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Consumers Frustrated With Static on the Service Line

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Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005; 1:00 PM

Even as technology races to new heights in the communications industry, the mundane matter of customer service keeps dragging consumers back to earth. Such companies now rate near or at the bottom in some customer satisfaction surveys, even as the government moves to loosen oversight and deregulate the industry.

Washington Post staff writer Yuki Noguchi was online with Mike Bennett from Cingular Wireless, Alex Horwitz of Cox Communications and Eric Rabe from Verizon to discuss customer services issues in their industry.

A transcript follows. .

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washingtonpost.com: Consumers Frustrated With Static on the Service Line

Yuki Noguchi: This is the original story

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Atlanta, Ga: Why are telecom companies moving more to automated customer service? As a consumer I find these type of service very frustrating because you are limited to specific issues and not specific account questions. I get the feeling that companies are hoping that customers get frustrated and give up.

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: I can only speak for Cingular but our customers have told us they do want the automated option for handling the most often-asked questions. We are simply trying to find the right balance between providing customers with the most-often requested info via our automated system (so the customer will not experience any hold time) and allowing the customer to talk to a live person for more detailed issues after the automated prompts.

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East Lansing, Mich.: The problem is that consumers get locked into installations and contracts without any reliable and easy method of determining in advance how bad a communications provider's customer service is. The result: no company has a financial incentive to provide good customer service, and in fact no communications company -does- provide good service. How can we either (a) improve the pre-purchase information available to consumers, or (b) give communications companies the necessary incentives to improve on their own?

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: Great question. First, we suggest that customers compare the return policies for the competing carriers in their service areas (for instance, Cingular offers a 30 day "no questions asked" return policy whereby customers can cancel for any reason and not be subjected to any contract early termination penalties; most wireless carriers offer a 14 or 15 day return period). Second, at all Cingular retail locations nationally, customers can request to view detailed coverage maps which will depict the likelihood of coverage all the way down to the neighborhood street level, as well as a depiction of the signal strength (i.e., is it likely the customer will be able to use the phone inside their home, inside their car, or standing outside?). Third, Cingular has rolled out the Cingular Service Summary, an industry-leading document that customers receives at the point-of-sale - it is a personalized, easy-to-read, summary of your specific plan and features, including an itemized estimate of your first bill as well as your on-going bill.

Thus, we feel all of the above enables the customer to fully understand what they purchased and gives them the ability to "test drive" for a full 30 days before being locked in to any contractual agreement.

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Silver Spring, MD: Like many people, my experience with customer service has been terrible. I don't believe that it is because I want the company to give me their product at no cost. Instead, I think that companies are struggling to roll out high-speed internet and wireless telephone services without the trained personnel to make these complicated technologies work.

For instance, I have not gotten a DSL connection because no one at Verizon can tell me what my final bill will be - only that it will be xxx dollars per month plus taxes with a qualifying calling plan. Well, how much will a new calling plan cost INCLUDING TAXES and how much will DSL cost INCLUDING TAXES? I cannot get an answer to these questions so I continue to dialup. We both lose. (sorry, Cox, I'm too cheap for cable TV)

It may be "Un American" but do Cox or Verizon offer a "premium" service where I can have a specific real live customer service person with a name who is responsible for my account? This would avoid the common problem of "we have no record of that call." Grumble grumble.

Eric Rabe, Verizon: As a matter of fact, at Verizon we've begun to offer a special customer service package, Encore Service, for customers who buy multiple products from us. It's a way to say thanks, and, hopefully, keep their loyalty. On your question about the total DSL pricing, the problem is that many local jurisdictions have different extra charges required, so the total varies. Still your question does have an answer, and I'm sorry you've had trouble getting it. I'll be happy to help.

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Olney, Md: Mr. Rabe, I was VERY happy to switch from Comcast internet service to Verizon FIOS. Although I've had a few issues with Verizon phone service before, they pale in comparison to my ordeals with Comcast, and the FIOS setup went very smoothly.

I know that Verizon was pursuing local "cable" franchise approval from local county/city councils, but I have also read about the draft legislation from the House Energy and Commerce Committee that would exempt Verizon from local licensing requirements; not just Verizon, but since FIOS is primarily a broadband data service that can carry video rather than a cable TV service that can carry data.

