All she wanted to do was cancel her EarthLink dial-up service. But her credit card kept getting charged. What followed were countless calls to EarthLink, untold aggravation, and a letter to the Better Business Bureau. And even when her account was finally credited, and the matter seemed behind her, EarthLink turned around and charged her the $13.90 again.
"And, I'm like, they're just doing it on purpose now," she says. "They're just being jerks. That was the one that just appalled me."
Faced with the prospect of hours on the phone for such a piddling amount, many of us would have just swallowed our pride -- and the $13.90. But Burke had had enough. "I totally don't think it was an accident. I don't think it was incompetence. I think it was fraud."
Ironically, two weeks ago, J.D. Power and Associates rated EarthLink as the nation's best Internet service provider in terms of customer satisfaction. Yet here in Atlanta, the Better Business Bureau has tallied more complaints about EarthLink -- 728 so far this year from across the country -- than against any other business in metro Atlanta. Over the last three years, 1,224 customers have complained against EarthLink.
It's a sign of what a joke customer service has become that a company can be No. 1 in a customer satisfaction poll and also rack up the most consumer complaints in the region.
But the problem isn't just EarthLink's. The phrase "customer service" has become a bigger oxymoron than military intelligence. Blame can be passed all around. There's the corporatization of America, where customer service runs way behind size and profits. There's, paradoxically, the success of the economy, which makes it hard for companies to find qualified people who really give a crap about your problems. There's the greed of the companies themselves, who somehow never make an error in your favor. And when they stiff you for a few bucks, as they did Burke, there's an endless maze to navigate, one that's easier just to avoid than get lost in. Don't assume it's not intentional; one consumer advocate estimates that around 5 percent of companies have designed their customer service departments deliberately to confound and perplex, figuring most customers will just give up.
Whether it's intentional or not, the effect of bad customer service is universal: the fraying sanity of the American consumer. Avoid the maze, and you get screwed. Enter the maze, and you lose your mind.
Forget all the platitudes that companies spout about the customer being No. 1. When your cell phone bill is screwed up, or when you're having trouble with your insurer, you are one thing in that company's eyes: the enemy. And the customer service department is the first and best line of defense.
Who hasn't been forwarded from a representative to an associate to a technician, only to be put on hold and forced to listen to endless Kenny G, punctuated by a recording that repeats the same lies?
Your call is important to us.
Please remain on the line. A customer service representative technician will be with you in BEEP 13 BEEP minutes.
Your call is important to us.
Most miffed customers hang up. Some write a letter. A few even contact the Better Business Bureau, a private agency funded by companies. The bureau investigates complaints from consumers. But it lacks any enforcement ability, instead relying on the companies themselves to make amends, if the companies deem that amends are called for. If a company has behaved particularly badly, its membership can be revoked and -- look out -- can no longer display its Better Business Bureau membership plaque.
The office of the Atlanta Better Business Bureau is tucked away in a nondescript business park near the airport. Dean Smith, president and CEO of Atlanta's Better Business Bureau, and his employees -- fewer than 20 -- keep track of complaints against 14,000 Atlanta companies.
"We're overwhelmed and understaffed, for certain," he says. Membership fees are based on the size of the company, but the average is $300 -- not high enough, Smith says, to support the kind of work they need to do.
"We aren't able to be out in the community as much as we'd like to be, trying to help people avoid being victimized by unscrupulous companies, just because we have so much going on here."
For 13 years, Smith has labored for the rights of consumers at the Better Business Bureau. Three months ago, he was named head of the Atlanta office.
By studying the hundreds of thousands of complaints that pour into his office, Smith has over the years spotted a plethora of tricks companies rely on to squeeze money out of their customers.
For instance, "cramming" is the practice of billing for services that the customer never asked for. "Slamming," as close to outright stealing as you can get, refers to the practice of companies signing up customers for their service without any permission.
And when customers complain, they're often met with what can most charitably be described as indifference. Smith estimates that 5 percent of the companies he's investigated have intentionally poor customer service.
"[Businesses] know there's a certain percentage of people who will not complain and others who will, and it's a percentage they can live with."
John Banja, an ethics professor at Emory, agrees that bad customer service is sometimes no accident.
