Late last year, after months of problems with my internet service, I decided to fire Verizon and switch to Time Warner, which promised me seamless connectivity, phone service and cable, all at a good price.
Instead, I’m back with Verizon—not very happily—and without phone service for nearly two weeks. This is a story about lousy management and technology, deceptive marketing, misguided compensation schemes and the power of oligopoly. The silver lining—great low-level employees at both companies who tried to fix my problems and sometimes seemed as frustrated by their companies’ rules and systems as I was. (This is in keeping with other experiences I’ve had in which individual employees were almost never the problem–see my post on rental car companies.)
The story begins with Verizon, my long-time phone and internet provider. About three years ago, I also purchased a wireless device from Verizon Wireless, which cost an additional $60-or-so per month so that I would be covered when I travel and for the frequent occasions when Verizon’s DSL service is down. The device worked flawlessly until Verizon persuaded me to upgrade to a 4G device; in December alone, the company’s 4G network was down at least four times. The company claims that its service was “available approximately 99% of the time” in 2011; my experience does not support that claim.
Indeed, my problems with Verizon point to at least six major flaws in the quality of the company’s management and technology systems.
First, Verizon telephone service in my Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan is constantly having problems. I’ve lost phone service about half-a-dozen times in as many years; one of many Verizon repairmen to visit my house explains that the company’s underground wiring and networks need to be updated.
This December, even as I was trying to finish end-of-year assignments and do some holiday shopping online, I was hit with problems two and three– outages of my DSL service and problems with Verizon’s 4G wireless system.
It was during this perfect storm of internet failure that I discovered the fourth major problem with Verizon service. With both DSL and wireless on the blink, I tried calling Verizon’s technical service department only to learn that the company maintains two different teams of technicians—one for wireless and one for DSL. If you are unlucky enough to have problems with both systems, you need to call two different numbers, wait on hold (five to fifteen minutes each time) for two different sets of technicians. The technicians themselves, once I was able to get through, were without exception helpful, courteous and competent. In the weeks before Christmas, I spent about eight hours trying to resolve problems with two sets of Verizon technical support staff with two sets of service.
It was one of these wireless technicians who suggested to me that my problem might go beyond the failure of Verizon’s 4G system. The device itself—a small rectangular gizmo that sits on top of my computer and that was sent to me six months earlier with my 4G upgrade—might be flawed. And, he very kindly offered to send me another.
The only problem was that I was just days away from a working vacation and, for the first four days of my trip, there was no reliable place to send the new device. When I got to Sarasota, Fla, on the first leg of my trip, I drove by a Verizon store, thinking that I could just pick up a new 4G device. This is when I discovered the fifth major problem with Verizon customer and service quality. The manger at the Verizon store explained to me that he could not give me a device at the store because those devices are new and the replacement that Verizon would be sending me for my six-month old lemon was an old refurbished device. But, he suggested, not very helpfully, that I could always go to a Starbucks to use wireless until I am in a place long enough to get delivery of a new—or should I say used—4G device.
Meanwhile, my family was up in arms. For my daughter, who is about to apply to college, poor internet service was contributing to the stress of finishing her junior year at a very competitive high school. On the recommendation of my tech-savvy next-door neighbor, I decided to fire Verizon and switch to Time Warner, our cable provider.
The cable company promised—in what I have concluded was a case of deliberate deceptive marketing—to solve all my problems. In my initial phone call, a Time Warner salesman persuaded me to sign up for Time Warner’s Signature service, which promises cable, phone and internet plus premium 24-hour customer service for $199, more than double the company’s $99 promotion for the three services alone. But, given my limited technical skills and the problems that internet outages had caused me and my daughter, I decided to pay for the premium service. My salesman also promised that Time Warner would provide seamless wireless throughout my house—even after I explained how the thick walls in our building had proven a problem thus far. To ensure that the service was properly installed, he explained, a technician would phone me within 24 hours to get information about the configuration of our home and cable.
By the next day, I knew Time Warner wasn’t going to be the perfect solution to my connectivity problems. Twenty-four hours passed and the promised call from the technician never arrived. I placed a total of four calls to Time Warner during the week leading up to the day when Time Warner was supposed to install my service. I received just one message back—and that was left on my home phone even though during every conversation with Time Warner—including the one with the salesman who sold me the service—I told them to call my cell phone where I’m most easily reachable.
