe you know of a number that’s never used, or you could give one of the numbers for the Rejection Hotline. But be careful about giving a number that someone else might also use for the same purpose, as it could cause your account and theirs to become hopelessly tangled. Of course, if you are in the telephone industry, and have your own phone switch, then you already know which numbers will never be answered. One thing some folks have done in the past is to give out their fax number (that will stop voice callers, but what if the person you don’t want to hear from decides to send a fax? And anyway, fax numbers aren’t all that common today).
There is one other way to handle this. You can get a Google Voice account, and give only that number out. This has the advantage that you can set call filters for annoying callers (so they don’t get through), while still allowing you to get calls from those you want to hear from. And, you can discontinue using it at any time, should someone get it and start misusing it, and for some reason you can’t block them. This may be the best approach for those who feel some sort of social obligation to give out their number (unless you are in business and need to give out a number to your clients or customers, why do you feel so obligated?), but who want a number they can abandon if need be. If I were you I’d tie it to a separate e-mail account opened just for the purpose (one from Gmail, or from some other e-mail provider) so that if you ever decide you want another account you don’t have to pay $10 to get a new number, you just open it using a different e-mail address (I have no idea why Google wants to charge $10 to change a Google Voice number, but I’ll bet that policy is having unintended consequences for them).
A few other pointers. With web forms, you can try not filling anything in, or try 000-000-0000 or 999-999-9999, or some other number you know will never be answered (just be careful if they actually use that number to identify your account). Or call the company and talk to a customer service representative; sometimes they can open an account without a phone number. If someone acts incredulous that you don’t have a phone and says something like “Well, do you have a message phone we can call”, just say NO and then shut up. You do not have to explain why you don’t have a message phone, and if you continue to talk they will be more suspicious you are not being truthful. Some people have a real problem with not speaking, but this is one of those situations where you really should just shut up until they say something else. If they say something like “do you have a friend or relative with a phone”, just say “nobody that’s given me permission to give their number out!” Again, if you are the sort of person that is naturally compliant with the wishes of others, you may want to practice saying these things in front of a mirror. Learn to act indignant. If you’re a woman, pretend that some total stranger (with body odor and bad breath) has asked you to go to bed with him, and respond with the same tone of voice you’d use in that situation. If you are a guy, pretend some stranger asked you to go in a store and buy feminine hygiene products, and respond the way you would there!
With paper forms, just don’t fill in the number — you’ll be surprised how often no one will ever question it. But if anyone does, use one of the responses above.
Just remember, the harder they try to talk you into giving your up number, the more likely they have ulterior motives that may include telemarketing, or some other form of harassment you won’t like. I’m not saying there’s never a good reason to give out your number, but really, be prudent — don’t just give it out to anyone who asks for it, any more than you would your social security number, especially if they are going to put it into a computer!
Oh, and if it’s in the phone book? Maybe it’s time to think about getting service from an independent VoIP provider (by “independent” I mean, not your cable company, because often they will list your number in the phone book), and get a totally new number while you’re at it.
What tricks do you use to avoid giving out your phone number? Leave a comment and let us know!
DSLreports.com: Wisconsin Data Shows AT&T’s ‘Franchise Reform’ Was A Joke – Now consumers get higher prices AND no consumer protection laws…
A long time ago, this blog had a somewhat different direction than it does today. Part of what I tried to do was expose the abusive practices of the large phone companies, and (among other things) try to stop them from basically writing the communications laws that were supposed to regulate them. One of the reasons I shifted directions was because, basically, we customers lost, and I don’t enjoy beating a dead horse. And only now, it seems, is the reality of what happened finally dawning on state officials, as indicated in Karl Bode’s article on the BroadbandReports.com/DSLreports.com site:
We’ve discussed how a significant number of states passed new state level video franchise laws at the behest of phone company lobbyists, but didn’t really realize what they were signing up for. Bills that consumers were told would result in lower TV prices by making it easier for phone companies to jump into the TV business, in many cases were little more than phone company wish lists — aimed at legalizing the cherry picking of next-gen broadband deployment, eliminating local authority (even eminent domain rights) and in some cases eliminating tough consumer protection laws.
The one thing the laws were supposed to do — lower TV prices — never actually happened.
One of the worst of these bills approved by duped lawmakers was in Wisconsin, where AT&T both wrote and lobbied for a bill that essentially gutted all consumer protections in the state under the auspices of cheaper TV. State residents used to have the right to prompt repairs, saw ensured refunds for service outages, mandated notice of rate increases or service deletions, and carriers had to provide a written notice of disconnection. Not any more. Now a new Wisconsin state audit shows that basic TV prices continue to skyrocket:
One Wisconsin legislator (Representative Gary Hebl of Sun Prairie) has introduced a new bill that, he says, “puts people first, not corporations.” Well, if that’s really true, it’s about damn time (pardon my expressiveness, but it is!). All laws ought to do that. Our Constitution ought to do that. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Rep. Hebl’s bill ever gets passed into law.
Here in Michigan, our legislators have been sold a similar bill of goods. About the only thing that did not happen here is that we did not completely do away with quality-of-service requirements. But our wonderful Michigan legislators did pretty much eliminate all other consumer protections. They turned the Michigan Public Service Commission from an agency that was able to help consumers solve most any communications-related issue, to an agency that’s pretty toothless with regard to anything telecommunications-related. Unless you are subscribing to one specific landline service that virtually no one has or wants (PBLES), you now have very little protection against abusive practices by the phone company, unless you want to take them to court or file a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office (actually, I think aggrieved customers ought to complain to their state legislators – they made this mess, let them clean it up!).
(Just so as not to mislead anyone, I will say that complaints to the MPSC sometimes do still bring results, but only because the MPSC knows how to reach the top executives at some of the phone companies. The MPSC usually can’t force the phone companies to help you anymore, but sometimes they can present your case to a high enough official that you’ll still get the desired results. And, if you actually do have a quality of service issue – your phone doesn’t work and they tell you they can’t fix it for another month – then the MPSC does still have some authority in that type of situation).
One other point: For nearly two decades, the Michigan Telecommunications Act had a “sunset” provision, such that it automatically came up for a rewrite every four or five years. The phone companies always saw this as a chance to re-craft the law to be even more to their liking, while consumer groups and legislators that felt they’d been “hoodwinked” the last time around saw it as a chance to restore some previously lost customer protections. But a funny thing happened on the way to the latest rewrite – a couple of years ago, the Michigan legislature quietly killed the sunset provision, making the current Michigan Telecommunications Act the one we’ll probably be stuck with for decades to come. This indicates to me that the phone companies got what they really wanted last time around, and had no intention of letting the applecart be upset by disgruntled consumers or legislators in 2009.
Of course, any one of our legislators could, on their own initiative, introduce legislation that would attempt to undo the damage that was done in the last Michigan Telecommunications Act rewrite. But unless they receive enough complaints from affected citizens, I doubt they’ll want to poke that particular beehive (the bees being the big telco lobbyists and lawyers, which would probably come into the state in full fury if there were ever any serious attempt at reform).
