A true outrage: marginalizing the poor with lousy customer service

A recent Daily Kos article exposes a very disturbing move by a company called Cable One. From the article:

Cable One considers people with low scores — which can result from late payment, unemployment, a bounced check, or even erroneous credit reporting — to be “hollow value” customers. That means they are not likely to purchase additional products and services from the company (also known as “upselling”); for example, premium movie channel packages or higher speed internet connections. As such, the “hollow” customers don’t merit help with problems and issues because it is an expense, rather than a potential increase in profit, for the company.

The article goes on to say how customer service costs are part of the monthly cable bill, as opposed to being a separate line item. This means, in effect, that the customers with low credit scores (and in most cases, probably lower incomes as well) are not getting the full value of what they have paid for.

If there’s ever been a more outrageous act by a large company, whether a cable TV/internet provider or otherwise, I have yet to see it. That Cable One even thinks that customers’ credit scores are their business on an operational level, outside of things like calculating a deposit requirement to establish or maintain service, is shocking enough. Using it to determine who gets better customer service? That’s insane, and crosses all sorts of moral and ethical lines.

And soon, it might actually be illegal. The FCC is intending to apply Section 222 of the Communications Act to cable companies. Currently, as written, the law is written to apply to “telecommunications carrier(s)” which it would appear was intended to include only telephone companies as of the time the law was written (prior to deregulation, when cable companies could not sell phone service and the phone companies of the day could not sell multichannel video service (cable television)).

However, some interpretations of the definition of “telecommunications” and thus “telecommunications carrier”) would seem to include Internet services as well, especially in light of the fact that it is now feasible to offer phone service over the Internet (voice over IP, or VoIP). I certainly read “telecommunications” as essentially defining the Internet as well as traditional telephone-based services. (Of course, the cable companies will vehemently disagree, because then that means Chapter 222 applies to them, which squashes the shenanigans such as Cable One’s.)

Here’s hoping sanity prevails going forward. The prospect of having to deal with intentionally lousy customer service from my Internet provider is quite unsettling. It’s about just credit scores today, but who knows about tomorrow if the FCC can’t apply Section 222? I’ve written some unflattering things about Comcast in the past. AT&T has also wound up in my crosshairs on a couple of occasions. Right now, these two companies are the main two options for internet access in most of Houston and the surrounding areas (even the Google wi-fi at Starbucks appears to be routed via Comcast and not Google’s own fiber). And no, I’m not going to just shut up about the screwups of Comcast and AT&T. Were I to do so, that would basically be acquiescence to corporate tyranny.

Left in the dark: Reliant drops the ball

If you live in any of the areas in Texas where electric utilites have been deregulated, you have probably heard of and may even be a customer of Reliant Energy. And you’ve likely seen the TV commercials where they poke fun at “Power Incorporated,” a fictional too-big-to-care retail electric provider. As alluded to on a recent post to my other blog, Quinn’s Big City, we (my mom and I) were suddenly left in the dark by a customer service blunder, where none other than Reliant plays the part of “Power Incorporated.”

It all started in the middle of my afternoon nap on February 21. I heard the computer in my room switch off shortly after noon, which was a bit unusual, but I figured it was electrical maintenance in the area, or a blown transformer, or something of that nature.

Fast forward to 4 pm or thereabouts. We are still without power. I send mom a quick text message asking if she knew why we’d be without power. While waiting for her response I call Centerpoint (the utility company which handles outage reports and actually maintains the wires on behalf of the retail electric providers; I’ll try to explain this in comments if I’m confusing anyone). Of course, Centerpoint proceeds to tell me it was a disconnect ordered by Reliant, which I confirm by noticing a red seal on the electric meter.

We find out later that Reliant had been sending the bills to an address where we no longer were receiving the mail for (specifically, a townhouse that had been sold months ago). Apparently, instead of asking if the billing address was current, the customer service representative at Reliant that handled the activation just used the address they had on file from the last time my mom was their customer, assuming it was still valid. That, folks, is Reliant’s “Power Incorporated” moment. It takes only a few seconds to ask “what’s your current billing address, is it still 123 Elm Street or should it be the new service address at 4567 Apple Drive?”

To their credit, Reliant did own up to their screw-up and our lights were turned back on later that evening (we were originally told they would not be back on until the next morning), turning a near-disaster into a slight inconvenience. My concern remains, though, that this could easily happen again to someone else. It’s only common sense to make sure the address is still valid–especially when the computer database’s “last updated” date for a customer’s address is years into the past, as it was in this case. (If they are keeping the address, certainly they know when it was last updated, and if nothing else, know when this customer last had service through their company. If not, of course, that’s an even bigger problem.)