"Phone carriers aren't trying to gain consumers through quality… (Illustration by David Gothard…)
Have you ever heard anyone — anyone — rave about their phone carrier's service? Say, "Wow, that customer service rep solved my problem in no time flat"?
If you haven't, there's a reason: The companies don't compete on service. Indeed, their service contracts are designed to keep you from jumping to other carriers unless you pony up several hundred bucks.
"Phone carriers aren't trying to gain consumers through quality service," says Parul Desai, the communications policy counsel for Consumers Union. No phone company "says we'll take care of this; we'll come right over and fix it."
They have no reason to: Their mandatory arbitration clauses make it all but impossible for disgruntled customers to sue them, and their early termination fees lock those customers into their contracts. In a 2009 Government Accountability Office survey mobile phone users said they wouldn't switch carriers because of those fees. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced a bill that year that would have limited those charges, but it didn't go anyplace.
I admit that I paid no attention at the time to Klobuchar's bill, but I sure will the next time it's introduced. Here's why:
Last month, after a night of unmemorable music, I emerged from a Washington jazz club to find I had been transported to Kafka's Castle. I'd silenced my phone during the performance, and when I turned it back on, I could neither make nor receive calls or messages. Instead, I got a strange recording when calling voicemail: "Your account could not be validated," it said. "Please contact customer services."
Using my girlfriend's phone, I called Sprint, my carrier, and got routed to its service center in the Philippines. The guy on the other end informed me I had terminated my account and switched to AT&T. I explained I had done no such thing, whereupon he transferred me to another representative, who also told me I had terminated my account and switched to AT&T. Which I again disputed. Thirty minutes and three such conversations later — each unfolding as though the earlier conversations had never taken place — I was told I would be transferred to a manager who would straighten things out. Then the line went dead.
Undaunted, I called back. Three more employees told me that I'd gone over to AT&T. I disputed it, was put on hold and was cut off yet again.
The next morning I finally got through to Mr. Fix-It. I'd been "ported out," he told me — phone company lingo for what happens when you terminate your account to go to another carrier. With me on the line, he dialed AT&T's customer service center. Then we began working our way through AT&T's labyrinth, finally reaching that company's fix-it gal.
A three-way, sporadically audible investigation of what had happened then ensued. By my third hour on the call, I had surveyed the complete collection of both companies' hold music and announcements. (My favorite was AT&T's coda to several of its product advertisements: "Because your time should be spent enjoying life, not waiting for it to catch up.")
Eventually, the AT&T lady figured out that a fellow Washingtonian who lives in my ZIP Code and had an account number identical to mine (which sounds impossible, but that's what she said) had switched to AT&T. Apparently, the Sprint guy admitted, his company's computer, having found a match or near-match of some identifying numbers, had terminated my account, even though the other guy and I had different names, street addresses, phone numbers and birthmarks. "Sprint computers do that," he said.
I was instructed to report to a nearby AT&T store with two photo IDs and three Sprint bills to prove I was me. Once I did, and the AT&T lady received confirmation from the store clerk (still via my girlfriend's phone), she told the Sprint guy that I could return to Sprint's fold. The AT&T person signed off with "Thank you for choosing AT&T," which, I was compelled to point out, was precisely what I hadn't done.
The Sprint guy then began porting me back — a process, he said, that would reactivate my phone within 48 hours. He also said that my next Sprint bill probably would include a $200-plus fee for terminating my contract early and a $36 fee for reactivating my phone, but added that I "could dispute it." He then scampered off the line. I'd been on the phone for 4 hours and 35 minutes.