..Steve Seepersaud..

Lackluster Cell Phone Service

You certainly have freedom of choice when shopping for a cell phone. You can choose how many minutes you plan to use each month, and when you want nighttime free minutes to start. Today's phones can take pictures, send instant messages, and surf the Web. Watch television long enough and you're bombarded with commercials from several cell phone carriers, claiming to offer you the most features, best prices, and largest coverage areas.

Cell phone companies are eager to sell their products to you. But, do any of them offer first-rate customer service after the sale is done and you've started to use the phone? The magic "8" ball would probably answer that question with "all signs point to no." Consider the following experiences. You may be able to relate to some of these. So as not to make any enemies, I'll conceal the names of the not-so-innocent parties.

About a year ago, I bought a cell phone for my wife from Company A. This was a pre-paid phone. The company would bill my credit card, either once a month or when the allotted minutes were used up, whichever came first. The phone worked just fine for a few months. That is, until one day when she tried to call some people, and found she could hear them, but they couldn't hear her.

We went to one of Company A's retail stores in upstate New York, and told a sales rep what our problem was. He didn't seem too interested in helping us. All he would do is repeatedly tell us to contact the manufacturer, as the phone was still under warranty. He didn't make any attempt to look at the phone or diagnose the problem.

After leaving the store, I tried a very simple fix. I popped the battery out, and put it back in. Then, I made a call. Bingo! The phone worked. I was suddenly audible on the other end of the line.

Our problems with Company A were far from over. I noticed the carrier was billing my credit card too frequently. I was paying for blocks of 400 minutes, and getting billed way before that amount of time was used up. Calling the customer service hotline was a waste of time. The people I talked to were simply reading from the company's script of blow-off lines. I thought e-mailing the company would be a better route. It was of limited help. So, I wound up disputing the charges with my cell phone company.

I had seen enough, so my wife and I went to a local retail store from Company B. We wanted to take her number and get a new phone with a new carrier. Company B's salesman cheerfully sold us a new cameraphone with a two-year service agreement. He told us it would take, at the most, two days for her number to port over. Until then, the phone was basically an electronic organizer, camera, video game system, and alarm clock.

We waited, and waited, but the number didn't port over. After doing a little digging, we found out that Company A wouldn't release her number for a few weeks. She went to the Company B store, asking for a new phone number. The sales people seemed annoyed, but they complied only because my wife wouldn't take "no" for an answer.

My parents had a cell phone through Company C. Their service ran about $40 a month. So, imagine their surprise when they opened a $400 bill. How did that happen? Company C billed them for long-distance calls made from their home area of Long Island. Those calls were supposed to be included in their plan. It didn't take long for my parents to take their business elsewhere.

So, what have we learned from all of this? Cell carriers will do almost anything, short of walking on hot coals, to sell you a phone. But, once you leave the store with your new toy, they don't want to see you again. If you come back with a problem, the sales jockey is quick to pass you off to a toll-free number.

Navigating the customer service system is a nightmare. Consider yourself lucky if your time "on hold" is less than 15 minutes. It seems like you have to talk to different layers of service personnel. You've got questions? Do they have answers? Sometimes. Many times not.

We don't have to take this lying down. If you're not happy with a company's customer service, make sure your voice is heard. Writing to a cell carrier's customer service department can be a good move. The quality of the response you get via mail is usually better than what you'd receive from an outsourced customer service call center.

If you're using a credit card to pay for cell service, and believe you've been incorrectly billed, dispute the charge with the credit card company. Let them go to bat for you, and launch their own inquiry into the matter.

Also, check your cell phone bill the next time it arrives in the mail. Or, better yet, dig up last month's bill. You'll notice that you're paying a certain amount of money each month in federal regulatory fees. Complain to the Federal Communications Commission by sending an e-mail to fccinfo@fcc.gov. Another option is filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, by logging onto http://www.ftc.gov. The feds can't resolve individual complaints. But, the information you give them can help them build a case against a company and take action, if necessary.

If you're having major problems with your phone and don't like how you're being treated, tell your friends and family, so they can take their business to another company. You should do the same, once your contract is up.

Another carrier will be glad to take your money. Hopefully, once the sale is made, the company won't leave you hanging.

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© 2005 Steve Seepersaud. Reprinted with permission.

Links to previous "Tech Talk" columns:
Cell Phone Laws Not Enough
Looking for Love Online
Too Dependent on Technology?
Internet Help for Fishing