So I would really like to know two things. First, will Verizon continue to pursue local approval for TV service until this law passes (if it does), and how can I find out more about the process in Montgomery County? I am considering writing my councilman, but I would like to know more about the approval process. I plan to try to follow it eagerly.

Thank you for your time.

washingtonpost.com: Draft Legislation Aims To Aid Competition In Broadband Services

Eric Rabe, Verizon:

Glad to hear things are going well with FiOS. Most customers who can get it love FiOS, and we look forward to rolling FiOS out to more and more people.

As you probably know, building the fiber network is a huge undertaking, and we appreciate the patience of neighbors as we bury the new fiber down streets in the Washington, DC area and elsewhere.

TV service is on the way. We have already been awarded franchises in a number of cities and towns and we're working on more. But as you probably know, we are not permitted to offer TV services until the local governments give us the OK.

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Yuki Noguchi: Sorry for the belated introduction. Technical service problems, Ha! How apropos!

Anyway: Hi, My name is Yuki Noguchi, and I cover technology for the Washington Post. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about customer service problems in technology, highlighting that there seems to be greater dissatisfaction with cable and phone services than in any other industry. I got dozens of responses, more or less underscoring that point.

I'm very happy to say that representatives from Verizon Communications, Cingular Wireless, and Cox Communications agreed to take about an hour of their time to answer questions from readers. It's not easy entering the line of fire. Please be respectful to our guests.

I know there may be some frustrated/angry readers eager to find answers to their specific problems. My hope is that questions will be framed in a general way so that our guests can help us all understand how the customer service process works (as well as understand why it sometimes doesn't).

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New Port Richey, FL: Static noise on my landline telephone is getting very regular these days. It is not just annoying; sometimes the conversation becomes so unclear that I have to disconnect the phone and reconnect.

Eric Rabe, Verizon: You should not have static on your phone line. Period. If you have Verizon service, please call our repair service right away. We can do tests while you're on the line. If need be we'll send a technician, and, if the problem is with our lines, we'll fix it at no charge to you. Most other phone companies work the same way.

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Yuki Noguchi: This is for Mike at Cingular: I got an email asking whether Cingular---after its merger with AT&T Wireless---turned off the old AT&T Wireless (TDMA) network in the DC area, and whether customers were informed of that move.

Also, maybe you could update us on network changes, post-merger. How are those affecting customers now?

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Charlotte, NC: What do customers tell you are the most important issues for them, relative to customer service?

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: Via focus groups and ongoing surveys, customers are telling us that they want their problem solved with one call (first call resolution is key), they want to be educated in easy-to-understand terms on their plans and features (as a result, Cingular has introduced an industry-leading point-of-sale document that it is a personalized, easy-to-read, summary of your specific plan and features, including an itemized estimate of your first bill as well as your on-going bill.)

Bottom line -- we firmly believe that excellent and full disclosure at the point of sale goes a long way in solving any issues down the road.

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Roebling NJ: 1. When are Comcast and Patmedia going to take some responsibility for notifying their customers when they need to clean up their zombie computers? Surely they have a way of monitoring who is sending out the bad stuff.

2. I have Verizon online service - they recently added antispam software to their service - and while I recommend it for the general user - I have my own software (that I can customize for my own use) - they block a lot of legitimate email, and even though I opted out - I have reason to believe that some of my mail is still getting blocked - since their equipment blocks with no notice to the consumer - we have no way of correcting mistakes. This is going to be an ongoing problem - how can the average user resolve that? What does Verizon plan to do to allow the consumer to customize what they can receive? After all, we are paying for the service.

Lee

Eric Rabe, Verizon: It is true that we at Verizon do have anti-spam software to block this problem. We've added it as more and more spam is showing up on the network -- maybe 80% of all e-mail is now spam! In some cases we have disabled this software for individual customers at their request, and, although we don't recommend this, call if you'd like to explore the options.

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New Port Richey, FL: Telecommunications companies are offering internet (VoIP) telephone service at seemingly bargain prices without telling customers about quality issues with such voice services. I have worked in the telecommunications industry for a number of years, and know the technology enough to understand the possibility of such quality issues with VoIP service. Yet, I tried this service recently, and discontinued it within a couple weeks, because conversations on this service was garbled very often. When I called the customer service people of this company, I was told that my problem might be with the bandwidth of my internet service itself, which, upon troubleshooting, was actually not found to be the case.

