Sunday, March 24, 2013

I sure can't help you

My wife's smartphone was stolen last week. Suspending the number on that stolen phone so no one else could use it was simple enough.

But since she uses the phone as her primary work phone, it was important for her to get another phone set up with the same number as soon as possible. A quick call and a long wait on hold with our cellphone service provider got us to a service representative who wanted to help us. We told him the situation and asked how much it would cost to buy a replacement phone.

"$649," he said.

We pointed out that we were three weeks away from being eligible for an every two-year upgrade at a discounted price. He pointed out that the same phone would cost $199 in three weeks.

Pointing out to him that the only reason a new phone was needed was because the old one had been stolen resulted in a lecture about how they could not make exceptions because their contract with the phone's manufacturer could be canceled if they did.

We hung up and hunted around to see if we had an old phone lying around the house that my wife could have her cell phone number transferred to for three weeks while we waited. Having successfully found a very old phone, we called our cellphone service provider back to ask about the temporary switch. My wife would have to wait the three weeks to be able to have her contacts switched over since it was a very old nonsmart phone. But saving the $450 seemed worth the three-week wait.

When a different service representative answered, we told her what we wanted to do.

"Why do you want to do that?" she asked.

We explained that even though the phone had been stolen, that we have been customers for years, and that we were willing to sign on for another two years and three weeks if need be, we were told we had to wait until we were eligible for an upgrade and didn't want to spend an extra $450.

"We can do better than that," she said. And then she proceeded to move up my wife's eligibility date so we could qualify for the lower price.

No talk of concern about the phone manufacturer canceling the relationship. No questioning of any sort. She heard what had happened and responded by trying to provide service to a customer in need. She even texted us to make sure the phone had arrived and was working.

So who did the right thing? The first representative who claimed nothing could be done? Or the second who worked to find a solution?

Customers should not have to resort to asking to speak to a manager when a service representative refuses to try to solve an issue. And it shouldn't take repeated calls to different service representatives to hope one among them might be amenable to resolving an issue.

It falls on companies -- cellphone companies, banks, credit card companies, cable television companies -- to empower their employees to do what's right by the customer as long as it doesn't cheat the company. That's both the right thing to do and a good business decision if companies don't want their customers to take their business elsewhere. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


William Jacobson said...


A couple of notes:
1. If you were really three weeks short of finishing a two year contract, you would have qualified for an upgrade on any national carrier. Most national carriers qualify you for upgrade at about the 20-month mark. What I suspect you were, was three weeks short of your upgrade eligibility... At minimum you should have qualified for an early upgrade which comes in closer to the $400 mark.

2. Yes, different customer service representatives are willing to go different distances to assist you. This probably does not reflect so much on what the companies allow them to do for you so much as how much they want to help you. It does pay to check with a few.

3. Any statement along the lines of "the phone manufacturer would cancel the relationship" or "the phone manufacturer won't let us discount the price" is pure nonsense. The manufacturer gets paid its going rate even if they GIVE you the phone. It is the salesperson and his managers who "won't let him discount"... last time a carrier pulled this on me, I walked out.

4. Your stolen phone may well be covered under your homeowners policy. Your deductible may not make this worthwhile, however.

Both reps "did the right thing". The first by toeing the line, and the second to breaking it in the name of customer service. Why should a customer feel entitled to get a price he hasn't yet earned?!? Sometimes it comes down to the consumer's responsibility to pay the going price when bad things happen rather than the company picking up the tab.

I'm curious if you would show your students the same leniency if they "only missed their deadline" to turn in a paper by three weeks.

William Jacobson, esq.

Anonymous said...

Without sounding excessively judgemental, this is what we get when we turn our lives over to a method of communication (totally relying on a cell phone). Most people use a cell phone for communication. Relying on it entirely for all business might be evidence you are taking advantage of all the "newest" things but you can't expect the world to cater to your reliance on an inanimate cell phone to regulate your life. You made the agreement, now you have to live with it. Give me the good old days.

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

I called Verizon to change one thing on my bundled service and the C/S person, after looking over my account, said I should change from my current bundled plan to another newer bundled plan which offered the identical service at a lower price. He did what I requested and something I had no idea was available.
Anyhow, it was very nice and certainly he went out of his way as my change request had nothing to do with hs proposal.
Did he have to? Obviously not. Did he make me happier with Verizon. Obviously.
Did he do the right thing? Financially for Verizon, no. To get a satisfied customer, yes.
What was right? You make the "call".
Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma.

Sue Wacvet said...

I used to work for AT&T Mobile customer service (for a very short time). To make a long story short, let me just say that you probably spoke with a somewhat new and inexperienced person in the first call, but got someone who was more experienced the second time. Most customer service agents do have a lot of leeway, but some don't know how much.