A Different Sort of Internet Poker

Image by puck90

If you’re playing a poker game and you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.
—Paul Newman

I just completed a little game of Poker with my local broadband Internet monopoly (who shall remain nameless). It all started when I had to cancel one of my credit cards due to some fraudulent charges I discovered (Hooray for Mint.com!). I had a number of auto-bill arrangements set up on the card with various companies, and updated my info with most of them, but, regrettably, I forgot about the cable company. When monthly bill time rolled around and their automatic charge failed, they were kind enough to inform me of the oversight, but not before slapping me with a $50 “returned payment” charge.

Why would they do such a thing to a loyal customer of several years, who had always payed his bills on time? The simple answer: because they can. They’re a monopoly, after all. If I want cable Internet service, I’ve got a Hobson’s Choice. (Sadly, FiOS is not available in my neighborhood.) So, I might as well just suck it up and pay up, right? After all, they hold all the cards.

Or do they?

Déjà Vu

The thing is, I had been down this road with the big, mean cable company before — several times, in fact, most recently when they tried to charge me $100 for a service visit when both the person I spoke with on the phone and the technician who visited my house repeatedly assured me I would not be charged. It has always followed pretty much the same script.

I called them up, and got a representative on the line. Here’s how the conversation went:

Rep: What can I help you with today?

Sean: I see a returned payment charge has been added to my bill. I’d like to have it removed, please.

Rep: Let’s have a look. Yes, I see here your credit card company rejected your last bill payment, so you incurred a returned payment charge.

Sean: Yes, I understand. The thing is, I had to cancel my credit card because of some fraudulent charges. I will be happy to update my billing information as soon as this charge is removed.

Aha! It seems I had a card or two after all. If they wanted to collect my outstanding balance, they’d have to work with me. Unfortunately, what followed was no surprise.

Rep: I’m afraid I’m not authorized to do that, sir.

Sean: I see. Well may I speak to someone who is authorized to handle this?

Rep: You can speak with my manager, but he will only tell you the same thing. He isn’t authorized to do bill adjustments, either.

Sean: So there is no one I can speak with who can help me with this?

Rep: No, sir, I’m afraid not.

Horse hockey. I happen to know for a fact that this is false (as you will soon see). All I could think was, “Oh geez, they’re not going to make me go through this song and dance again, are they?”

Sean: Ok. Well please put me on with your manager, then.

Rep: Ok, sir, just a minute.

(2 minutes of Muzak later)

Manager: Hello, sir, how can I help you?

I then proceeded to have pretty much the exact same futile conversation with the manager that I’d had with the rep. Hopeless, right?

You Have More Power than You Think

Let’s pause for a moment here and consider. I don’t watch TV, so we’re just talking about my home broadband Internet service. But that’s pretty much an essential service nowadays, right? After all, the Internet is where I earn my living, get most of my entertainment, and keep in touch with my social circle. I need my Internet connection, right? Just imagine how awful it would be if I lost it.

Well let’s actually imagine it. I could take my laptop to the local library or coffee shop and get free access there when I need it. It would be inconvenient, but it would also get me out of the house. Not so terrible. Or, I could get satellite Internet. Slower and more expensive, but it’s an option. I could even talk my neighbor into sharing her connection with me in exchange for splitting the bill (Hmmm! I might just have to consider that idea, current situation aside!)

So when it comes right down to it, if I’m going to be perfectly honest with myself, I don’t really, truly, strictly need cable broadband service. And do you know what that means? That means the big, mean cable company can take their monopoly and stick it.

Back to my conversation:

Sean: Let me ask you something. Let’s say I had accidentally pulled out my old, canceled card and tried to use it at the gas station. Do you think it would be reasonable for them to charge me $50 for the failed charge?

Manager: Sir, our subscriber agreement says…

Sean: Never mind the subscriber agreement. I’m sure you’re correct. I’m just asking you a simple question. Would it be reasonable for them to charge me $50?

Manager: It depends on their policy, sir. I can’t comment on other companies’ policies.

Sean: Well I don’t think it would be reasonable at all, and I don’t believe it’s reasonable for you to do so, either. I don’t do business with companies with unreasonable business practices. So if you’re going to insist on charging me this fee, I’ll pay it, but it’s the last $50 you will ever collect from me.