One way consumers could make an effective statement is to “vote with their feet”, and refuse to purchase any service from a large company that abuses their customers (especially when there are any other viable options available). But most customers don’t have that kind of willpower – all the “evil corporation” has to do is dangle a shiny enough carrot off the stick (in the form of a great “limited time promotional offer”) and we, like a bunch of stupid jackasses, subscribe to their services.
Like I said, I’m not into beating dead horses – once they’ve been dead long enough, they really start to stink — kind of like our Michigan legislature (and, presumably, their brethren in Wisconsin) when the big corporate interests come around.
I wonder how many folks saw this article yesterday on the Stop the Cap! site:
I had sent this article to a friend and his response was, “if all these huge profit margins are true, then why is Charter in bankruptcy?” Well, a possible reason is that even what ought to be a hugely profitable company can be sunk by bad management and horrible customer service (and I have seen allegations of both with regard to Charter). But in a way, Charter is the reason for this article. As I mentioned in a previous article, Charter wants to move to what they call “consumption based billing.”
I just want to point out that while people may be slow to react, they are not stupid. America is littered with the remains of once-great corporations that in their day were at the top of the heap, but then got greedy. At one time, the American railroads controlled much of the country, especially the in the west. It took a while, but shippers finally figured out that trucks were less expensive and more practical. The thing is, the railroads at one time had all the advantages, including friends in government and economies of scale, but they just plain got greedy and priced themselves out of the market.
I’ve previously mentioned Western Union, which at one time owned electronic text-based communications within the U.S.A. But even as they became more automated, moving away from guys pounding brass keys and into the age of teletypewriters, fax machines, and microwaves, they kept raising the per-word prices for telegrams. At the same time, the price of a phone call kept falling. Had Western Uninion been a bit smarter, they might have been a major player in today’s world of electronic communications.
Then we have landline phone service. While this is a bit of a unique story, since in part it’s a story of the landline business being cannibalized by the wireline side of the business, it still is an example of many customers finally getting sick to death of being overcharged for service.
So what do we have today? We have cable companies and phone companies that overcharge for service, particularly with regard to broadband and cable television. The cable companies complain that they are being practically held up at gunpoint by the broadcasters and content providers, who demand higher fees, and therefore they need to pss those fees onto customers – however, they won’t even consider the one easy solution that would virtually eliminate that problem – allowing customers to pick and choose the channels they want, rather than being forced to subscribe to tiers of channels they don’t want in order to get channels they do want. If customers were allowed to vote with their wallets, a lot of the alleged extortion by content providers would quickly end. Yet the cable companies fight the very idea of à la carte programming tooth and nail.
As for metered billing for broadband – it’s totally unnecessary and it leaves customers open to possible fraud by the provider (this is sometimes even a problem with utilities where you can physically see the meter, so how much more of a problem will it be when the meter exists only in software, and customers have no possible way to check the accuracy of that meter).
But what I see here is a convergence of a “perfect storm” that’s going to totally reshape communications in the U.S.A. Here are a few, somewhat related points:
- Many other countries, particularly our competitors in Asia, are providing far higher broadband speeds to their customers, at a lower monthly rate. Only so much of that can be explained by population density; I think a larger part is that in many of those countries it’s just not socially nor politically acceptable for companies to exhibit unbridled greed, and to gouge their customers for every penny they can get. The U.S.A. simply cannot afford to have its citizens giving up their broadband connections to avoid being gouged.
- The much-hated Universal Service Fund should be abolished, but instead it’s going to be expanded to include broadband. However, the possible silver lining is that any time the government doles out money, it gains more control. If the government used that control in a beneficial manner — by, for example, imposing network neutrality and a prohibition on metered billing on those companies that receive USF subsidies — it could nip some of these gouging attempts in the bud. That’s not a long-term solution, however, since those regulations can and do change depending on the party in power.
- It looks like competitive broadband providers are finally going to be allowed to use “white space” (e.g. unoccupied television channels) to provide wireless service. If the FCC can make sure that smaller providers get a fair shake, this could allow competitive wireless providers to offer broadband service at reasonable rates (note to such providers – PLEASE don’t assume your users will be happy with an upload speed only one-tenth of download speed. People want to make and share thir own content, and you should allow them to do that without making them die of boredom).
- Also, when the large cable and DSL companies start gouging their customers, it creates a market for all available competitive services delivered via more traditional means (competitive DSL, current-technology wireless, etc.)
- Then there is “the ‘x’ factor” (see below).
What do I mean by “the ‘x’ factor”? I mean the new technology that’s not been fully explored yet. Technology doesn’t stand still, and there may be a breakthrough soon that will cause all existing technologies to essentially become obsolete. Have you ever noticed that the SETI project, and other attempts to “tune in” to advanced civilizations “out there” haven’t met with any success? Maybe that’s because the aliens aren’t using old-fashioned radio waves. Our current forms of electromagnetic radiation are very inefficient and often, very power-hungry. I suspect that the world of quantum physics is going to provide us something much better, if our governments will allow it.
For example, Google “quantum entanglement” – now suppose there were a way to place two particles in a state of entanglement, such that when you change the state of one particle, the other changes instantaneously, withour regard even to the speed of light limitation on traditional electronic communications. Imagine that you had a box at your ISP, and a companion box at your location, and each box contained two (or more) matched pairs of entangled particles (probably in some kind of plug-in module) – at least one pair of particles for transmitting data, the other for receiving. These boxes wouldn’t use radio waves or the electromagnetic spectrum, so there would be no bandwidth limitations to worry about. Furthermore, communications would be totally secure, because only the entangled particles would communicate with each other. That last part is why some governments would hate it – no more intercepting data mid-stream. But if that principle were developed commercially, your ISP could be on the moon for all you’d care, running off solar power and providing communications for half the planet – and if they started gouging their customers, someone else could set up a competing system, anywhere in the world. Maybe you could set one up in your basement, if you wanted to.
Sure, it sounds farfetched now – but so did the whole idea of radio before it was developed. We’re not talking some nebulous idea here, “quantum entanglement” is now a known principle of quantum physics. It’s just so new that either it hasn’t been commercially developed yet (much like the laser in the middle of the 20th century), or it’s being used in secret for totally secure communications, and the governments that are using it would rather you (and their enemies) didn’t know, not that there’s much an enemy could do about it.
My point here is that if today’s communications companies want to be around for the next revolution in technology (which will surely bring about opportunities that haven’t even been considered yet – who could have envisioned the opportunities the World Wide Web would create?), they had better re-think their ideas about alienating their customers. Sadly, American companies are notorious for not thinking ahead – as long as the current C.E.O. gets his golden parachute when he retires, what does he care what happens to the company in the future? But the stockholders ought to care, and customers ought to care, and the government ought to care if they don’t want America to become a third-rate nation.
It will be interesting to see which companies survive the next few decades, and which ones kill the golden goose to get the immediate big windfall. But if I had to take service from one or the other, I’d rather get it from the one that plans on being around for the next century, and treats their customers accordingly.
