Cingular Contract Lock-In Overkill

A tasty privilege of writing on a blog is the opportunity to rant about a bad customer service experience. Here’s mine. I cracked my Treo screen a couple of months ago, and since it was out of warranty, I paid Palm $211 for an “Out of Warranty Repair” in which I sent in my Treo, and Palm exchanged it for a refurb. Problems solved. A month later an $18 charge appeared on my Cingular bill, and a CSR said they had locked me in for another 2-years because of a “phone upgrade”. Why would Cingular lock me in and charge me $18 for an upgrade when I paid $211 to another totally separate vendor for a repair. In a one-hour call with Cingular, they refused to cancel the charges and drop the contract lock-in, despite the fact that I would fax documents to prove it was a paid, $211 repair – not an upgrade. They instead referred me over, and over, to PalmOne. Palm (of course) confirmed that it was a straight repair, and no transaction data or charges were passed on to Cingular. But what raised my ire the most was that the Cingular CSRs never seemed to want to fix the problem, no matter how convincing an argument I could make, or what proof I offered to send. The charge appears on their bill, the erroneous 2-year lock-in is with them…why should I talk to Palm about it? This was Cingular’s error to fix. In an era when telcos are creating lobby groups to argue in favor of the “fairness” of contract Termination Fees, and fighting the regulation of these fees, they should avoid mistakenly locking people into contracts – and then not correcting their errors. In the end, after 2 hours, I used my Vonage 3-way calling feature to get a Palm CSR on the phone in a conference call with a more responsive Cingular CSR, who fixed the problem after a 10 minute discussion. As a consultant, I often help telcos work with their partners, but usually I make more than $18 for two hours!

I'd like to dedicate this rant to Joanne Wunker (an assumed name?) a second-level supervisor at Cingular customer service, to whom I promised I would post a commentary on her dis-satisfactory handling of Cingular's error. She gets this month's "Pass the Buck" award for her tireless refusal to fix a problem, satisfy a customer, or listen to any logic that doesn't appear on her Decision Support Screens. I suppose Ms. Wunker made the strategic decision that $90/mo customers that have 8 years loyalty with Cingular are expendable.

Yet I will keep this account on Cingular because, unfortunately, I know this is merely symptomatic of the terrible state of customer service across the board in the USA today. It's not even limited to a business issue, but has become a deeper cultural issue. We have become a country that has sold out to the lowest bidder, and we are getting what we pay for. As a nation, we want everything cheap, and we want it all-you-can-eat, too.

In a market where customers shop on price alone, should we be surprised when companies cut corners to save on costs?

There are some sectors where a customer is able to pay more and get better customer service - web hosting comes to mind - but cellular telecom is not one of them. We are all doomed to the lowest common denominator.

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