SLOBbery: the flip side

FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, September 5 -- One of life's most important lessons is that things are never black-and-white -- there are only varying shades of gray. And the minute you take a stand on one side of an issue, something turns up that makes you rethink your position.

My last column (It ain't easy being a SLOB!, August 10) argued that although it's nice to Support Locally Owned Businesses (SLOB), the big guys sometimes deliver the goods faster and cheaper than the local shops, and that if the locals want to stay in business, they need to find ways to attract and hold customers.

Well, sure enough, as soon as I go on and on about how locally-owned businesses (LOBs) aren't any better than big, impersonal ones, along comes a kick in the pants from a big, out-of-state-owned business that illustrates why they're not perfect, either. In the spirit of balanced journalism and full disclosure, I offer the following evidence against the big guys and in favor of the locals.

You can have any cable company you want, as long as it's us

A few months ago, Meg decided she was tired of downloading big files over a dialup modem and waiting forever for big Web pages to load. We'd seen these TV ads for ISP Channel, a broadband provider who had an arrangement with our local cable company, Flagstaff Cablevision, to provide high-speed Internet service through a cable modem. (At this point, because of the limitations of the cable infrastructure currently in place in our part of town, two-way cable modem communication is impossible -- you can download through the cable, but data going the other way still has to go over a phone line at dialup speeds.)

I've always felt that when cable TV was first widely implemented in the late '70s and early '80s, cities and towns across the country made a huge mistake: They'd put on a big dog-and-pony show before the cable contract was awarded, but then give a city-wide contract (i.e., a monopoly) to a single cable company. As a result, there was plenty of competition until the ink was dry on the contract -- after that, none. Instead of taking that approach, the cities and towns should have said, "OK -- we're going to split up the available channels among several cable companies and let individual subscribers choose which one they want to use." That way, if a cable company didn't provide good service, subscribers could switch to someone else. Unfortunately, that didn't happen -- the pattern, repeated over and over nationwide, was to grant a monopoly to a single provider. This is why everyone hates the cable company.

But I digress. Back in our apartment, Meg signed up for ISP Channel, and the cable company sent over a contractor (an amiable Australian guy) to install the cable modem, hook it up to her Macintosh, and get her on the air. Fine -- that part of the operation went without a hitch.

However, as time went on, Meg found that the cable-modem was an iffy proposition -- sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The mail server at ISP Channel was notoriously unreliable, and the throughput she got with the cable modem was often no better than that of a dialup connection. At around $40.00/month, Meg eventually decided it was something she could do without.

So awhile back, we pulled the plug -- I called up ISP Channel's customer service number and told them to cancel her account. They did so, and reminded me that I needed to unplug the cable modem and return it to Cablevision of Flagstaff, and that ISP Channel would keep billing me for its rental until I did.

If I'd been dealing with the local ISP, I'd have been able to talk to someone who had the authority to bend the rules and not worry about a 50-cent part.

When you cancel a cable modem ISP subscription, the way it works is that you have to get a receipt for the modem from the cable company, then mail or fax it to the ISP, to verify that you've returned it -- otherwise, they bill you about $300 for the modem. Last year, I got a bit of a runaround when I tried to return the cable modem from our old provider in Highland Park, IL. First, I tried to return it to the local cable company office; they said they couldn't take it and that I had to bring it to a regional office several towns away. I took it there -- they said they couldn't take it, either, and that I had to ship it to Denver or some such place. I didn't like that idea and called the company's national headquarters. After some hemming and hawing, they said I could leave it on our front steps, inside the vestibule, and they'd send someone by to pick it up. I wasn't too thrilled with this idea, because we were moving the same day, so we'd be gone before the pickup -- but rather than pay to ship and insure the modem, I decided to chance it and leave the thing in the vestibule. We never got a bill from them, so I assume they picked it up successfully.