I just has the distinct displeasure of trying, unsuccessfully, to help a friend obtain AT&T DSL service at his home. Right now he has phone service from a competitive phone company, but what he wants to do is get the least expensive DSL service that AT&T offers (the variety they have been advertising on TV, that does not require the customer to have their dial tone), then use VoIP for his phone service — but he doesn’t want to disconnect his current voice service until everything else is up and working. Apparently, he might as well be wanting a flying car or a time machine. Even putting aside the issue of the competitive phone service, the first thing that needs to be done is to get the DSL installed, and if ever a company acts like they don’t want your business, it’s AT&T.
On his first attempt, he picked an AT&T number out of the phone book and called that. That attempt apparently came to a screeching halt when AT&T told him they could not install DSL as long as he had phone service from the competitive phone company. Actually, there’s no TECHNICAL reason that you can’t provide DSL from one company and voice from another on the same pair, but for whatever reason it’s apparently just not done. I wasn’t listening in on that call so I don’t know all the details, but after that we did a three-way call to see if we’d have any better luck (and honestly, I wanted to hear if it was as bad as he’d described it).
The first thing we did was to call the number that is advertised on the AT&T commercials for $19.95 DSL. That, apparently, is your ticket into the seven circles of telephone hell. If I’d been playing a drinking game, taking a drink every time we heard the phrase “your call is important to us”, I would not be drunk – I’d likely be quite dead. We heard it from female voices, male voices, and disembodied voices that sounded like they were continents away. I’d guess we were transferred at least half a dozen times, sometimes by voice response systems that didn’t even wait for a response and just seemed to randomly transfer the call. The last time we were transferred, it was by some guy with a distinct accent — it sort of sounded Indian, but by that time the quality of the connection was so poor it was hard to tell — who told us that if we got cut off, we could call the AT&T DSL department directly on 877-722-9337 (my friend repeated the number back TWICE to make sure he’d heard it right, and I copied it down also). That number may have belonged to AT&T at one time, but now it apparently belongs to an “enhanced” directory service (that has a web site at http://www.callingten.com/). When their recording first answers, it almost sounds like you are being charged $4.95 (or some amount, it was hard to hear) for the call (I think you actually have to call a different number for that to happen, but it wasn’t really all that clear).
Anyway, when we got cut off after talking to the guy with the accent, and then getting the recording at the directory service, I finally went prowling around AT&T’s web site and found another number for Internet service – 1-800-288-2020 – and again we had to go through a voice response system and several minutes of wait. Finally we reached someone who actually tried to be helpful, but it took her several minutes to find my friend’s address in their system (he lives in an apartment complex, but still, they do offer service there, so it shouldn’t have been a major undertaking to find the address). Then she asked a bunch of questions about his phone, Internet, and television usage (I would have probably politely declined to answer, but he went along), and from that she deduced that he should order a triple play package that, if I recall correctly, would have cost over $70 a month. When he said he was just interested in the basic low-speed DSL, she then (after some more time passed) said that they could not put the DSL on the same pair as the existing phone service (well, she didn’t exactly say it that way, but that’s what we figured out that she meant, after some conversation). At least she didn’t say he couldn’t get it at all.
But the real deal killer was that apparently she wasn’t at all aware of a promotion my friend had seen online. According to him, the deal was that if you made a one-year service commitment, you got a free DSL modem and $100 back (I’m a bit skeptical about the $100 for that class of service, but I could see the free DSL modem as a possibility, given that AT&T probably buys them in bulk). However, this representative basically said he’d have to commit to service for a year or pay an early termination penalty if he dropped the service before the year was up, and she couldn’t give him anything free or in any way sweeten the offer — he’d still have to pay about $50 for a DSL modem, plus a shipping charge! It sounded as though she had no idea what deals might be offered on the web site. My friend wasn’t willing to set himself up for a possible termination charge, if for some reason he had to discontinue service (and I’m betting he wouldn’t — he’s the kind of guy that doesn’t like change much, so once they had him as a customer they’d likely have him for years — but in an apartment situation you just never know. If there is a fire or a pipe breaks or something, he could be forced to move out with very little notice). After having been on the phone for over three hours, and being told that “your call is important to us” when clearly it was NOT, his sense of humor had long since evaporated and to basically be told, “this is the deal, take it or leave it” was just a bit too much to take under the circumstances.
I don’t know if my friend will ever get DSL service now or not. He was somewhat enthused about it before this morning, but that certainly wasn’t his attitude by the time he was going into the fourth hour of phone hell. I am SO glad I don’t personally live in an area where AT&T and Comcast are the only viable choices available (my friend lives in Gaines Township which is near Wyoming, Michigan, in the Grand Rapids metro area, but not close enough to downtown to be within range of any inexpensive wireless services, as far as we know).
Why does AT&T bother to advertise the service if they don’t want people to get it? Is it just bait-and-switch – you can call in for the $19.95 offer but if they can’t upsell you to something more expensive then they don’t care if you take their service or not? I might be inclined to actually believe that, but then I realize that most of the “phone hell” occurred before they had even determined why my friend was calling.
I have three takeaways from this: First, if Comcast would just offer an entry-level DSL service for people who are, shall we say, not wealthy, they could clean AT&T’s clock. I know a lot of people don’t like Comcast and there is probably good reason for that, but I have a feeling that if my friend had been willing to pay their rate, he wouldn’t have been on the phone with them for more than ten or fifteen minutes tops. He certainly would not have been transferred all over creation because a particular rep didn’t handle Michigan, or DSL, or whatever the excuse was. Now, I have no way to know what his actual installation experience might have been, but at least trying to sign up for the service probably wouldn’t have seemed something akin to a root canal. Comcast really shoots themselves in the foot by doing that “introductory rate” nonsense — by now everyone is on to that (ironically, in part due to AT&T commercials) so what they really need is a low rate option with limited connection speed, for people who don’t do much more than check e-mail and go to a few web pages.
Second, after all this time, AT&T still acts like they are the only game in town, and that they really don’t need to give a damn whether ordering a service is a pleasant, or at least non-painful experience. In my opinion, any time a customer hears a recording saying “your call is important to us”, that’s a massive fail on the part of a company. If you really thought the call was important, you’d answer it, and to tell us the call is important to you when it clearly isn’t is a massive insult. And you wouldn’t put numbers in your television ads that go to people who have no ability to help the customer with ordering service, and who must transfer them several times before finally losing the call completely (actually terminating with a bust of hold music played at about four times normal volume, just before the call dropped entirely). And speaking of which, I thought AT&T was originally a phone company – so why is their own phone service so dreadful?
Third, the phone companies still do everything they can to inhibit competition. As I said earlier, there’s no TECHNICAL reason you can’t have voice service from one company and DSL from another on the same pair (and the plan was to drop the existing voice service anyway, but only after the DSL was working). But apparently AT&T can’t make that happen, for whatever reason. My friend doesn’t know how many usable pairs are run into each apartment (in particular, whether there’s more than one) and due to family circumstances it would be pretty difficult for me to go over there and trace out the wiring for him right now – it’s just a bit too far away, and I can’t be away that long right now.
