Why cable, Internet and TV customer service sucks
Illustration by William V. Cigliano
Random outages that disrupt our Internet connection, interrupt a favorite television show or drop an important phone call. Agonizing calls to customer service representatives, whose promised fixes don’t materialize. A long wait for an Internet connection, erratic phone bills and surprise TV fees.
These customer service issues attract enough static from our members that Internet, phone and TV services annually rank among the most complained about categories on Angie’s List.
Nationally, Internet service ranked as the No. 2 most complained about category on the List in 2011, while phone services ranked No. 8. All three ranked among the top 10 in 2009 and 2010, according to member reports. And out of about 500 Angie’s List members responding to a recent online poll, 54 percent report having a poor experience with one of these services, with most complaining about technical difficulties, poor customer service and billing or fee issues. In addition, nearly 40 percent report spending more than $200 on their monthly bill.
Yet despite the issues, we continue to go back for more. According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 5,300 cable TV companies served 60 million customers in 2011. Satellite TV providers DISH Network and DirecTV claim nearly 24 million customers. More than 1,800 companies nationwide offer broadband, according to the National Telecommunications Information Administration. And the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry (CTIA), a nonprofit representing the wireless industry, reports more than 331 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. in 2011.
Can you hear me now?
Angie’s List member Betty Woodward of Deltaville, Va., says she continues to pay Verizon $140 a month for her landline and cellphone even though she gave the company’s Danville, Va., location a below average rating for poor service. “I only get [cellphone] service when I stand out in the yard,” she says. “Verizon is the best of the worst because we live in a ‘dead’ area for cellphone service. We use them simply because the service area for them is better than for most. But I’ve talked to customer service many times when problems come up and that’s where most of my frustration comes from. Their agents don’t always know what they’re talking about.”
Who provides your broadband service?
With more than 1,800 broadband providers nationwide, how do you know which companies service your area?
Visit broadbandmap.gov and type in your address for a list of local providers. Then be sure to check them on Angie’s List to see how they rate.
Verizon corporate spokesman Tom Pica says the company tries to meet the needs of customers by offering a variety of ways to report problems. “We encourage our customers to take advantage of all the customer support available to them from our network of Verizon Wireless stores to our online experience,” he says, noting that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all option. Pica declined to specifically address Woodward’s issue.
How to get the best deal
Experts say consumers need to do their due diligence before signing a contract and understand exactly which cellphone services, TV channels or Internet broadband speed they need. “Start the process by doing your homework and use every means possible to find out information about companies that provide service in your area,” says Regina Costa, spokeswoman for CTIA. “Obviously, people who have had experiences with this can post it on Angie’s List. Word of mouth is very important.”
Costa says consumers should focus on price, reliability and quality of service when comparing telecommunication companies. “The best price might not be the best deal if the service doesn’t work very well,” she says. It’s also important to thoroughly review the contract before signing it. “Your rights are right there,” says Patrick Deignan, spokesman for the Citizens Utility Board of Illinois, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of residential utility customers. “As boring as it sounds, read the fine print before signing. At the end of the day, you are your own best consumer advocate.”
Who’s got your back?
Consumer protections vary among states when it comes to Internet, phone and TV service providers. “For the most part, they aren’t regulated,” Costa says. “Or they’re regulated by the FCC, which doesn’t offer a lot of protection.” If the provider fails to address your problem, Costa suggests calling the public utilities commission, state attorney general or the local franchising authority (the government organization authorized by your state to regulate Internet, cable and satellite TV services).
Consumers can also file a free, informal complaint with the FCC. Customers not satisfied with the response of an informal complaint may file a formal complaint for $200, which starts a legal process that requires them to appear before the FCC. “The more of these types of calls they get, the more likely the states and FCC will take action,” she says. Calls to the FCC were not returned.
Costa points out that consumers hold little negotiating power when it comes to what’s included in the contract, so understand what’s in it. “You should demand, when you’re signing a contract, information on being able to cancel the service if it doesn’t work properly, and if it doesn’t work as advertised,” she says.