Although I still have my landline service, I know that there are many people that I talk to who have VoIP service, because my conversations with some of them are garbled. Can something be done to insist that companies who offer VoIP service advice would-be customers about such quality issues?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: The issue with VoIP is that some companies rely on the public Internet to transmit their VoIP calls. That means those calls compete with other Internet traffic, so sometimes delays occur. Companies including Verizon are using this same technology, but carrying the calls on our own networks rather than the Internet to solve this problem. This solution will become more and more common in the next few years. We expect our smarter competitors -- like some of the cable companies -- to also employ this solution. But companies such as Vonage don't have the network to do so.

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Springfield, VA: If I could cut down my neighbors trees to get satellite service I would, just to get away from the cable monopoly. When I moved in my house did not have cable service. The company kept sending the installer to "Smith street" when I lived on "Smith Court." After 4 failed installation appointments I got one month of free service, but no apology. They blamed their subcontractors - that's not my problem! What else can I do?

Alex Horwitz, Cox Communication: First of all, thanks so much for your note. I apologize for the inconvenience that you've experienced. I would love to assist you - could I ask you to send us a quick note so we can personally help you? Please visit us at

https://www.cox.com/support/fairfax/emailchat/emailus.asp

Again, thanks so much, and we apologize for the inconvenience.

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FOB Kalsu, Iraq: Why do you make it so difficult to actually speak to a human about a problem? As I am in Iraq, I have had to burn precious satphone minutes trying to correct billing and other problems at home by going through inane menus, when talking to a human would solve it in half the time. I guess that is why websites like this (https://www.quickbase.com/db/bam6rdiey?a=q&qid=5) have to come into existance.

Eric Rabe, Verizon: For someone like you, we do offer service on the Web, so that no phone call would be involved. Many customers prefer to avoid the delays that always come when there's a need to speak with a service rep. On the other hand, we have a commitment to get a live person on the phone quickly when customers do call -- we usually answer within 20 seconds. Of course, we use menu systems to speed the process and, hopefully, get customers to the right service rep as quickly as possible.

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Glassboro, NJ: Why does it take so long for Verizon to transfer telephone numbers to other companies? In my case it's been 4 months and counting since I requested that Verizon transfer my phone number to Vonage.

Eric Rabe, Verizon: Clearly, it shouldn't take four months! This is a process that can be accomplished in a couple of days. So something is wrong. Please check back with Verizon on this, and ask for a supervisor if you don't get a reasonable answer, "like we'll do it right away." We move thousands of numbers in and out of Verizon every day, so we need to take a look at what happened in your case..

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Arlington, VA: I have had the worst time dealing with Cingular's customer service. When I first bought my phone, I spent over an hour talking to different people about what number to call to add minutes to my pre-paid account. I kept getting transferred to the wrong person, who would then again transfer me to the wrong person. I was almost ready to cancel the account before I even began using it. Why is customer service so abysmal at tech firms? I've had similar problems with Direct TV and CompuServe. Are these companies not spending enough money on customer service or is it something else?

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: I sincerely apologize for your customer experience with Cingular. We do provide a number of different options for re-pleneshing your pre-paid minutes -- you can go to a store and buy a card, to can do it via our web site, and you can call us.

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Clifton, VA: Cox Cable lost me as a customer approx 6 years ago. switched to Directv and will never go back to Cox with their crummy customer service and high prices. I have Verizon for my DSL. Everyone in my family left Cox cable and went to Directv because of the incredibly awful customer service in Fairfax County. If Cox did not have a monopoly for cable I believe they would be out of business years ago.

Alex Horwitz, Cox Communication: Thanks for your note. We've made tremendous improvements in our customer service during the last few years. Much of the issues you faced early on could likely be related to our digital upgrade, which can be a cumbersome and lengthy undertaking. Since the upgrade, we now offer Cox Digital Telephone, digital cable and high speed Internet services - meaning you can get all of your products from one local company and one billing statement that includes bundled discounts.