"The 20-minute wait on the phone, the shuffling around from one department to another department -- the idea is pretty much to wear [customers] down, so they finally slam the phone down in disgust and pay the $10 to $200 charge," he says. "You know, if [you're a company and] you do that a couple thousand times over the course of a year, you are going to save yourself a bunch of money."
Banja's specialty is the ethics of HMOs -- and yes, some HMOs do have ethics. He studies how they strike a balance between profits and providing health care for their customers. "Some bad HMOs simply will categorically reject all first-time appeals [for health care payment]," he says. "In other words, they know that only a certain percentage of those people who have a first time rejection will try again."
Such nefarious corporate practices have gotten worse in the past 20 years. "I'm afraid," Banja says, "we're only seeing now, in the wake of Enron and some of those other companies, the kinds of misrepresentations and lying that have become pretty familiar in a lot of corporate America."
At the Better Business Bureau, Smith collects hundreds of complaints from cell-phone subscribers. "I don't know if it's out and out scandals or scams, but there's just a host of complaints against various cell-phone companies about billing discrepancies, billing problems, people who can't get the account canceled and then when they try to call with a disagreement, the customer service loop starts and the customer gets put on hold, transferred -- it's a nightmare unless you're really dogmatic and stick it out."
But of all industries, none is complained about more than Internet companies.
Once upon a time, EarthLink was a darling of the high-tech companies. Local and national business publications lauded California-born EarthLink, and its eventual merger partner, Atlanta-born MindSpring, as the ultimate successes of the New Economy.
The press compared MindSpring and its employees to a cult. On the day it was announced the merged company would be called EarthLink, MindSpring employees raided the company store, buying up anything with a MindSpring logo on it.
MindSpring also was upheld in the press for its loyal customers and a set of "core values and beliefs" that stressed personal relationships, a welcome anachronism in the go-go economy.
Of course, silly mission statements are tacked on the wall of every boardroom in America. What made MindSpring so different was that it actually followed its values -- values conceived and championed by Charles Brewer, who founded the company in 1994 out of his Ansley Park home.
Matt LaPrairie, who worked in technical support for MindSpring in Harrisburg, Pa., remembers that customers really did come first. Technicians were told to fix the customers' problems, even if that meant calling them back repeatedly.
The core values and beliefs -- like the one that read, "We feel a sense of urgency on any matters related to our customers. We own problems and we are always responsive. We are customer driven." -- were read before meetings, big or small.
"Whenever we got a corporate e-mail about a policy change, the core values and beliefs were always mentioned as supporting arguments for doing anything," LaPrairie says. "If there was ever a question about an action, we'd think, 'OK, we have two choices. What do we do? Look at the core values and beliefs. That's what you want to make your decision on.'"
But in 1999, in a $3 billion merger, MindSpring was absorbed into EarthLink, the second-largest Internet service provider (behind AOL). Things changed quickly.
It soon became, LaPrairie says, "about trying to get shorter and shorter call times. It was, try something with the customer and then take the next call. If it isn't fixed, then they'd just have to call back and wait on hold in the queue [phone system] like everybody else.
"Post-merger, the core values and beliefs are still there, but they are not read. Nobody listens to them. You can bring up an argument and say, 'Here's a problem. We need to do this, and here's the core value and belief backing it up,' and they'd just ignore it. Nobody cares. It's all about profit now and the bottom line."
Today, Brewer, who left the company in August 2000, won't say MindSpring's core values are dead, but he will say they've lost their impact.
"I think the beliefs were pretty firmly in place as of merger time, but ..." His voice trails off. "We'd done some acquisitions, but it was always totally clear in the course of acquisitions what the philosophy was and how we were going to move forward. In the case of the merger with EarthLink, it really wasn't so clear. That was much more of a merger of equals kind of thing and so I think it's fair to say the culture didn't emerge the same as it had been back in MindSpring. So that was a different animal."
In 1999, Brewer was even more candid about the pressures a growing company faces. "I compare it to gravity," the AJC quoted him as saying. "The bigger we get it seems like there's a force trying to suck us back to being like any other company."
Today, LaPrairie no longer works for EarthLink. But he hasn't forgotten his old employer. He's the proud founder of earthlinksucks.net, whose tone is captured neatly in its home page introduction: "EarthLink: If we don't help our customers, maybe they'll stop calling."