I know from reading sites like The Consumerist that dealing with companies like AT&T is getting to be a really horrible experience, but until I listened in on my friend’s attempts to get DSL service this afternoon, I had no idea it was that bad. Now I understand why the iPhone users are so upset that Apple forged an exclusive deal with AT&T in the U.S. – based on what I heard this afternoon, the “AT&T experience” is almost the exact opposite of what Apple users have come to expect from Apple. Does AT&T have a death wish, or are they really just that incompetent?
I was about 17 years old and radio station CKLW (a radio station in Windsor, Ontario that was then the top-rated station in many nearby U.S. cities such as Detroit, Toledo, and even Cleveland) was running a contest — seems like they were always running a contest — called “secret satellite.” The idea was, they gave clues (progressively easier) about where a “secret satellite” had supposedly crashed. If you guessed right and were the correct caller, you won a brand-new Plymouth Satellite automobile. They gave out two numbers to call (neither was toll-free) — one was in Windsor and the other in Detroit. Since there was a pretty good chance you would not be the “correct” caller even if you got through, and since the rate at the time for an “international” call to Windsor was significantly higher that the rate to the Detroit number (which was itself high enough because it was an in-state call), the obvious choice was to call the Detroit number. Well, I figured out the answer and tried to call — and got blocked by a telephone company recording.
Without going into all the details, that was where I first learned about geographic telephone numbers, and it’s also where I learned the power of contacting the Public Service Commission with a complaint. I was mad because I knew somebody was lying to me — Michigan Bell was claiming that CKLW had requested they block calls from outside the 313 area code, and CKLW replied (by letter) that they had done no such thing. In the end, you get one guess who was lying (hint: the lies weren’t coming out of Canada). Had I been older and had my dad not been doing some contract work for Michigan Bell at the time, chances are I would have pursued the matter further, but at least I got them to unblock the number — long after someone else had won the car, after giving the exact same answer I would have given.
So I have some sympathy for the woman described in this Consumerist article, who claims to have lost $1,000 because Vonage routes all calls to 1-800 numbers through New York and the station could not, or would not accept the calls. The problem is that the woman (and apparently The Consumerist, judging by the headline on the article) appear to be blaming Vonage for the screwup. Now, Vonage isn’t my favorite company either, but let’s be realistic here.
When you have VoIP service — or cell phone service for that matter — and you place a call that goes to a PSTN number, the calls have to get connected to the PSTN network somewhere, and that somewhere probably isn’t going to be in your home town. In the case of a toll-free call, it gets dumped onto the PSTN, but after that several things can happen. You need to understand that, without getting too technical, the telephone number of the phone originating the call can be transmitted in either or both of two ways — as the Caller ID number, and as Automatic Number Identification data (ANI, usually pronounced “Annie”). The least expensive ways for a VoIP company to send a call to the PSTN — particularly a toll-free call — often does not transmit ANI that corresponds in any way to the original caller’s number. Again, without getting too technical, this is because the original caller doesn’t own the circuit that makes the connection to the PSTN, and chances are the VoIP company doesn’t own it either (at least in the case of smaller VoIP companies).
So to cut to the chase, a VoIP company has few choices – in most cases they use a good but inexpensive method of sending toll-free calls to the PSTN, which may or may not send the correct Caller-ID number of the original caller, but in probably the vast majority of cases does not send ANI data that corresponds to that caller. And in fact, most VoIP companies probably could not send out toll-free calls with a “local” ANI without increasing their costs dramatically, and for probably 99%+ of toll-free calls it’s not necessary, because most companies these days know better than to “cheap out” by putting geographic restrictions on their toll-free numbers.
The real issue here is that, without commenting on this specific case (of which I know nothing other than what I read in the Consumerist article), radio stations are notorious for pinching pennies — I know because I’ve worked at a couple when I was much younger, and the lengths that station owners and managers will go to in order to save a few cents are legendary in the industry. When you have a toll-free number, one of the things you can do (particularly if you’ve obtained the number from a traditional telephone company) is request that you only receive calls that appear to originate in certain area codes. And why would you do that? For one reason and one reason only — you don’t want to pay for wrong number calls and prank calls that come from outside your service area. Of course, with the advent of “soft” PBX’s, the end-user can now do similar filtering, based on either ANI (if they receive that on their incoming trunk) or Caller ID.
That MIGHT have been a good idea back in the 1980′s and before, when toll-free calls cost the subscriber a lot more than a couple of cents per minute. It’s certainly NOT a good idea now. Why? Because people are starting to keep their phone numbers even when they move. I could be sitting in the lobby of your radio station in Washington, D.C., and whip out a cell phone and try to call you, and you might think I’m in California if I originally obtained service for my phone in California, or if my provider is connecting call to the PSTN via a gateway that’s not sending ANI associated with my cell phone. The same is true of VoIP — even if I’m sitting at home a block away from you and using my VoIP line to call you, if you are basing the decision on whether to accept my call based on ANI there’s an extremely good chance that the ANI isn’t going to be in any way associated with my actual location. Even if you use Caller ID data, I could still be a block away from you but have a number in an area code 3,000 miles away, so that’s not going to work either.
The real message here is that radio stations either need to stop refusing toll-free calls based on ANI or Caller-ID data, or if they are just too cheap to do that (and believe me, based on my previous experiences with broadcasters, many are) then stop using toll-free numbers altogether. Or, give out a toll-free number AND a local (non-toll-free) number, specifying that cell and VoIP callers should use the local number. Or, just keep cheaping out, and risk alienating more and more of their listeners. If listeners cannot get into their contest lines, what’s the point of listening to a commercial radio stations, with all their ads and (sometimes) annoying announcers? There are always online services like Pandora and Last.fm, or personal music players that play the selection of music that you like, not the stuff the radio station is force-feeding this week. Personally, even the possibility of winning a thousand bucks would not be enough to induce me to listen to today’s banal and annoying commercial radio (I know, I’m an olde phart now, but from what I’ve been reading, the kids aren’t listening to radio much either).
By the way, I’m not a lawyer, but if the woman in question decides to sue anyone in small claims court, perhaps the best course of action would be to jointly sue Vonage, the radio station, and the local telephone company that supplies the toll-free service to the radio station (if she can find out which company that might be), and let the court figure out which is actually liable. I don’t know if it would be worth the effort for a thousand bucks, but I think it would be interesting to many of us to see which party a court would actually hold liable in such a situation.