I encourage you to keep us in mind for your communications needs - I think you'll find that you'll enjoy our services and a better customer experience as well. Please let us know if we can assist in any way.

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Yuki Noguchi: What is fundamentally the most difficult and expensive thing about provisioning customer service?

Alex Horwitz, Cox Communication: Finding and retaining the area's most talented employees can be a daunting task for any company seeking to provide superior customer service. We operate in a very strong job market, which means there are excellent employment opportunites for those in this field. It's also critical that employees are trained to handle some of the more difficult situations, particularly as it relates to helping with customer service issues.

Eric Rabe, Verizon: Customer service is the hardest job facing any company - or other organization (like, say government) - to do. The issues are many. Often customers have unique problems, while companies most easily deal with issues that are common to all. And, of course, the people providing service are human, and we do make mistakes. But the bigger issue is the problem of large numbers. If we solve 99.99% of all customer problems without problem, that means we haven't satisfied, perhaps thousands of people a month. That's not acceptable, and it is frustrating for everyone. It's an issue we and most other large companies work on every day.

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Yuki Noguchi: What is fundamentally the most difficult and expensive thing about provisioning customer service?

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: Cingular strives to provide first call resolution in a very complex industry. We focus our attention on training and retention of customer service employees to better serve our customers.

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VA: I am deaf. I use wyndtell to do emails. why can't the phone providers offer mail-only phone for the deaf/HOh only?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: Verizon now offers DSL without a phone line if that's what you'd like. Please call the business office. This will give you a way to do e-mail as well as surf the Web without buying a phone line.

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Rockville, Md: I have seen many ads for Cox Cable that look interesting. When will Cox be available in my area?

Alex Horwitz, Cox Communication: Thanks so much for your note. At this time, Cox does not serve Montgomery County, MD. Our advertising can sometimes "spill" into areas outside our immediate service area, which is probably how you heard about us. At this time, the markets which we serve in the DC area are Fairfax County (minus parts of Alexandria and Reston) and Fredericksburg. Thanks again for your interest in Cox Communications.

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Springfield, Va.: Verizon is now aggressively marketing i's $14.95 per month DSL service. Even though new Verizon cable was laid in my community two years ago, causing significant damage to landscaping, etc., I can now only elect to receive the more expensive FIOS service at more than twice the price. How and why does that happen? Why am I not provided with a choice of the more vs. less expensive service, especially after this "public" utility took advantage of easement agreements to install the cable in the first place?

Eric Rabe, Verizon:

Are you in a new subdivision? If not, and if you haven't ordered FiOS service, you probably still have your phone service on a copper phone line. If that's the case, you can order the DSL service (768 kbps) for $14.95.

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Columbia, MD: For the Cingular rep: We were initial customers of ATTWS and were switched to Cingular. However, our service has dropped significantly. We are locked into a 2 year contract with a company that we didn't sign a contact with. Have you addressed this issue with ATT wireless customers before. Thanks.

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: We are currently in the process of integrating the AT&T Wireless and Cingular networks nationally. As that process continues, all customers, including former AT&T Wirelesss customers, should see continued improvement in their service quality.

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Washington, D.C.: Sorry but I must disagree about your response to the previous question regarding static.

I have lived in DC for 6 years and HAD Verizon for our local and long distance service as well as DSL. We had a service technician come out on 5 different occasions for our static problem and the issue was never resolved. And, Verizon DSL was a nightmare (the software we had to install kept hosing up the computer) Long story short - we switched to Comcast for our cable modem and bought cell phones (from T Mobile) for a phone service. We have had no problems ever since.

Yuki Noguchi: Here's a response to an earlier comment

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Vienna, VA: Hi, I understand that customer service quality is going down in some places, but how do you address the degredation of service for those customers who aren't trying to get out of contracts, but rather have a valid concern. This question specifically concerns wireless companies, but applies to other areas as well.

Mike Bennett, Cingular Wireless: Speaking for Cingular, we are spending over $6 billion in making network improvements nationally in 2005. Wireless companies are constantly striving to add additional cell sites to improve coverage as well as capacity. Overall, network quality of the wireless industry is improving.

Yuki Noguchi: Do you mean to ask whether companies discriminate between those who are long-time customers and those who are trying to leave?