Customer complaints abound: "Have I got an EarthLink hell story for you," goes one. "I have vowed never to give EarthLink my business again," goes another.
"I can't get them to credit my MasterCard my $598."
"EarthLink has become the same corporate evil as AOL."
EarthLink's vice president of customer service, Carter Calle, was hired in 1995 as MindSpring's 80th employee. The company now has close to 6,000 employees. He acknowledges that EarthLink has suffered some growing pains but says the company still follows its core values and beliefs.
Most of the complaints resulted from acquiring smaller Internet service providers that didn't maintain good records, he says.
But what about the other complaints, the ones sent in by longstanding EarthLink customers? Says Calle: "We take each and every issue very seriously and each and every issue on an individual basis. That's what we do and that's what we continue to do."
(Calle, true to the old company's core values and beliefs, even promised to work with irate customers toward a "speedy resolution" to their problems. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Calle contends that some of the customers' rage comes from the fact that the Internet is now a vital part of daily life.
"I think it's more that the Internet went from being a luxury and an interesting toy to an absolute necessity," he says. "And when it made that shift, that's when it became the subject of ire to people if it wasn't there 24/7. It is expected to be like the dial tone, and people forget that it took over 80 years for the telecom industry to get to the point where they could consistently provide dial tone to your home phone every time you pick it up.
"We grew at a trajectory, not just in terms of size but in terms of importance and relevance to your daily existence, and all that happened in a span of seven to eight years. The reliability will one day be there. But there's still a lot moving pieces behind the scenes to make an Internet connection work. The technology changes so quickly. It is still a complicated beast."
When asked about the problems some customers have in getting charged after their accounts are canceled, Calle says, "I don't have an explanation for that. There's nothing systemically that I know of that is wrong. We cancel accounts on a daily basis. There must be something unique in those circumstances."
At the Better Business Bureau, most of the complaints against EarthLink are similar to Sandra Burke's problem. She was paying EarthLink $6.95 for about five hours of dial-up Web surfing a month. In February, she wanted a faster connection and signed up for high-speed cable with another company.
Burke thought it would be easy to cancel her Internet account with EarthLink.
She was told by at least three different customer service reps at EarthLink that her account was indeed closed. But her credit card statement for the next month showed another $6.95 deduction.
Burke finally was able to cancel her account, but two months of EarthLink deductions kept appearing on her credit card statement. Enduring another infuriating trip into the customer service labyrinth, she called back with her confirmation numbers and was told, again, that her account would be credited.
"I was just so PO-ed that I had called and spent all that time on the phone, and they still didn't do what they said they were going to do. I had never called the Better Business Bureau before about anything in my whole life," she says. "After I contacted the Better Business Bureau, [EarthLink] went ahead and credited the $13.90, and then like a week later they turned around and put it right back on my credit card! I was just so mad. I knew they were doing it on purpose."
She is still struggling to get her money back.
With 1,224 complaints against it, EarthLink tops the list in number of complaints at the Atlanta Better Business Bureau. But that number can be misinterpreted. In EarthLink's case, the grievances come from across the country. The 328 complaints against AT&T Broadband, for example, are all locally generated. BellSouth is another company Atlantans love to hate. Among its 305 complaints is Ruby Ann Patton's. Back in March, she ordered DSL service from BellSouth. She was told it would cost $45.
What she wasn't told, she says, is that there's another BellSouth charge -- this one for "upgraded phone service." Yet, it was the upgraded phone service that she was charged for during the first four months. She thought she was paying for DSL, but she wasn't. She realized that when, out of the blue, she got a bill for $400, seeking back payments for the DSL service.
To Patton, it all seemed like a trick.
She says, "Had I gotten the first bill and saw that it was going to be over $100, I would have canceled it and gotten rid of it right away."
But the over-billing was just the tip of the iceberg: "The real problem is you get a person [at BellSouth on the phone]. Say his name is Michael. You tell Michael your whole problem. He tells you somebody is going to call you back so you hang up. Nobody calls you back. So you call that number again. Nobody knows who Michael is, so you get a new person and you have to start all over again and they are going to switch you to the supervisor, except they lose you so you call that [customer service] number again."