Meanwhile, if you run a VoIP company, you might consider including some language in your Terms of Service that says something like this (again, I AM NOT A LAWYER, and this is NOT legal advice – before you do anything like this be sure to run it by YOUR lawyer): “(Company name) does not warrant that calls sent to the public switched telephone network will always contain correct Caller ID and/or Automatic Number Indentification (ANI) data. If a customer places a call to a toll-free number, and the owner of the number rejects calls based on Caller ID or ANI data, they may sometimes reject calls from our customers, for reasons that are beyond our control. In such cases, it is the customer’s responsibility to contact the owner of the toll-free number and request that they discontinue blocking of calls based on Caller ID or ANI data, or to obtain and call a non-toll-free number instead. Nothing in this paragraph applies to the routing of emergency calls to 911 services.” Again, this is written by someone with maybe a small bit of technical background but NO LEGAL BACKGROUND, so IT’S NOT LEGAL ADVICE, so DON’T USE IT WITHOUT CHECKING WITH YOUR LAWYER FIRST. Got it?!?
Maybe it’s high time for the FCC to step in and ban geographic or area code restrictions on toll-free calls (at least at the carrier level) for precisely the reasons I’ve mentioned — telephone numbers are more and more becoming non-geographic. The possibility of having “one phone number for life”, no matter where you move, is no longer a farfetched notion – a child coming of age today could indeed arrange to have one phone number for life, barring technical changes that revise the way phone numbers are issued, or a company that goes out of business along the way or some such thing. Businesses need to realize that, and get rid of this antiquated and silly notion of blocking calls based on area codes and/or exchange prefixes, which nowadays often give no indication whatsoever of the geographic location of the caller.
I got an e-mail today that read as follows:
Is there any chance we could get listed on your blog? We are a Michigan based VoIP startup specializing in Asterisk installs. Any coverage you could provide would be greatly appreciated.
For more information please visit our website at: http://www.bitwaretech.com and our blog at blog.bitwaretech.com
Great blog site by the way!
While this is not a commercial blog, I’m not above throwing a little business toward a Michigan company, provided that when I Google the company the first thing is see is not a bunch of complaints from disgruntled or “fired” customers. I didn’t see anything negative about this company, and did see that they just celebrated their the start of their fifth year in business at the end of last month, which is significant for a company in this line of business.
If anyone else has a Michigan-based small business that does Asterisk and/or FreePBX installations that you’d like to plug, leave a comment on this post – I want to be fair to everybody. But, be aware that if I’m the slightest bit suspicious I will probably Google your company, and if I see a bunch of negative comments from your customers (or other comments that lead me to think you’re not nice folks to deal with), I will likely edit your comment to include links to those comments! And remember, it’s my blog, so my decision about which comments stay and which comments might get edited (or deleted, if someone becomes abusive) is final – just saying that in case someone is under the mistaken impression that the First Amendment applies to a private blog. All I’m saying is, I really don’t want to help promote companies that don’t treat their customers right, but I do want to help those who still believe in good old-fashioned customer service!
In the last week or two I’ve seen several articles and other references to the impending death of landlines (the old-fashioned copper to the home service that many of us have known and used for so many years). Some people are worried about the prospect, others have cheerfully ditched their landlines and aren’t looking back.
Some are speculating as to why this is happening. Really, it’s not a hard question. There’s sort of a confluence of factors at this point in time. We will shortly reach the “tipping point” where the remaining landline holdouts will dump their landlines en masse, leaving only a relatively small percentage of diehard landline users. The thing is, while the phone companies could have forestalled this for quite some time, they actually did nearly nothing meaningful to retain landline customers. Some have suggested that they didn’t really want to keep their landline customers, that the cost of providing landline service has become prohibitive. I don’t believe that – it sounds like exactly the sort of lie they might tell regulators when asking for yet another rate increase, but in the cold light of day it makes no sense, except perhaps for a very few, very rural telephone companies that never figured out how to game the system like some of their larger bretheren. I think it’s more just neglect and inertia – an institutionalized inability to make any meaningful change.
Just in case it isn’t perfectly obvious to anyone, here are the top five reasons people are dropping their landlines:
- They aren’t portable. Every time any company tried to come out with a method to let people take their phones with them over even a moderately short distance (more than a city block or so), the phone companies yanked the chain of the FCC and made sure that things like long range cordless phones never saw the light of day. The big phone companies probably thought they’d be the only provider of wireless phone service, and that there would be little or no competition from here to eternity. They were wrong, and as competition brought prices down, it made cell phones far more affordable. At that point, many people started to wonder – if I’m using my cell phone most of the time anyway, why should I also be paying for a landline? Sure, there are reasons one might want to do so, but for many folks none of them are very compelling.
- There are extra charges for long distance, and in some places, for local calls. If the phone companies would have had the least bit of foresight, they’d have realized that people were rebelling against long distance charges. They were using alternative long distance carriers, and making calls on their cell phones during the “free” hours. When the Internet came along, they started using VoIP to avoid toll charges. The phone companies could have responded to this by offering wider local calling areas and “free long distance” hours (say midnight to 8 AM and on weekends at first, gradually expanding the free hours to meet the competition) but they didn’t. In fact, not only did they not do that, but in some cases they actually started raising toll rates again, after people had gotten used to seeing them decrease over time. They never figured out that many people hate meters, and would actually pay a bit more just to not have a meter.
- There are extra charges for “custom calling” features and other services – and the charges weren’t at all relative to the costs of providing the service. A couple bucks a month for touch tone? A charge for not publishing your address and phone number in a directory? $6-$8 per month for Caller ID? These and other charges were simply outrageous – it cost the phone company little or nothing to provide these types of services, but they saw them as cash cows, and thought their customers were too stupid to realize they were being gouged. What could have been a public relations bonanza – constantly adding new features and service at little or no extra charge (something that almost certainly would have happened in a truly competitive environment) was replaced by a philosophy of pure greed, where the idea was to gouge the customer for every nickel and dime they could get. It was stupid to ever treat customers that way, but it was especially idiotic to keep doing it when the cell phone companies (and later the VoIP companies) offered all these features and more at no additional monthly charge.
- They are redundant. When, because of the items listed above, people started making more use of cellular (and, in some cases, VoIP) service, it suddenly occurred to them that there is really no need to pay for essentially the same service from two different providers – especially when one of the providers had been overcharging them, giving them marginal to poor customer service, and basically taking their customers for granted for years. For many years, and even today in some cases, the landline companies still approcah customers as if “you need us more than we need you.” I’m old enough to remember when phone company representatives actually threatened people with prison (or at least the cutoff of their phone service) for buying and hooking up their own extension telephone, thereby depriving Ma Bell of a monthly rental fee that actually paid for the phone in about 6-8 months. As Lily Tomlin’s character “Ernestine” used to say, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company!” So when people started to realize that it was silly to pay for essentially the same service from two or more providers – something that’s only going to accelerate given the present economic conditions – guess which one is going to get the boot.