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Eric Rabe, Verizon: Responding to the person (Q50) who had a bad experience with DSL. Obviously, if you've left Verizon, you have made the point about why customer service is so important. It sounds as though we didn't treat you as well as we should have -- and you left. Obviously, that's not the right outcome from Verizon's point of view. Hopefully, your experience is the exception.

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Glenwood, Maryland: I have a direct line from my NID to my DSL modem. Static and a loud buzz only allow me DSL connection (approx) 25% of the time. I disconnect all other phones at the NID, still a buzz.

You say problem is on my side. What next?

Harvey Goolsby

Eric Rabe, Verizon: We'll come look at the problem, and if you have our inside wiring plan, we won't charge you to do the any rewiring required inside your house. We (and many other companies) will do it for a fee if you don't have the wiring plan. But if the line checks out from our office to the NID, and the issue is not with your phones, then about the only thing left to check is the wiring inside your home.

Yuki Noguchi: Ok, for those of us who know nothing about NIDs, it is a Network Interface Device, which is a box on the side of the house where the telephone network comes in. Anything up to that point is owned by the phone company, but everything from that point on belongs to the home owner.

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Yuki Noguchi: Ok: Give us the secret. What's the best (most effective) way to get through to a manager or some other higher authority to get a recalcitrant problem resolved?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: Well, you can call or e-mail me! And we do get a lot of calls in our department from folks who have service problems. But a better answer is to ask for a supervisor if you don't feel you're getting the help you need from a service representative.

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Yuki Noguchi: Technologies get evermore complex. How do you provide customer service that's that much more sophisticated? Would you say you're investing a proportionate amount in adding customer service?

Alex Horwitz, Cox Communication: Cox spends a great deal of time and resources training our employees on the newest products and services that we offer. Each customer service rep and field service rep goes through a thorough training program to ensure they're equipped to answer questions and handle any issues related to our services. We've also ramped up our customer service staff over the years to support the additional products that we've launched. A key for us is offering 24/7 local customer service, so that customers will typically speak with someone here in Herndon, VA., if they have a question or concern.

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Yuki Noguchi: So do you guys ever have any of your own customer service problems? How do you deal with them?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: Sure -- with my cable company all the time. I try to be patient.

Yuki Noguchi: Haha. Very funny.

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Ashburn, VA: I live in Ashburn, and the only high-speed internet available in my neighborhood is through cable. We prefer satellite TV, and so I'd love to have other options for high-speed internet. Living in the shadow of AOL, I suspect this would be a profitable area for other high-speed internet providers to invest in the infrastructure.

Is there anyway to know if more competition is coming? I find the regular outages, regular rate increases, and generally diminishing service that cable provides to be very frustrating. (For the record, we are not Cox customers)

Thanks!

Eric Rabe, Verizon: We're rolling out our DSL service to more and more places every day, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to deploy more broadband. So, if it's not in Ashburn now, perhaps it will be soon. In some rural areas, we're also using fixed wireless broadband to get the service to more people quickly.

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Yuki Noguchi: With more companies offering bundles of services---Verizon has a wireless unit, for example, Cingular has a land line parent---is that why callers sometimes get transferred from department to department? Is there a movement to consolidate all those departments?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: The problem is that no one person (or one department!) can have the answer to all questions. So we try to route callers to the right place as quickly. We do try to combine services and we offer a single bill for various services such as wireless, traditional phone service and DSL. The issue gets more complicated by the fact that for traditional service, states have approved different rate plans and service offers.

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Silver Spring, Md: Verizon left a lot of its cables carelessly hanging from poles after the last few storms. When are they going to get it right?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: If you see cables that are not as they should be, you can call our repair service 24 hours a day to report it. We'll send a crew out to fix problems like the one you describe.

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Tyson's Corner: Hello and thank you for taking my question. I am a Verizon wireless customer who doesn't have a landline. I currently have broadband access through Comcast but would like to switch to FIOS. Is this possible or do I need a landline to get this?

Eric Rabe, Verizon: We do offer FiOS service for data only. You don't have to have a phone line with the service (though, if you do, we give you a discount on the data service).

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Yuki Noguchi: Ok, that's about all the time we have today. Many, many thanks to our guests, and to our readers.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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