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Time Warner should rethink its approach to customer service

Cable giant Time Warner should be ready to discuss bills and offer competitive deals if it sends customers letters urging them to get in touch.

August 24, 2012|David Lazarus

Many businesses operate under a don't-call-us-we'll-call-you approach to customer service. But if a company sends a letter instructing you to get in touch, you'd think they have something to say.

Not Time Warner Cable, apparently.

Tony Palermo, 53, of Woodland Hills has been a customer of the cable giant for six years. He receives TV and Internet service. He is, in other words, exactly the sort of customer Time Warner wants to keep.

So Palermo, a TV producer (most recently for the new version of "Hawaii Five-0"), was ready for a little give and take after the company sent a letter advising him that he should call if he wants to keep his bills from skyrocketing.

"We wanted to send you a friendly reminder that your current promotional pricing discount is about to expire, which means your pricing will increase," the letter said. "If we do not hear from you, your pricing will automatically change to our current competitive rate."

OK, that's pretty straightforward: Drop us a line or your rates will go up.

But when Palermo called recently, a Time Warner service rep said she couldn't discuss any new rates until his contract officially expired.

Excuse me? Palermo replied. You're the one who told me to call and discuss this.

That may be, the rep countered, but this is Time Warner's policy. She said she could tell Palermo how much he'd pay if he canceled his TV service but stayed with Net access, but she couldn't discuss pricing for the same package he already had.

He called back a few days later. And once again Palermo was told that Time Warner wouldn't discuss rates until his contract was up. He asked to speak with a supervisor. The rep said a supervisor couldn't do anything to help.

"It was very confusing," Palermo told me. "They just didn't want to talk, even though they told me they wanted to talk."

I'm always astonished by the myriad ways companies find to let customers know their business isn't wanted. Epic waits on the phone are one example. If all service reps are constantly busy, hire more reps, for goodness' sake.

Making people cool their heels for 10 or 15 minutes at stores before reaching a cash register is another sign of pitiful service. In economic times like these, you're going to inconvenience people who want to give you money?

And then there are the seemingly endless examples of companies simply not being able to give customers a straight answer, or to step up when a customer has a legitimate concern.

Palermo's situation falls into that category. Here's a guy who wanted to stay with Time Warner but, naturally, didn't want to see his bills go through the roof. Here's also a guy who was clearly led to believe by the company that he could negotiate better rates.

Yet once they got him on the phone, all Time Warner could think to do was tell him to pound sand.

"It was obvious that customer service isn't on their agenda," Palermo said. "This is supposed to be a service company, but they completely dropped the ball."

Milinda Martin, a Time Warner spokeswoman, admitted as much — sort of. She blamed the matter on "miscommunication" between Palermo and the company's service reps.

"When a customer promotion is about to expire, we send them a letter letting them know that we will roll them into the most comparable package, and certainly, we aim to find one that mirrors their current package in terms of rate and offerings," Martin said.

"We let customers know they can contact us to discuss options that best meet their entertainment needs. Our goal, always, is to find the best package for each customer."

So what went wrong in Palermo's case?

Martin said Time Warner's service reps didn't handle things correctly. "These two agents had other options for better customer service and need additional training," she said.

Imagine — two separate calls to Time Warner's customer-service center, and each call is received by someone who doesn't know what they're doing.

In any case, all's well that ends well. Palermo, who had told me he was ready to sever ties with Time Warner and jump ship to DirecTV, said the cable company made him an offer he couldn't refuse: It basically renewed his old TV/Internet package at the former rate.

"I asked them why they didn't just do this when I called the first time," Palermo said. "The woman I spoke with couldn't answer that."

Here's a thought: Time Warner doesn't want to look incompetent or unresponsive, so it immediately did the right thing once a reporter started nosing around.

The thing is, it shouldn't take a little media attention to prompt a company to treat customers fairly. This should be standard operating procedure.

The next time Time Warner sends customers a letter urging them to get in touch to discuss their bills, it should be ready to have such a discussion. Moreover, if the company wants to hang on to customers, it should be ready to offer competitive deals, such as renewing existing rates.

"This would have been much easier for everyone if they'd just done it right the first time," Palermo said.

Bingo.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He can also be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @LATlazarus. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com

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