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Old 03-27-2008, 11:18 AM
Bschneider Bschneider is offline
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Default Verizon Customers Broadcast Problems With Service

Verizon Customers Broadcast Problems With Service

By RICHARD MULLINS of The Tampa Tribune
Published: March 26, 2008


Sam Miller came so close to tossing his Verizon cable TV box to the curb outside.

After signing up in November for Verizon's $99 a month deal for FiOS cable TV, Internet and phone service, Verizon was still sending him bills for $130 or more. He called to complain each month, but eventually his bill was stacked with $265 in extra fees.

One time he called Verizon, "they told me we didn't have an account. I told them they could pick up their stuff at the curb," Miller said. By calling random phone numbers at Verizon, he eventually found a helpful marketing clerk in a branch office to untangle his bill. He still hasn't gotten the free TV for signing up — that's going to take months.

"The TV picture reception is noticeably better," Miller said. "It just seems like they grew so fast they could not keep up with customer demands."

Unfortunately for Verizon, Miller is not alone in having complaints.

As Verizon signs up thousands of new customers a month in the Tampa Bay area, company officials say they're working to correct problems with customer service: firing some sales workers, retraining the rest, and restructuring how they deal with customer complaints.

It's not a simple challenge to tackle.

In the case of Verizon, the company represents a multibillion-dollar enterprise with more than 10,000 local employees that used to hold a monopoly on telephone service in the area. Now, it's attempting to become an agile competitor that rises and falls on customer service.

Meanwhile, reports of problems with Verizon are stacking up at government offices and on customer blogs — complaints about elusive discounts, missing equipment and frustrating calls to customer service. In March, 23 customers went so far as to call Florida's attorney general to complain about Verizon's cable TV deals, up from six in January. Some irate customers are even taking their gripes public, posting videos on YouTube of balky cable TV images, Internet breakdowns and their arguments with Verizon customer service centers.

Verizon has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars laying state-of-the-art fiber optic lines to nearly every home and business in the area, and could spend about a billion dollars by the time construction is complete.

Verizon's new head of operations in the Tampa Bay area, Suri Surinder, said he recognized the problems soon after coming to Tampa in August, and said fixing customer service is "a high priority for us."

Amid the work, Surinder wants to emphasize one point: With any big company, some customers will love or hate the service no matter what. Verizon was immensely popular last year, however.

"When you have people breaking down the door to get your service, some will fall through the cracks," Surinder said. "Everyone knows that we're doing a great job with the product. We need to do a better job with the customer experience, training our people, educating the customer and a better job of resolving issues."

Complaints Are Varied

Tracking just how many problems customers have is becoming less clear. Combined cable, phone and Internet companies are not regulated as closely as traditional telephone service had been in years past.

For instance, Florida customers with complaints would have to know to call the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee, because many cable companies now operate on statewide licenses.

Lately, those problems come in a wide variety.

For example, Verizon normally "back charges" telephone customers, sending bills for service provided the month before. When people sign up for new bundled phone-cable-Internet service, however, Verizon "forward charges" customers for the month to come. That means new customers can get a much bigger bill than they expected. Verizon didn't do a good enough job telling customers that would happen, Surinder said.

Verizon also encountered problems with the non-Verizon contract workers who go door-to-door to sell FiOS service. Those workers are paid partly on commission, and some customers complain about broken promises.

In November, a contract salesman knocked on Bill Stine's door in Tampa. Stine was already paying $97 for phone and Internet service through Verizon, so the salesman said Stine could get cable TV "for just $2 more," Stine said. "It turned out to be $138.50 a month. Each time the bill arrives, me or my wife spends hours on the phone with these people. If we had any idea what it would be like to go through this, I'd never have done it." The salesman never told Stine that Verizon would charge a $5 a month rental fee for each cable TV box, Stine said.

Tom Gump of Wesley Chapel signed up for HDTV in two rooms, in part to get a free 19-inch HDTV. The Verizon installer who came in January could only give one HDTV cable box. "That [second] box still has not arrived, and it's March," Gump said. The free HDTV won't arrive for 6 to 10 weeks.