- They just aren’t cool anymore. Landline telephones are fast becoming like a spitoon in the living room – something you just don’t see anymore, particularly in residential settings (for those of you that are young enough to have no idea what a spitoon is, just remember that in your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation, it was a lot more socially acceptable to chew tobacco than it is today, which is probably why so many older people have false teeth. Anyway, they needed someplace to dispose of the excess saliva that tended to build up while chewing – hence, the spitoon. And you thought ash trays were disgusting!). Watch TV or any recent movie – unless they are showing an era of times gone by, about the only place you will see landline phones are in an office-type setting. If you’re in your mid-20′s to mid-30′s, think about when you were a teenager – would you ever have seen a teenager on TV haul out an old style record player and spin a few tunes? Maybe on “Happy Days”, but not in any show set in the then-current era. Well, look at today’s shows – how often do you see a modern teenager (or adult, for that matter) use a landline telephone, especially at home? The media has always helped set the trends for the current generation, and landline phones just aren’t where it’s at anymore (neither is the expression “where it’s at”, but at my age I can get away with using it!).
Any one of these things by itself would not be insurmountable – but right now, in the current economic climate, it’s just a “perfect storm” of reasons for people to dump their landlines. And it’s not necessarily that every one of the defectors really hate the idea of the telephone itself – after all, a not-insignificant number will replace their landline with some type of VoIP service – it’s just that when you put all the above together there no good reason to keep a landline phone. Even the oft-repeated mantra of the landline diehards, that in an emergency the landline phone will be the only phone that still works, was disproven during Hurricane Katrina, where it turned out that the only thing that still worked in downtown New Orleans was VoIP.
Thing is, the phone companies were stupid. They took their customers for granted, abused them and overcharged them, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. And what other big industry is guilty of this? Yeah, I know, the banking industry, but forget them for a moment – who else is guilty of treating their customers like dog poo? That would be certain cable companies, of course. They just keep raising rates and acting like they are the only game in town for TV and Internet access. Well, they haven’t been the only game in town for TV for many years (and yet their rates keep climbing) and even if they are the only Internet provider in a given area today, I can guarantee that competition will be coming in that area as well – maybe not for a decade or two in some of the more remote areas, but it will come. The big cable companies would be well advised not to make the mistakes the big phone companies have made, but I suspect that (as is the case in so many American corporations) the current executives only care that things don’t go completely in the crapper while they are in charge, but what happens after they retire is of little concern to them. Is it possible that, in 15 to 30 years or so, someone will be writing an article like this one, analyzing the reasons that people are giving up their cable service en masse?
I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but people seem to be acting really strange lately. I was reminded of it when I came across this story:
I was reading another story the other day (sorry, I don’t recall the source) that basically talked about how people are going off on store clerks for the slightest reason, such as the store being out of stock of a particular item. The gist of the article (and the comments that followed) was that retail employees are seeing a new level of rudeness from customers, and don’t really understand why.
I’ve also noticed a similar effect in certain online forums, particularly those that allow unmoderated conversations in real time. You can go to a forum where mostly helpful people hung out a year or two ago, and today find that the only “helpful” people there think they know everything and are ready and willing – eager, even – to tell you what an idiot you are (especially if you don’t immediately accept any “helpful” advice they offer, even if it’s fundamentally flawed).
It’s as though people have lost their social inhibitions and are just doing whatever makes them feel good at the moment, with no regard for other people. Maybe it’s stress from the economy, or family issues, or something else, but if this is how they are acting now, I wonder how they will act if conditions get really bad?
I understand this is not entirely a new phenomenon – witness the numerous incidents of “road rage” every year – but it just seems as though people are increasingly acting as if they “just don’t give a damn” about how their actions affect other human beings. You see it when you call a large corporation that has screwed up in some way, and no one cares if your problem is ever resolved. But now, more and more, it seems that attitude is starting to be seen in personal interactions between people.
I’m sure that some religious people would say this is a symptom of getting closer to the “end of days” (when “the love of many will grow cold”), while those with more “alternative” or “new-age” beliefs might say this is because we are getting closer to 2012 (don’t ask me what will happen then, if anything, but apparently some people consider the end of the Mayan calendar as something quite significant). I think it may have more to do with the fact that life as we have know it is changing so fast that people just can’t keep up on an emotional level.
Consider the fact that if your great-grandfather had a skill or knew a trade, there was a good chance that he could remain employed using that skill or trade all his life. Nowadays, everything you learn seems to be obsolete within a very short period of time (unless you are working at a renaissance fair, or something like that). And he may have grown up in or near the house he was born in. He probably paid for everything with cash or checks, and the idea of buying something other than a house or car or credit would have seemed abhorrent to him. What I’m getting at is that life was, in many ways, far simpler back then (especially in the days before big government). Note that I said “simpler”, not necessarily “better.”
Then along came computers, which were supposed to simplify our lives – which in many ways they did, but in many other ways they have made life increasingly complex. Also, I cannot fail to mention that computers have allowed our kids to become virtual killers in their own bedrooms or family rooms. Usually, when anyone tries to make an issue of that, someone will say “I played violent video games all though my teenage years and I turned out okay”, to which I recall that back when we were teenagers many kids drank liquor, and none that I know of became alcoholics, but of course that doesn’t mean that there were no teenage alcoholics. Everyone has a different personality, and what doesn’t affect one person at all can have a significant impact on the psyche of another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for a ban on video games or anything like that, but I do wonder if they are contributing to the desensitization of some people – maybe a small minority, but still some percentage of the population – toward the feelings and concerns of other people.
[EDIT: Note that I had not yet seen this story when I wrote the above paragraph.]
Well, now (if you listen to the news) we are being confronted with times such as most of us have never seen. Maybe this is all it is taking for some of the folks who were not that stable to begin with to start to crack, and for those who definitely have some sort of disorder to really lose it. I don’t know, but it makes me wonder what will happen if the new year brings even more challenges.
So what I am asking is this: Please realize that these are difficult times for all of us. If there was ever a time to try to put others first, to observe the Golden Rule, now is that time. At the same time, bear in mind that there are people around you that are starting to lose it, and that now is probably not a good time to pick fights with them – you may both end up worse off. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you, Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” then you will be far ahead of the game.
I hope things get better this year – I really do. But I can predict with some certainty that things will not get better if everyone starts yielding to their basic instincts, and forgets everything they’ve learned about how to behave toward others. You have the power to make your future what you want it to be (did I just paraphrase “Back to the Future III?”), so perhaps it would be a good idea to act as if you want civilization to continue!
There are many reasons I don’t blog much anymore, but one of the reasons was that when I did post something it was rare to get any comments, and the ones that I did get were sometimes more negative than I cared for. But also, very often I found myself writing a paragraph or two just to say, in effect, “I found this article on another site, you should check it out.”
In the last few months I have been posting most of my links to other articles on Twitter (under the user name MichiganTelepho – damn their 15 character limit) and this tends to work out well because it discourages me from being too verbose, and yet I am far more likely to post a link when I don’t have to write a long article about it.
That’s worked pretty well until tonight, when I posted a link to this article:
…..which is basically an article about how parents are getting cell phones for their kids, totally unaware of the pitfalls of extra charges for texting and other “extras”, some of which are buried in the fine print of the contract. I thought it was a good article because it educates parents about the problem and encourages them to act responsibly (by, for example, not getting a cell phone for a child until they have reached an age where they can use it responsibly).
