October 16, 2008
A corporate firewall of incompetence
Have you ever wondered why big giant corporations and utilities have so many brainless morons working in things like "customer service" and "billing"?
I think I've figured it out.
Since my move from Pennsylvania to Michigan, I have spent untold hours on hold trying to have my utilities and services at the old address disconnected. I was assured that they were, and provided them with my new address for final bills. Yet to my astonishment, they went right on billing me!
Now, you could argue that the people who were supposed to close the accounts were incompetent. They probably were. Each time I got through to a person, I heard inordinate amounts of typing -- as if the person was writing a long essay instead of just the words "CLOSE ACCOUNT." I figured that they must have been doing whatever they're supposed to do to close my account, but I was wrong.
I had moved out in early August, and went through all of this, so naturally when the September electric and gas bills came, I was furious. So I called and told them I no longer lived there, and demanded that they close my account. To this they said that they could not close the account because they could not turn off service unless someone was there! I went around and around with them, saying I was in Michigan, and that it was up to whoever did or didn't move in to take care of any new service, but they disagreed, saying it was my responsibility. Amazing. (And absolute nonsense; I'm pretty sure thus was a cover for the fact that they just don't want to do their job and close the account, because they simply don't know how.)
Now, I have read many reports about people getting turned off for non-payment, so it occurred to me that this might be a legal loophole I could cleverly exploit to my advantage. So I told the insistent idiot to listen very carefully, and go tell her supervisor that I simply would not pay the bill, and that I was demanding that they disconnect me for non-payment! This did get her attention, so she put me on hold for around forty five minutes. (Fortunately, I have a speakerphone so I can do other things while on hold.)
Amazingly, her supervisor talked to a "field supervisor" and sure enough, the message was relayed back to me that I did not have to pay for the period after which I told them I was no longer there!
One thing that works to my advantage in dealing with customer service people is that I'm a veteran phone holder, and I'm onto the "long hold" game. I know that they realize most people will simply hang up, and let them "win."
Yes, many times when I have been in a hurry, I have given up and let them win, much as it kills me. But as Barack Obama would say, "Not this time."
If it had just been the gas and electric bill that this happened with, I probably wouldn't have bothered with a blog post. But I have seen similar behavior so many times and in so many companies that I have learned that stupidity and delay work to the advantage of companies that want your money, and once they have what's called an "account," the inextricably intertwined nature of incredibly incompetent people and deliberate understaffing can transform closing an account from a simple phone call into a major time commitment (but, if your persistence pays off, a real achievement is possible).
And just now, I had another major achievement! I got my water service finally turned off! Yes, I had called before (back in August), and went through the usual interminable hold which is called "billing," talked to the slow-witted people I know can neither count nor spell, and was told I would get a final bill at the new address. Two months later, I got a new bill today, for October!
Another call, another interminably long hold, while listening to the tappy tappy noises far in excess of the amount of tapping which should be required. Finally I was told that "someone probably made a mistake" but that "an email has been sent."
Whether I'll get a bill next month remains to be seen. But at least I didn't let them win by hanging up.
The magic of this, this corporate firewall of incompetence, is that it doesn't have to be created deliberately, and it might not have been originally.
Simply hire the most idiotic possible human beings to talk to any account holder who wants to close an account, and hire as few of them as possible. The result is that fewer accounts will be closed. For every determined asshole like me, there are inevitably other busy people who just give up and pay. Factor in the type of accounts that automatically debit people's credit cards, and the result is a lot of people paying for things they don't want, but can't get rid of because they don't have time.
(And if anyone thought this was bad, you should hear about the time I tried to close my satellite radio account. It took days. Only a crazy person should try it.)
UPDATE: My thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link, and a warm welcome to all.
The personal experiences related in the comments are fascinating.
(Obviously, I'm not alone in my suspicions.)
posted by Eric on 10.16.08 at 03:01 PM
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