Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Strategic incompetence?

I recently received a phone call I had been dreading, and handling it was surprisingly easy. Perhaps suspiciously easy.

We recently switched our cell phone service from Sprint PCS to another carrier. The only reason I don't think Sprint redlined our South Side neighborhood is that Sprint's service, across the whole Chicago area, consistently sucks. I shall delicately refrain from vulgar speculation concerning the true meaning of "PCS."

As a parting gift, Sprint hit us with an early termination fee of $175. We refused to pay because our contract had run out, so we were month-to-month, so there was no early termination, and therefore no fee applied.

I assumed we had been slammed, partly because it seemed SOP for Sprint, partly because of several conversations along this outline:
Alleged "Customer Service" Representative: You may have been trying to call from an area that's not covered by our PCS network.
Me: As I said before, I was trying to call from near my home. When did Sprint drop Chicago from its coverage area?
ACRS: If you renew your agreement, we can send you a new phone ...
Me: *tasmanian devil sounds*
So, assuming slammage -- and with prior experience of Sprint's "Customer Service" --, I anticipated many alternating layers of idiocy and bullshit as I escalated my merry way up the billing ladder. Neither X-Word Puzzle Girl nor I wanted to deal with.

Eventually Sprint called us. To my surprise, the whole thing was quick and easy. I'd like to think that no opposition can withstand the combined weight of my charm and wit. But I had brandished them against Sprint before, to little avail. This conversation was almost perfunctory:
Cindy in Billing: ... your account is past due ... $175.
Cranky Me: ... contract over ... no early termination ... no payment or nuthin' ... no verbs. Grrr.
CiB: Let me check your account ... *typitty typitty* ... You're right. I'll reverse the charge. If we contact you again, please reference this very long number....
I've had more trouble ordering at McDonald's than I did getting this $175 charge removed.

It reminds me of something Edwin Lefevre said in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator:
My relations with my brokers were friendly enough. Their accounts and records did not always agree with mine, and the differences always happened to be against me. Curious coincidence--not!
I don't mention Lefevre's brokerage troubles because he used 1980s slang in 1923. Lefevre gave a great example of incompetence as a deliberate strategy.

It sounds wasteful, calling all these folks just to waive their fees. But it could pay off.
  • Each phone call costs 5 or 10 bucks to make [ (100K/yr/employee) ÷ (2000 hrs/yr) ÷ (5 or 10 calls/hr) ].
  • Many will dispute the charges, but not all.
    • Some people will just pay up when they get the call.
    • A lot of people don't check their bills -- they just pay 'em; so they don't even need a call.
  • Bottom-line,
    • it makes money if only 3-6% pay the mistaken charges;
    • these are already ex-customers, so ill-will is nil.
Here's what I would love to see:
  • How many of Sprint's long-term customers (2+ years, and so presumably out of contract) get charged early termination fees?
  • What percentage of Sprint's customers contest early termination fees?
  • How does Sprint differ from other cellular providers in these stats?
Now, I am not suggesting that anyone at Sprint is engaged in a deliberate attempt to defraud. But there certainly is an incentive for convenient carelessness.

The only reliable lesson from this is: I am extremely bitter and cynical. My suspicions are aroused when an experience isn't unpleasant enough.

Update: Now there's a poll: Did Sprint charge you an early termination fee?
Yes, even though I was out of contract.
Yes, because I was still in contract.
No, because I was out of contract.
No, even though I was still in contract.
No, but I still paid it.
Go vote.


Anonymous Michael Froomkin said...

This sort of thing is why we have class action lawsuits and state Attorney Generals.

And, it used to be why we had an FTC...

3:08 PM  

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