Now, keep in mind, it was just a link to an article I thought was interesting and useful. I didn’t write it. I was, therefore, not prepared for the responses I started to get. For example, one of the early commenters said:
is this really a consumeraffairs type issue? It seems to me that the parents have no one to blame but themselves..
Uh, what? Where did that come from? Then another person chimed in…
Hard for me to feel sorry for parents who give their kids mobile phones and not understand the consequences. Prepaid FTW!
I could not understand where these comments were coming from. The article was intended to educate parents so they would not be irresponsible. On the other hand, I do feel that the carriers share some of the blame by failing to conspicuously disclose the things that might cause extra charges, and by (in some cases) failing to give parents an easy way to block access to those extra-cost services. I also noted that as adults become smarter about corporate ripoffs, corporations are increasingly going after teenagers and pre-teens, knowing that they are not as wise to the ways of the world and can be more easily influenced to spend, spend, spend (particularly if the parents are picking up the bill – which they shouldn’t, which was one of the points made in the article).
In any case, things got a bit heated after that. Why was I getting all these negative comments about an article I thought was helpful? And where was this “blame the victim” mentality coming from? My take is that many parents only use their cell phones (if they own one at all) for making phone calls, and that’s it. They are, in many cases, totally clueless about text messages, charges for web access and so on. If you are reading this blog you are almost certainly not among those people, but they are out there – maybe they are your parents or grandparents. So when their child asks for a phone, they think they are buying a phone that can be used for, you know, making phone calls, as in voice calls. And very often the phone companies sell usage plans but do not explain about possible extra charges that may be incurred, so the parent is totally blindsided when they get their first bill. I don’t think this is right at all, and yes, I do think that people have a right to complain about such things on consumer sites, if only so that others might read their experience and not fall victim to the scam.
Maybe I just don’t understand the ways of Twitter, but it seems to me that if someone posts an article they thought was helpful, and you disagree, you should post your disagreement as a comment on the original article – not go off on a tangent in Twitter, which just seems like an attack on the person who posted the link to article (especially if you send it as a direct message to that person). Then again, at my age maybe I just don’t understand how these social network things are supposed to work. Maybe I’m looking for something more akin to “60 Minutes” and the younger crowd is expecting “Jerry Springer.” Anyway, at one point I got really pissed off at the tone of the comments, to the point that I un-friended two people (after taking a few deep breaths I re-friended one of them). Is Twitter really supposed to bring about that type of discussion?
For the record, when I post a link to an article I did not personally write in Twitter, that simply means I thought it worthy of consideration, NOT that I want to defend it against people who have nothing better to do than find something negative to post! And, also for the record, I am NOT advocating irresponsible parenting, and parents should not yield to pressure to buy kids everything they want – but on the other hand I am sick of the “blame the victim” mentality when corporations set out to deceive and cheat customers. There is a mentality among some younger folks that I just don’t understand, that basically says it’s okay to cheat people if you are clever enough about it, or can trick them into signing a contract that allows you to cheat them. I have no idea when this mentality became so pervasive – sure, the P.T. Barnum types have always been with us, but in the past they were more often seen as scoundrels. Today’s young people seem to have a much higher tolerance for being taken, but when someone complains about it their first response seems to be “It was your fault! You should have known!” – at least until they are the victim.
Anyway, I hope Twitter doesn’t degenerate into a Fidonet-type experience (for those too young to have experienced it, Fidonet was a network of dial-up BBS systems that carried “echomail” conferences, in which discussions often became so contentious that some people took to calling it “Fight-O-Net”). If you disagree with an article that someone posted, first please be sure you have read the entire article (I suspect that the people who commented on the link I posted hadn’t got past the first page) and then place your comments in the comment section for that article, if a comment section exists. Don’t direct message the person who posted the link and start attacking them – they didn’t write the article and may not even care to defend it. If you must comment on Twitter, just send out a general message that says something like “I just read the article at (short link address) and disagree because…” – that way the person who posted the link doesn’t feel obliged to return a comment. Keep it friendly, and you won’t be causing people’s blood pressure to shoot through the roof!
Russell Shaw of ZDnet received an e-mail from a Packet8 customer (note, a Packet8 customer, not a Vonage customer). Here’s the gist of it:
I don’t subscribe to Vonage, I use Packet8 for my VOIP. Somehow Vonage assigned my Packet8 phone no. to one of their new customers. I called Vonage and they told me that since they had a request to “port” the number, they did it.
I called their customer that received my phone # and advised them that Packet8 was in the process of taking back the #. They advised me that they didn’t ask for the #, Vonage gave them a random phone #. Today is Wednesday. I have been without phone service since Monday. When I called Vonage today, the rep advised me that they won’t be taking any further action on the matter.
Hey Vonage, assuming this reader is correct, you screwed up! Saying you won’t be taking any further action on the matter is entirely the wrong answer. More than likely, he’s not just going to go away – he wants his phone number back! And if you won’t give it to him, he might contact the F.C.C. or the Better Business Bureau, and eventually you may wind up being forced to give the number back, and then your customer (the one you gave the number to) is going to be unhappy. So why not admit you screwed up, and fix the problem while your customer hasn’t yet developed any emotional attachment to the number? You might have to give your customer a month of free service or something in compensation for the inconvenience, but wouldn’t that be better than getting called out as a bunch of screwups in various blogs and online forums?
Vonage can run all the cute TV ads they want, but when people go online to research their service and see things like this, that gives them a reason to consider Vonage competitors (as well they should – in my humble opinion, there are better deals in VoIP service to be found, whether you are shopping on price or on quality of service). Vonage needs to fix this problem post haste!
Times must be changing. One of the most frustrating things to me, back in the day when the Public Service Commission hadn’t yet been effectively neutered by lawmakers, was when someone would tell me a tale of woe regarding the phone company, often involving some major billing screw-up. I would advise them to call the PSC, and even give them the toll-free number, and often I’d get a look as if I’d asked them to run for President.
One person even objected to me thusly: “But, I don’t want to get a reputation as a complainer with the phone company!” I couldn’t believe it. My response was that this would be the best thing that could happen, since the complainers were the ones who got their problems resolved and got their service fixed even when everyone else was waiting days for a repair (oh, I could tell you stories!). People had this misguided notion that if they complained too loudly, the phone company would retaliate against them in some way, when in fact the exact opposite was true – the known complainers (and especially the folks who complained via the PSC) got the best service of anyone. Sadly, times have changed, and the phone companies don’t fear the wrath of the PSC the way they used to (and, at least in Michigan, the state legislature is directly responsible for that unfortunate state of affairs). But that does NOT mean that consumers have no clout! What the legislature taketh away, the Internet giveth back. And even Business Week is warning businesses that customers now have a voice – a very loud voice if they choose to use it:
Meet today’s consumer vigilantes. Even if they’re not all wielding hammers, many are arming themselves with video cameras, computer keyboards, and mobile devices to launch their own personal forms of insurrection. Frustrated by the usual fix-it options—obediently waiting on hold with Bangalore, gamely chatting online with a scripted robot—more consumers are rebelling against company-prescribed service channels. After getting nowhere with the call center, they’re sending “e-mail carpet bombs” to the C-suite, cc-ing the top layer of management with their complaints. When all else fails, a plucky few are going straight to the top after uncovering direct numbers to executive customer-service teams not easily found by mere mortals.