"Verizon only gives you 30 days to cancel service or pay a $199 cancellation fee. That's not enough time to find out how many lies they are going to tell you."

John O'Donovan signed up for Verizon's $99 a month deal for FiOS cable TV, Internet and phone service last year. Instead, Verizon each month sends him bills for $125 or more, plus $45 more for an old phone line that Verizon technicians actually unplugged when he upgraded.

"I've called them three or four times each month now," O'Donovan said. Sometimes Verizon refunds his money. Sometimes not. "I feel like I'm always getting the runaround. … They told me I'd have to call my own credit card company to find out if Verizon was double-charging me. How can they not know what they're billing customers for?" It took six months of calls — and help from a special team of service people at Verizon — to untangle his bill.

Verizon officials said they would investigate those customer situations.
Regarding Stine, Verizon officials said employees can "do a better job" explaining pricing with the $99 deal. They plan to contact Gump to address the shortage of HDTV set-top boxes. They have issued a "significant credit" to O'Donovan, and issued other credits to Miller to bring his monthly price closer to $99.

Service Wasn't Important Before

Some customers are taking their complaints public.

YouTube now has dozens of videos produced by Verizon customers with
complaints. One shows a broadcast of the movie "Happy Feet," with jerky motion and missing images. Another shows an Internet modem regularly dropping its Internet connection. One video edits down a 30-minute call with technical support into a 10-minute drama of frustration.

Typically, backlashes like this happen for the same reason, said Charlotte Baker, CEO of the Tampa-based customer service company Digital Hands.
"Large companies, especially former monopolies, never had to examine every element of the customer experience before," she said. Sales departments operate differently than installation, billing and customer service.

For decades, Verizon and its predecessors held a de facto monopoly on telephone service in the Tampa Bay area and were tightly regulated by the government. The company simply didn't have to provide attractive service, Baker said, because customers didn't have anywhere else to go. Those types of corporations easily turn into rigid structures, set in their ways, she said.

For example, when problems occur, customers too often end up in "phone tree hell," because companies divide their call centers into "pods" — $10 an hour employees for simple problems, $50 an hour employees for complex issues. Customers start with a novice employee and don't get their problem fixed until they "complain enough and climb up to someone who is skilled," she said.

"Companies think they're saving money because it looks good on paper to divide people up, but any savings they think they make are quickly eroded by customers churning away."

Likely there isn't any one solution or project that would fix everything, said Shelley Evenson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies customer experiences. Rather, it will be a long list of smaller projects, all aimed at bringing every sector of Verizon together, Evenson said, so customers get help wherever they call, and end up more loyal than when problems started.

Verizon Is Making Changes

To be sure, Verizon's arch rival Bright House has its share of complaints. Hillsborough County officials have logged dozens of calls from irate customers of Verizon and Bright House. But Bright House has turned

Verizon's problems into an advertising campaign, centered on "The Asterisk," symbolizing the fees Verizon charges beyond $99 a month.
For its part, Verizon's Surinder is working to improve service. Verizon is redesigning its monthly bills into a simpler format that's easier to understand, he said. "Two pages to a bill, not 10," he said.

He has started retraining sales staff to better "educate the customer" about what to expect — in particular about charging customers in advance. He also is testing new methods of customer service, including a special team of seven representatives who live in Tampa and know the market better than others who could be in a call center across the country.

"We know some customers are going to have issues with us," Surinder said. "The question is how hard do you work to correct them?"

What You Should Know

Questions to ask any cable TV, Internet and telephone service provider:

• Are there any activation or installation fees?

• Are there charges or rental fees to connect more than one phone, computer or TV?

• Does the company bill a month in advance, or retroactively for the past month?

• What will be the total amount of the first bill, and subsequent bills, including taxes and fees?

• Are there charges for repair calls?

• Are there termination fees?

• If you cancel service, what do you do with the equipment?

• Is there a "grace period" to cancel the service without a termination fee?

Last edited by Bschneider; 03-27-2008 at 12:51 PM.
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