Confessions of an ISP Customer Service Rep

Editor’s Note: We recently published a feature called "10 Things We Hate About ISPs and Cable and Phone Companies ,” and got many comments on the PCW Forum and at Digg.com. One comment on the PCW Forum really caught our attention. Written by a former customer service rep for several service providers, the post takes our story point by point, agreeing with some things and disagreeing with others, but providing on insider’s viewpoint on every issue we raised. We liked it so much that we decided to publish it as a story in its own right.

Normally, I like being an "insider" when it comes to the cable company. However, this time I'm sure I'm going to get some backlash. There are a few things that I'm going to have to contradict--not because I want to, but because they need some explanation from the inside.

I've been a tech support rep for a few different ISPs for a few years, and I have a pretty good understanding of how the services actually work from the inside. Also, I've been a customer, so I know what one should expect from their provider, and what one actually gets.

I'm going to respond to each item in the original article with as little bias as possible.

1. Auto-Attendant Horror

(In our story we complained about the automated systems that practically all service providers use to field calls from their customers. --Ed.)

Yes, they suck. It's one thing when the auto-attendant doesn't give you accurate enough options to choose from; but you've entered a completely different level of Hell when it attempts to troubleshoot your problems for you. The success ratio for troubleshooting problems through the automated system is laughable. I agree that the ISPs need to get rid of these systems--but from a simple business perspective, it's a godsend. One computer can handle as many calls as an entire call center without crashing. That means fewer employees to pay and fewer resources to expend.

From a different business perspective, however, the providers need to learn when to let the bot give up. From my experiences, the bot goes too far (I had one try to walk me through resetting my winsock--something many human reps wouldn't attempt). The bot should only walk you through the first step, which is to turn the modem/cable box/whatever off and on. Should that fail, it should transfer you to a human rep.

Yes, the rep will probably ask you to repeat steps that the bot had you do. It’s a pain, but the rep doesn't know whether you actually did them or not. This is because we don’t get anything out of the bot before your call comes to us, and many people are liars and say that they've done everything in the world, but have actually just mashed the zero key on their phone nonstop for 10 minutes without even touching their computer. Because we can't take anybody's word but our own, you do have to repeat stuff occasionally.

2. Give Me the Best Deal, Too

(In this section we described how service providers offer sweet deals as incentives to new customers, while leaving long-time subscribers stuck in higher-priced plans. --Ed.)

Most service providers charge you more than is reasonable for their services. Maintaining their infrastructure does cost money, and the employees who perform the maintenance do require paychecks, but a lot of money simply goes right into the pockets of the fat cats. There’s no getting around that. You'll never pay a reasonable amount for services. Ever. Period. And no amount of class-action lawsuits will change this.

But when it comes to paying more than somebody else for the same services, well, it's really goofy the way the providers charge their customers. The way the internal pricing schemes generally work is that the providers have a slew of different pricing packages, tiers, levels, campaigns, or whatever you want to call them. These vary slightly depending on where you live, but only by a few cents (and usually just because of city ordinances).

The reason you may be paying double what your neighbor is paying, however, is because of the totally f-ed up pricing packages the provider has set up. Your neighbor may have established service during a special campaign period and received a special pricing deal, perhaps on a "new customer" pricing promotion.

There's really no logical explanation for this. The way I see it, everybody should pay a single rate for their services. I can understand discounts for bundling services, but to have entirely different sets of pricing packages that don’t automatically update for the entire customer base is a horrible way to steal money from customers.

The only way it will ever change is if the provider decides to charge everybody the same amount, which would mean much higher rates for most people than they are currently paying.

They own you and will continue to own you.

3. How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?

(In this section we complained that service providers often make a long, tedious production out of the seemingly simple process of enabling subscribers to cancel their accounts. --Ed.)

Do not get mad at the phone reps for this. Please. We have nothing to do with this. The system is designed to make canceling service a huge pain. We hear it every day, we know it’s ridiculous, we know, we know, we know.

The "network" of phone reps is set up by the corporate guys to do a few different things:

1. Make it take you a long time to cancel your service

2. Mislead you: Each department has its own copy of company policy, and all of the copies are slightly different. As a result, you'll hear one thing from one rep but something else from another--and they hope you remember only the one that sounded better and overlook the charges they sneak in there.

3. Piss you off.

Yes, that's right. They want to piss you off. It's a psychological thing. When you're angry, it's harder to remember small details like "early termination fee". It sucks. It's horrible. It shouldn't be legal. Again, there’s nothing the little guy can do.

4. Lost Love and Telemarketing

(We complained about service providers' liberal use of telemarketing to win, or win back, subscribers. --Ed.)

They'll say to your face, "We won't sell your information,” but the fine print states slightly otherwise. Though they're not directly selling your information for a profit, they are giving it away to their partners.

And don't think that signing up for the Do Not Call Registry fixes this. The DNC only prevents people from "cold-calling" you.

"Cold calling" is a misleading term, anyway. Most people think it applies to any company that wants to call them out of the blue. In reality, it forbids calls only from companies that have no business connection to the people they want to call. In fact, most telemarketers you get calls from got your information from another service that you signed up for. And in the Terms of Service of that service, in the very very fine print, it states that you agree to allow it to offer your information to its partners for "promotional reasons.”

It's BS, I know. But they'll bend you over with fine print every time.

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