In late January, a reader we’re calling Liam called his television cable provider to cancel his television service because it was far more expensive than the streaming service many friends and family were using. Liam wanted to keep his landline phone and internet service. The provider’s agent understood and told Liam he could shift to a promotional package for those services that included a free cellphone, which Liam declined.
Liam has never needed a cellphone and, he wrote me: “My wife of 50 years already had one.” The agent seemed “incredulous” since Liam had nothing to lose. Nevertheless, Liam continued to decline the offer because he suspected there might be a “catch.”
“His insistence that it would cost me nothing beyond a $10.71 startup fee convinced me it would be good to have in an emergency,” Liam wrote.
Two weeks later Liam and his wife were flabbergasted after reading an emailed statement from the provider that they owed $4 for the phone and would be billed that amount every month for the next two years, as well as a $30 monthly service charge starting the next January.
“We immediately called to say we wanted to return the phone, but were told that the two-week return period had passed,” wrote Liam.
“From an ethical standpoint, I agree with the company that I should pay for what I agreed to, but neither my money-savvy wife nor I remember ever having heard anything other than that the phone was free – over and over again,” Liam wrote.
Liam is right that we should pay for things we agree to pay for, but it’s clear there was a miscommunication here between the agent and Liam – and his wife, who was listening in to the call. If the agent deliberately misled Liam after he first told him he didn’t want the phone and then followed up by trying to ensure it was free, that is shameful and unethical. (I suspect that deliberate deception also crosses legal lines.)
Liam wonders whether people have an ethical obligation to pay for things even though, like him, they were “schmoozed into making a commitment.” While schmoozing isn’t typically illegal, it can lead to misunderstandings, as it did in Liam’s case. While the company might have been able to dig in and hold Liam responsible, I believe the right thing for the company was to cancel the obligation after Liam received his first bill showing the cost he hadn’t anticipated since he believed he was told there would be no cost to the phone. Initially holding him to a two-week return policy when Liam had no reason to suspect he was being charged for something he understood to be free may be legal but it smacks of being unfair.
While Liam’s initial appeal went nowhere, he wrote to someone “higher up” who eventually agreed to render the phone useless and make an adjustment to future bills. But that higher-up felt the need to tell Liam that after listening to recordings of his conversation with the agent, he determined that while the agent told Liam the “service” was free for a year, he never said the phone itself was free. Nevertheless, the company did the right thing by canceling the obligation, and Liam should feel no obligation to pay up for something he never wanted in the first place.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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