Member Stephanie Guttman of Tallahassee, Fla., learned how nonnegotiable some service contracts can be. After a doctor diagnosed her sister with cancer and she moved to hospice, Guttman called an 800 number for DirecTV to cancel the service. “They refused,” she says. “They kept referring to the contract and said ‘when she dies, come back to us.’” Guttman says repeated letters and phone calls to the company proved fruitless. “A contract that you cannot get out of for any reason seems absurd to me,” she says. “It’s not realistic and it makes me question their business ethics.”
Guttman says she finally posted a negative report on Angie’s List, and complained about DirecTV’s policy on Facebook. Within 30 days of those postings, DirecTV terminated the contract and credited her sister’s account. “I feel confident, with all the efforts I made, it wasn’t until I posted online that the problem got resolved,” she says. DirecTV corporate spokeswoman Meghan McLarty says supervisors typically waive service agreements and cancellation fees when a customer enters a hospice or a nursing home, but the agent who handled Guttman’s original call did not follow proper procedure. “We apologize for the inconvenience we may have caused Ms. Guttman or her family during this difficult time,” she says.
Deignan says social media often produces a more immediate solution. “Never underestimate the power of bad PR,” he says. “Your Twitter and Facebook posts tend to attract the company’s attention a lot faster than a phone call. If you’re having a real problem with a company, put it on their Facebook page. They’re going to want to address it quickly and help you resolve it.” Deignan also stresses the importance of being polite and persistent, regardless of how you seek resolution. “Being loud and rude doesn’t help.”
Mind your manners, please
Member Ray Lattof of Davie, Fla., says representatives who answered calls to AT&T’s 800 number are the ones who need to learn how to be polite: They hung up on him twice when he called to dispute unauthorized long distance charges on his landline phone bill. “I was utterly dumbfounded,” he says. “AT&T is such a worldwide business conglomerate. You just get a sense that the company has no priority on customer service at all.”
AT&T corporate spokeswoman Susan Newsham says AT&T places customer care high on its priority list. “We have apologized to Mr. Lattof for the inconvenience, answered his questions and found him a long-distance plan that better matches his needs,” she says. “Additionally, customers can get access to other support options by visiting [our website].” For instance, U-verse customers can utilize an interactive application to troubleshoot any problems, she says. “AT&T is committed to its customers, but if issues occur, please visit [our website] to get in contact with a support representative.”
Lattof, who filed an F report on the company’s poorly rated Miami location, says he’s still upset that AT&T charges him $4.77 a month for long distance calls as part of its minimum usage plan. “I will continue to be stuck paying a minimal charge for long distance, even when I make no long distance calls — and that is downright thievery,” he says.
Member Beth Holmes of Henderson, Nev., says she’s happy with her bundled Internet, TV and phone services from the highly rated Las Vegas branch of Cox Communications. “We use them because they have the best rating on Angie’s List,” she says. “We have no complaints.” The Atlanta-based company offers cable, broadband Internet and phone services to 6 million homes in 19 states. “Our goal is to be a friend in the digital age, helping our customers get the most value from their services,” says Scott Wise, Cox’s vice president of customer care.
The devil’s in the details
But Costa and Deignan recommend reviewing bundled packages with a critical eye before purchasing from any provider. “They usually start off at a really attractive price. Then they skyrocket, so be prepared,” Deignan says. Costa agrees. “You have to dig a little bit beneath the surface,” she says. “For instance, the quality of broadband service might not be as good from your telephone service as it is from your cable company.”
Member Kathy Frenklach of San Francisco says she bundled her Internet, cable and phone services through Comcast to reduce her monthly bill to $178, but she’s unhappy with the overall service she’s received from the Santa Clara location. “On weekends, I often cannot access on-demand movies,” she says. “When I call for help and give the error code as requested, the representatives can never help me with the problem.”
In response to Frenklach’s complaint, Comcast contends it’s made an effort to thoroughly educate its representatives and technicians. “We know that customers want things to be easy,” says corporate spokeswoman Jenni Moyer. “We’re making sure our agents have the tools and the training. The technician today compared to a tech 10 years ago is like comparing the Commodore 64 with an iPad. We’re continually working on making the experience better for the customer.” However, mistakes are inevitable. “Our goal is to get it right every time, but things happen,” she says. “And when they do, we want to quickly turn it around and fix it.”