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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.
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