Manager: I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not authorized to remove the fee.

Sean: Alright, then cancel my account, please, effective immediately, and send me my final bill.

There’s a mountain of chips on the table, and I’m all in. But I am confident knowing that I don’t truly need these guys. They, on the other hand, do need reliable customers who pay their bills on time every month for years on end. That’s why I know precisely what’s coming next.

Manager: Very well, sir, if you wish to cancel, I will transfer you over to the retention department.

(More Muzak)

The retention department? I just asked to cancel my account! I should be transferred to the cancellation department, not the retention department! But of course I knew this would happen. Like I said, I’ve played this game before.

The retention representative came on the line, and like always, she had a much more soothing, friendly tone of voice than the others, and was far more helpful.

Retention rep: Hello, sir, I understand you have requested to cancel your account. May I ask why?

Sean: Well I was assessed a $50 returned payment fee. The thing is, I had to cancel my credit card because of some fraudulent charges. I don’t think charging me $50 is reasonable.

Retention rep: That’s perfectly understandable, sir. I can have that removed for you.

No one is authorized to remove the charge, eh? Like I said, horse hockey. I still wasn’t quite done playing my hand, though.

Sean: Well that would be helpful, but I’ve had to spend nearly 20 minutes on the phone, here, and this is the third time I have had to waste my time having unreasonable or mistaken charges removed.

Retention rep: I’m sorry to hear that, sir. You’ve been a very good customer. I see you’ve been with us for three years, and kept your account current the entire time. How about I credit you for one month’s service for the inconvenience?

Sean: Alright. Remove the charge and credit me for a free month, and I will update my payment details.

Retention rep: Ok, sir, that’s done. Is there anything else I can help you with?

The big, mean cable company folded in the end.

Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down

There are two lessons to be learned, here. First, apathy is expensive. That’s why it’s essential to track every single penny of your spending every month. That used to be a serious hassle, but nowadays, with free services like Mint.com, it’s quite easy. You need to watch your statements like a hawk, not just for fraud, but for sneaky hidden fees. That goes double if you use automated billing.

Second, you really do have more power than you think. Lots of companies will treat you poorly if you let them get away with it. Don’t. Just about anything is negotiable if you’re willing to make the effort, so don’t lie down for unreasonable fees from your cable company, bank, brokerage, or anyone else. If a company absolutely refuse to remove the fees, take your business elsewhere. There’s almost always an alternative, even if that alternative is simply doing without.

Of course, don’t expect this sort of result if you have a habit of paying your bills late. Chances are they’ll call your bluff.

8 Comments

  1. FreeUrChains

    Great Article. I personally will have to try this in the future if something similar happens to me!
    I like your website, and I loved your guest articles at MMM.
    Keep up the great times and always have fun with everything you do!

    From a new subscriber/follower

  2. Sean Owen

    Thanks!

  3. Varun Batra

    I’m also a new reader of your blog and I’m already fascinated by your wisdom and how well written your posts are. Please keep them coming because your posts are very helpful to me in regards of wealth and everything else.

  4. C40

    For many companies (big ones), you can often search online and find the direct number to their retention department, and call them right off the bat. Skip right to the people who can do what you want.

    When I wanted to negotiate a lower cellphone contract, I found the Sprint rention number, and called them saying I needed a lower rate or I would go to another carrier. The first 5 or so times I called they said they couldn’t do anything, so I’d say I need to think about it a bit before actually cancelling. The 6th or so person I spoke to gave me what I wanted. In poker terms, this is similar to bluffing. But there’s no one to call you out on it when you can just say “nevermind”.

    • Sean Owen

      Nice – I had no idea you could just call the department directly. That would save a lot of time and annoyance.

  5. Jennifer

    And if you can’t call Retentions directly, you can simply ask for them. I will usually ask for Retentions instead of a manager or supervisor because they are really the only people with authorization to do helpful things at most companies.

    • Sean Owen

      It seems that “retentions” is the magic word. I will certainly try that next time!

  6. I too need use the web for almost everything these days. I no longer watch tv on a tv and I use it for work too. So I do understand your pain if there are problems.

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