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.

5. All Talk and No Walk

(This complaint discussed service providers' practice of promising subscribers imminent service improvements as a result of recent or ongoing or soon-to-occur investments in infrastructure, support staff, etc., but ultimately not delivering. --Ed.)

Problems like this generally arise because of internal information leaks. Some department manager may catch his superior mentioning something in a meeting that's "in the works," and he'll pass this information on to the guys working the floor without mentioning that the innovation is still in the planning stage; then the floor reps tell the customers, "Yes! Yes! We're building a machine that prints money and mails it directly to your house!"

Again, it's something that usually isn't the rep's fault.

6. Draconian Pricing Schemes

(In this section we complained about wireless cell phone minute plans, which give subscribers a reasonable rate for the first bundle of minutes, but then charge a premium for each minute used beyond that. --Ed.)

Yes.

7. Through the (Appointment) Window

(We complained here about service providers' practice of making appointments that their technicians can't keep. --Ed.)

This is one that I used to deal with a lot, and it's really hard to explain without sounding rude. The details vary slightly from provider to provider, but it's most aspects are universal.

The provider has a team of field technicians who go out to the customers' homes and fix (or attempt to fix) their problems (or take a nap in the living room). At the beginning of the day, they're given a list of appointments. Because unseen problems may occur, there's no way to specify an exact timeframe for a repair. It can't humanly be done. Maybe a part is broken. Maybe a line needs to be spliced. Maybe the customer was the one who screwed everything up by plugging their toaster into their TV. Who knows? But this is why you're offered some sort of time window for the appointment, and it’s usually fairly wide. A window of 3 to 6 hours is not uncommon.

Most providers will try to have the tech give you some sort of heads-up with a more accurate window as their workday crystallizes. Maybe something unexpected happened and they had to run 50 miles back to the depot in rush-hour traffic to pick up a part, and it set them back a few hours. Yeah, that sucks for you, Mr. Next In Line, but there's nothing you can do.

I've dealt with a lot of people who've argued that we (the providers) have some sort of backup crew that is on call. This isn't true. Every single field tech that the provider employs is out in the field at any given time (when they're on the clock, of course). There is no backup, on-call group. Nor are we (the providers) going to cancel somebody else to service you.

Providers are not like the local plumber who has 30 or 40 appointments a day and employs 3 or 4 plumbers. They're Comcast or Time Warner or Cox, with 3000 or 4000 appointments a day, and only 300 or 400 field technicians.

This type of complaint is usually the result of the customers' unreasonably high expectations. It sucks that you had to miss work. Not the provider's fault, not the provider's problem. I hate to say this, but you're nobody special, regardless of how much money you give them every month. Nobody gets special treatment.

8. Stop Patting Yourself on the Back (and Get Real)

(In this section we discussed service providers' relentless surveying, which seems designed only to create positive customer satisfaction scores that they can then brag about. --Ed.)

The surveys are ridiculous, I agree. However, they're generally not handled by the actual service provider. More often they're handled by research companies, like Nielsen, that do statistics and stuff with pretty graphs.

Do yourself a favor and don't take the survey. Occasionally a phone rep may be graded in response to your survey answers, but if you decline to take it, no harm no foul. It might seem like adding insult to injury, but somebody has to know how the provider is doing. Nobody (you) has to care, though.

9. I Don't Want My Sí TV

(We complained in this section about having to buy "tiers" of channels, instead of just the ones we want. --Ed.)

This is something I dealt with a lot, as well. Sure, it seems only reasonable that you should be able to pick and choose what channels you want, and pay only for those. But the technology for doing this simply does not exist yet.

Here's a layman’s rundown of how cable works: The provider has a handful of channels in its basic lineup. It pushes all these channels down the pipe and to your home. The same broadcast--including all the channels--goes to your entire neighborhood. One main broadcast for everybody.

With digital cable (and satellite might work this way as well, but I am not positive), it's a little different.

The digital signals are sent down the same pipe, but each node (which is the equipment that handles the service for your neighborhood) can slightly influence what signals are sent to the homes. A fairly new technology called Switched Digital Video (SDV) conserves bandwidth going down the pipe by turning off channels that nobody in the neighborhood is watching. For instance, suppose that nobody in your neighborhood is watching the FOX Reality Channel. Since nobody is watching it, there's no sense in wasting the bandwidth by pushing the broadcast down the pipe. So the node turns it off.

As soon as somebody tunes their cable box to that channel, though, the signal gets turned back on, and gets sent to the whole neighborhood once again.

Only certain channels operate on SDV. It's not possible, at this time, to put every single channel on SDV. The technology isn't there. But once this tech does become available, it will be possible to pick and choose channels, because the provider will have the technological ability to filter 100 percent of its broadcasting. Whether or not the provider will actually allow you to do this is another story, but it will be possible at some point. Just not right now.

Now, when I say that the technology isn't there, that's kind of a lie. It exists, but it's not financially reasonable to do just yet. The cable providers would suffer a huge loss if they implemented this right now (not that you care, of course), and that would directly affect you.

What'cha gonna do?

10. 'Our Time Is More Valuable Than Yours'

(And finally, we kvetched about the officious attitude among service providers and their employees. --Ed.)

This is screwed up, and there is absolutely no reasonable explanation for it other than greed. So yeah, this is one of those instances where you have every right to complain.

I hope this sheds a little light on things. Use this to educate yourself so that you can pose your complaints better. You might just get some better results now that you know how it works on the inside.

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