Charter Communications, our local co-axial monopoly and recent bankruptee, sent a technician out to our house today, to hook up our new net connection. As is almost always the case, the tech was friendly, helpful and generally knowledgeable, in stark contrast to just about anybody you can ever get on the phone if you call the company. The customer service people are like robots. Sometimes, like robots with buggy firmware. They are, quite literally, running a program written by someone at Charter, codified in a choose-your-own-adventure style script booklet or web application. They seem to have no intrinsic knowledge of the business they work for, or the systems they are meant to support. Honestly, I wish Charter (and other such companies) would just put these resources on the web directly, so I can page through them on my own without having to be on hold first. They probably won’t do this, at least not in full, because one of the most important jobs this script/program does is to retain as much of their customer’s money as possible, whether or not they’re really supposed to have it, and to direct people into more lucrative service contracts, aggressively if need be.
In a classic instance of bait-and-switch, Charter advertises an extremely economical, attractive base-level internet service plan: $20/month, no installation fee, no long-term contract, no equipment to buy (we already have a cable modem). However, it turns out that if you follow the ordering process on the Charter website, this plan does not exist. There is a $20/month plan, but it requires you to call and talk to someone on the phone to schedule the installation, and the fact that you called someone on the phone makes you ineligible for the free installation. That’s only available for purely internet mediated orders, which can not be made by going through the regular ordering process, but rather by following a link at the bottom of the “Contact Us” page. Ah. Of course. I see it now. Why didn’t I look there? Because it’s a stupid, opaque place to have that link. Why would anyone look there? Additionally, none of the other plans is transparently priced. They all have big happy up front numbers, which are only good for the introductory period, and then they get bumped by $20 or more after 6-12 months.
After finally being directed, by someone on the phone (ironically) to the purely internet based ordering process, I was able to order the flat-rate no-bullshit net connection, and schedule the install for today. I received a confirmation e-mail which stated, along with the scheduled install time, explicitly, in a nice, clean, bulletized list:
- Total Monthly Bill: $19.99
- Total One-Time Charges: $0.00
- Total Due on Installation (includes first month’s bill): $19.99
And then the friendly little Indonesian man, after dutifully crawling around under the house and cleaning up our co-ax splices, making sure the wires are grounded, joking with me about how useless the Charter customer service people are, and generally doing an excellent job, has to ask me for money. But he doesn’t ask me for $19.99, he asks me for $30.00. He doesn’t know what that money will go toward. I haven’t been informed either. All I have is the above order confirmation details, and so this sounds like a scam on Charter’s part, trying to trick me into paying an installation fee, which I went to great lengths to avoid.
I went along with it until I could verify that the net connection was actually functional… at which point I brought up my confirmation e-mail, and showed it to him, and he called his dispatcher, and of course it isn’t her problem — they don’t do billing/customer stuff, they dispatch techs — and I’d have to call customer service to talk about it. And since we both knew there was no limit to how long that could take, and I didn’t want to make him late for his next appointment, I took the check off his clipboard and tore it into tiny pieces, while apologizing to him personally for the difficulty.
Then I called Charter, and they informed me that that $30 would have been applied toward my monthly service charges, going forward. But of course that’s an easy thing to say now. With no itemized bill or other information of any kind telling me what in the world that $30 was supposed to be for, really they could do anything with it. If it had been $19.99 that they were asking for, it would have consistent with the e-mail, and I would have happily paid. I’m not irritated that they want some up-front money from me. Especially on service like this, where there isn’t any contract, and it’s month to month and I could cancel at any time, they need to know that they can cover the expense of the tech coming out to my house. If they had offered me the transparent option of either a contract, or up-front payment for several months, or paying an installation fee, I would have been more than happy to make a choice, and pay the associated expenses. If they offered a faster service plan with straightforward pricing instead of requiring bundling of services and offering promotional rates, I might well have gone for it. What I’m irritated with is their apparently total inability to just be straight with their customers. Just tell me what you’re selling, and how much you want for it, and let me make an informed decision as to whether or not I want to buy it.
Otherwise, I’m will tear up my check, and you won’t get any money until you send me a clearly itemized bill. And I’m certainly not going to let you direct debit from my checking account at your discretion. One does have to wonder how exactly a state-sanctioned monopoly managed to bankrupt itself.
Update, Feb 2nd, 2010: Eric Ketzer, who manages Charter’s Social Media marketing team (and who posted the comment below) found my contact information, and actually called to have a discussion about the issues I mentioned above. This is great marketing, at least for the blogosphere demographic, and it seemed that he was genuinely annoyed by some of Charter’s behaviors and online sales mechanisms. Hopefully whoever is in charge of the front end of their website will eventually get this feedback. I suspect though, that in the duopolistic world of residential ISPs (DSL vs. Cable), these practices may actually be good for their bottom line, which is annoying, and indicative of a broken market in my opinion. When these companies are eventually forced to compete openly (O Google, Google, wherefore art thou Google?), prices will come a long way down, as airfares do when Southwest moves into your market. As evidence: Charter is willing to offer a secret price-matching deal, $30/month for 5Mb down, 1Mb up with a 24 month agreement (and a $75 pro-rated early termination fee), or in some cases, if you’re especially obstinate, apparently they can give you 10Mb down, 2Mb up, without any no-bundle or installation fees. Now, this might just be a marketing tool, which they offer and take a loss on, but I bet it’s not (though maybe it would be if they offered it openly, and scads of people signed up, necessitating more hardware on the back end). Eric was able to offer me the same deal, but unfortunately, nowhere on Charter’s site is its existence in evidence. To get a 5/1 connection instead costs $65/month, $10 of which is punishment for not getting cable TV or phone service through them, and $25 of which only kicks in after the 6 month promotional period ends. This means that more than half the true cost of the service for me is not being made obvious at first glance.
So anyway, score one for Charter’s social media team. Hopefully they can drag the rest of the company into the 21st century along with them.