The day of my appointment, the technician had barely stepped over my threshold when I concluded that Time Warner might not be a solution at all. When I told him that I had been promised seamless wireless service throughout my house, the young man’s near-perfect poker face couldn’t disguise the fact that he’d heard this one before.
“No m’am,” said the young man, who told me his name was Ray and who was unfailingly polite during the entire three hours he would spend at my home trying to solve my connectivity problem. “We can’t give you seamless wireless service.” The walls are too thick and the configuration of the house will not allow it, he explained. I would need to buy repeaters and hope for the best.
Why did Time Warner promise they could do so? And why did the promised call from a technician not come through?
I was putting Ray on the spot, and he clearly did not want to impugn his employer. But during several hours I spent with Ray, his supervisor who phoned every 10 minutes or so–to make sure the sale went through–and other Time Warner representatives I spoke to on the phone in the week leading up to Ray’s visit, I pieced together the following: Time Warner technicians are NOT paid on commission; but, in my experience, they are thoroughly professional and do their level best to get the technology to work. The salesmen, and possibly the technicians’ supervisors, ARE paid on commission; and, they will say almost anything to make a sale, even if it costs customers and the company time and money.
Here’s what happened at my house: Not being avid TV watchers, we do not have cable in several rooms, including my home office. Roy figured out that he could set up a modem in my daughter’s room and it would cover my office as well. But, then, he explained that the phone service would also run via cable and I would have to rely on the modem in my daughter’s room, one floor down, to operate the phone in my office.
“Might I have problems with my phone service?” I asked Ray.
“It should work,” he said. But he would not promise that I might not occasionally have problems during periods of peak usage.
I had started this process with poor internet service. I was now facing the prospect of imperfect internet service plus possible problems with my phone. Moreover, when I asked Ray’s supervisor why I had been left on hold for 20 minutes during my last call to Time Warner, when I was trying to find out why I had never been called back by my set-up technician, he explained that my “Signature” service had not yet kicked in. So, even while Time Warner was trying to conclude a sale—and Ray and his supervisor spent nearly three-hours trying to figure out how to make the service work in my home—the company doesn’t allow new customers access to the “signature” service they have signed up for during the critical start-up phase.
At the end of the day, Ray and I shook hands. And I said goodbye to Time Warner. Oh, they will still provide my basic cable service. But for phone and internet, I am back with Verizon.
Or at least, I think I am. The night Ray left, I got an email from Verizon giving me seven days to restore my service. I called immediately and the Verizon technician I spoke to said that I could get my service back—but the earliest appointment he could give me was 10-days later. In the meantime, I would be without my home phone service.
Here’s what I learned. Both Verizon and Time Warner are doing a good job of hiring and training phone and technical personnel; during my technical travails, I spoke to over two dozen low-level employees at both companies. They were all terrific.
But, Verizon is either expanding too quickly or not investing sufficiently in its existing networks, or both. Moreover, the different parts of the company—Verizon wireless, phone and DSL service and its retail stores—don’t communicate; the company is not run as a seamless system.
As for Time Warner, it should probably stop paying those commissions. The best service I got from Time Warner was from low-level personnel and technicians who are NOT given incentive pay. Either the commission-system leads employees to promise what the company can’t deliver or the company encourages its sales personnel to make a sale at any cost.
The experience also left me with some questions: For example, is there really no wireless technology that would allow a cable company to run reliable virtual connections a few feet away from its physical cable—as a way to solve the connection problems in old buildings (without the costly expense of cutting into walls)?
My unhappy experience trying to switch providers reinforced my conviction, which I learned from W. Edwards Deming, that the answer to quality service is well-thought out systems and processes. Individual bonuses and incentives, as Deming pointed out, only cause problems. It also left me wondering about our telecommunications oligopoly. I was that rare consumer who was very upset when AT&T was broken up in 1982; whatever else you might have said about the old AT&T, it had a culture of customer service that dated back to Theodore Vale’s conviction that it could only protect its position as a telecommunications monopoly by providing first-rate customer service and infusing the company with a culture of professionalism and quality. Not surprisingly, one of the first and, to this day, most respected thinkers on leadership, Chester Barnard, was a life-long senior executive at AT&T.
Today’s telecommunications oligopoly offers neither real competition nor a culture of customer service and quality.