Patton wrote down the names of every person she ever talked to and logged how long each phone call took. Over the course of two months, she says, she talked to 13 different people and spent more than 15 hours on the phone. But nothing happened until she wrote the Better Business Bureau of Atlanta.
She got all her money back and then some.
"When I finally went to the BBB, I got credit after credit and ended up not having to pay for any of it," she says. "But they credited me with more than they should have."
For that reason, and partially out of fear of BellSouth, Ruby Ann Patton is not her real name.
BellSouth spokesman Joe Chandler pointed out that the company regularly receives awards for its customer service, including one shared with EarthLink for outstanding DSL service.
He also says, "I'd like to say to you, if we don't meet expectations of our customers, there's an indication that we need to focus on that a little bit more."
Maybe Burke and Patton shouldn't be so surprised. Personalized service has been going the way of the mastodon since well before Wal-Mart crushed its first mom-and-pop.
As acquisitions and consolidations became the law of the land, large corporations have raced to please shareholders. Maximizing profits now far exceeds what used to be a company's pride and joy: excellent customer service.
Says Banja, "A company that is just wildly profitable and wants to be more wildly profitable will justify all of that [acquisition and consolidation] by simply saying, 'We want to be not more profitable, but more competitive. We want to position ourselves better in the marketplace.' And unfortunately, that kind of peer-competitive marketplace ... doesn't bode well for good relationships."
Consolidation, in the guise of lowering prices for customers, is really just another word for no choice. "It's one of the great paradoxes of capitalism because you don't want monopolies," Banja says. "That's another interesting thing too because it's almost the case that these ISPs are monopolistic. The market doesn't have enough of them. What kind of alternatives do people have?"
EarthLink very well could provide the best Internet service in the country, as J.D. Power and Associates claims. But what does that say about the entire industry?
Here's another, more disturbing question: If you aren't an asshole to your customers, will you survive as a business?
Banja says the meaner you are, the better off the company's bottom line will be. "The corporate world is now all about chewing them up and spitting them out," he says. "So compassion and support and the old kinds of human comforts and human sensibilities that maybe our parents' generation and especially our grandparents' generation just took for granted, kind of are eroded in our society."
Besides decency, only weak laws and the threat of punishment keep businesses from screwing us over at every turn. The bad news is that there's little else to prevent the scams -- both legal and illegal -- that companies perpetrate these days.
Ultimately, there really isn't much recourse other than the Better Business Bureau and a few anemic public agencies like the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Consumer Affairs branch of the Georgia Public Service Commission. Neither the bureau nor the public agencies have the legal teeth to force companies to do right by their customers, and they can't prosecute or penalize companies when those companies are accused of rip offs.
When the Better Business Bureau hears from a consumer who has had a run-in with a company, it notifies that company about the complaint. The company typically responds by saying it's working with the customer, saying it already has resolved the issue or claiming there is no resolution to be found.
Some companies completely ignore the Better Business Bureau.
The state attorney general's office can prosecute companies for defrauding customers, but it usually goes after the big scams like fake Policemen's Ball charities and Ponzi schemes.
The Federal Communication Commission handles complaints dealing with telephone and Internet service provider issues. But even its hands are tied because of a lack of resources.
"At the federal level, typically no agency can help you out as an individual," says Tom Garman, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech University and author of over 20 books on rip offs and consumer protection.
"What you have here is a national cop in Washington, D.C., and we have maybe five large companies doing all this cramming and slamming, and no telling how many little companies. So, people complain to federal government -- 3,000 to 4,000 a month or even more -- and the FCC chases down the companies. They write a check to the federal government but the money doesn't typically go back out to the wronged consumers.
"And on the state level, they typically do have the legal authority to go after the bad guys. But what if it's just people duped out of $2 on their phone bill? [State governments] don't bother to cut a check for that."
The sad part, Garman says, is that there are no laws that make it illegal for companies to overbill or to continue charging customers for accounts that are supposed to be canceled.
"There's so many things that happen to consumers that you and I would say, 'Hey! That's thievery, that's terrible, there must be a law against that,'" Garman says. "Well, there's not. They go on and on and on, and there's very little negative consequences for the companies.
"It's a nasty world out there. You absolutely have to be a cynic today. If you are not, you are going to get ripped off again and again."
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