Full article here:
I must admit, it tickles me to death to see the younger generation finally starting to realize that they don’t just have to take a bunch of crap out of large corporations. A lot of people in my generation, and especially those of my parents’ generation, never quite figured that out – but then, they didn’t have the Internet at their disposal.
I don’t know if someone decided to put Comcast in the spotlight today over at The Consumerist, or if all the Comcast-related items just happened to pour in today, but there are three items that may be of interest to Comcast customers (the last item may apply to you even if you’re not a Comcast customer):
First, there’s now an easy way for customers to opt out of mandatory binding arbitration as a way to settle disputes with Comcast (along with a link to an article that shows why you might want to do that). If you’re already convinced and want to cut to the chase, here’s a link to the opt-out form on Comcast’s site.
Second, The Consumerist also reports that Comcast has been fined $12,000 for having crappy customer service by Montgomery County, Maryland. The quote we like comes from county Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg: “Fining companies that fail to fulfill their contractual obligations is an important part of good government.” We sometimes wish that certain other government officials felt that way (and we don’t mean that only where Comcast is concerned – there are a lot of other companies out there giving crappy service, and/or charging higher-than-advertised prices through the use of bogus add-on fees, and/or engaging in other practices that should elicit fines).
Third, and this may be the most important, The Consumerist advises that a Comcast insider warns that Comcast doesn’t check to see if 911 is working on your Comcast digital phone – and this article concludes by implying that this may be a problem with other companies as well. As much as a few 911 center operators may hate the idea (most don’t, but there are a few that seem to forget what their role actually is), we think that any time you change phone service providers, it’s a good idea to make a test call to 911 during daytime hours, when there’s not likely to be much real emergency traffic (not in the middle of a major storm, in other words). Some people (including some who have left comments on the article) advise that before doing this, you call the 911 center on their non-emergency number and ask if it’s okay to make such a test call. Note that in a few jurisdictions it may actually be illegal to make such a test call, and/or the 911 folks may yell at you for tying up their lines (particularly if you don’t use common sense about calling when they aren’t busy), so that’s another reason to call the non-emergency number first, if you can find it (this is probably particularly true if you live in a metropolitan area).
When making a test 911 call, the first thing you should say is that there is no emergency, and that you are testing your (new) phone service to see if 911 calls are being completed properly. Then ask if the call has actually gone to the 911 center that serves your address, and also whether their caller ID display is showing correct information (your name and street address). Some 911 centers (probably all of them) have a way to add notes associated with an address, for example, if there is an invalid living in your home or some other special situation that you think first responders may need to know, and you may want to find out if any such notes are still attached to the account (if you need to add such notes, there may be a page or a form in your local telephone directory that explains how to do that, but you should probably call the center’s non-emergency number to discuss that). And don’t forget, once you start a 911 call, do not just hang up if an interruption occurs – in most jurisdictions they are required to send the police out if you hang up on a 911 call without saying anything, under the theory that you may be ill, or you may be in an emergency situation (home invasion, etc.) where you cannot speak. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the police will actually arrive soon enough to help in a real emergency if you just hang up without speaking, but Murphy’s Law says that if you don’t need them and hang up, that’s when they will be knocking at your door.
The Detroit Free Press is running an interesting article entitled “Busier signals at call centers” – it’s in the business section, and near the top of the article they make this observation:
As wildly popular as the Do Not Call List has been with consumers, it’s among the things that have been rough on telemarketers, who have seen more than a million jobs disappear nationwide, 137,000 in Michigan.
Gee, let’s all take a moment to shed a tear for the telemarketers who are unable to ply their trade. Okay, that’s long enough. The bright side is that they will now probably be able to have an uninterrupted dinnertime with their families, just like the rest of us who have signed up for the do-not-call list. I have been criticized in the past for not showing empathy for telemarketers who have lost their jobs, but c’mon – it’s a crap job to begin with, and all they do is annoy a large number of people in order to make a profit for some company that couldn’t care less about them. I guess I should also feel empathy for drug dealers who have been arrested and can no longer support their families by plying their trade. Give me a break. But, as it turns out, there is some good news for these folks…
Telemarketing jobs may be in for a rebound. While the outbound, or sales call, portion of the industry has deflated, the inbound, or customer service call centers, are growing, Jonathan Means, senior vice president for Kelly Services Inc. in Troy, the global staffing company, said Tuesday. ….. “Contact center business is coming back to the United States,” Means said. “There was a trend of outsourcing those calls to India, and you know the horror stories. Companies have discovered that there is lost business when people have a bad call experience.”
It turns out that’s it’s all a matter of who initiates the call. We hate the telemarketer that calls us during dinnertime, but if we are calling a customer service rep, we tend to prefer speaking to someone who knows our language and understands our culture. When call centers are outsourced to other countries, the folks there often do not understand American expectations for customer service, and then when the American caller gets frustrated with the call center employee for not providing the expected level of service and raises their voice, the call center employee often tends to take it much more personally than an American would. Americans, at least, usually understand each other – we have certain cultural norms and expectations that are difficult for people in other countries to understand, and we don’t like talking to someone (particularly on the telephone) that has such a thick accent that we have difficulty understanding them.
Seriously, I hope that all the Americans who are working in telemarketing can get jobs as inbound call center reps – that’s a win-win situation! Fewer people out there to annoy us, and more people to take our calls when we really want to talk to them.
Of course, there may be one downside – if anything like karma actually exists, once they start taking inbound calls, the former telemarketers will be the ones who get the rudest and most annoying callers. And if they have to work through the dinner hour, the bulk of the calls will come right when they are trying to grab a few bites out of a sandwich or a snack!
(By the way – I realize that employees from call centers in other parts of the world just might stumble across this blog, so I will just say this much – I understand that you folks need jobs, too. But if you want to service the rest of the English-speaking world, you need to do these things: First, take elocution lessons, or speech lessons or whatever they call it in your part of the world, so you can learn to talk with an accent similar to that of the majority of your callers. Second, try to appear enthusiastic about solving the customer’s problem – the laid back, “I don’t care, it’s just a job” attitude really offends callers. When we tell you that something went wrong, we want you to be as concerned about getting it right as we are, or at least to try to appear that way. Third, actually solve the problem – if you can’t, immediately pass the call on to someone who can – don’t waste the customer’s time. If you can’t do that, even if it’s because of your employer’s policies, you’d best be seeking other employment. Fourth, understand that if a caller raises the volume of their voice, that is usually an indication that they feel you are not solving their problem, or are delaying them unnecessarily. It does not mean that you are a bad person, but it does mean you need to re-evaluate your approach to helping that customer, or maybe it just means you need to shut up and listen to what the customer is telling you. If you tend to internalize it when a caller raises their voice, or even occasionally uses profanity, then you need to be in another line of work!)