Anyhow, to get back to the story, I admit that it took me awhile to get around to returning the cable modem -- truth be told, I forgot about it entirely until I got a bill from ISP Channel for the last couple of months' rental. Fair enough -- even though we weren't using the modem anymore, we still had it lying around.

So I unhooked the cable modem, wrapped it up in a bag with the power cord and a signal splitter the Aussie fellow had installed when he put it in, and headed for Cablevision's office.

You were supposed to know that!

I walked up to the customer service desk and placed the modem on the table, along with the signal splitter and power cord. Claudia, the customer service rep, said, "Sorry -- I can't accept the modem without the cord that plugs into the back of the modem." I'd forgotten -- or just not bothered, I'm not sure which -- to include this small item.

I replied, "Why not? That cord is an RJ-11 or RJ-45 or something -- it's a 50-cent part. The cable modem is the part that costs $300, and I've got it right here. Nobody said I had to bring back the little cable that plugs into the back."

Claudia stood her ground. "I'm sorry, but I can't take it. You'll have to go home and bring back the cable, before I can accept the modem and give you a receipt."

To make a long story short, after several minutes of unpleasant discussion, Claudia made it clear that she wasn't giving an inch on this one -- she addressed the customer behind me: "Sir, may I help you?"

OK, OK. I know when I'm licked -- I went home, found the silly little RJ-11 or RJ-45 or whatever it was, and brought it back. Claudia smiled, counted the items I'd brought, and accepted them -- with the exception of the signal splitter, which she said I could keep; I'm not sure why. She gave me a receipt for the items and sent me on my way. I photocopied the receipt and sent it to ISP Channel, along with a check for the final bill and a note saying, "Please close this account and don't bill us again!"

I thought rules were made to be broken...?

As a customer service rep myself, I suppose I should have known better than to expect Claudia to bend the rules for me -- if her boss had said that rules were rules and that she was not to write out a cable-modem receipt unless the RJ11 cable in question were included, well, her hands were tied. On the other hand, when I'm dealing with someone particularly difficult, I often bend the rules, on the logic that even if I have to swallow hard and be nice to someone who's being nasty to me, it pays off in the long run, because a satisfied customer is a repeat customer. Even if the guy's a jerk, he's still putting money in our pockets!

All of the above is to say that big, out-of-town businesses tend to be much less flexible, in dealing with their customers, than local businesses. Try to get into a big chain drugstore at 8:55, when it doesn't open 'til 9:00 -- no way is it going to happen. If it's raining, you'll stand out in the rain until 9:00. That's because the people who work there don't really care if you shop there or not -- and they're probably not even allowed to let you in early anyway, because of liability insurance regulations, company policy, or what-have-you. But I'm sure when my Uncle Nick had his old drugstore (see my previous column), he never left anyone standing out in the rain at 8:55. That's because he owned the place and could use his own judgment.

This little episode illustrates that big companies -- especially monopolies -- have a lot to learn about customer service.

Similarly, I'll bet dollars-to-doughnuts that had I been dealing with our local ISP instead of Cablevision and ISP Channel, this afternoon's modem-return wild-goose chase would never have happened. That's because I'd have been able to talk to someone who had the authority to bend the rules and take back the modem without the 50-cent cable. (More to the point, I suspect we'd never have cancelled the service in the first place, because they'd have been better at dealing with the technical problems we had; or at least they'd have been more sympathetic when we called to whine. With ISP Channel, when you call the customer support number, you get someone in California who has no idea why you're having problems in Flagstaff.)

When Meg and I went looking for a piece of property earlier this year, one of the advantages of the site we ended up with is that it's less than a mile from InfoMagic, the local ISP. If we have service problems, we'll be able to knock on their door and have a one-on-one chat with the guy who can help us. As a dialup ISP, InfoMagic's reliability is much better than that of the bigger providers I've tried. (And while we're at it, this Web site is hosted by a small provider that, although not local -- they're in Michigan -- answers support calls knowledgeably and provides near-100% uptime; they've been hosting us since early 1998, and during that time, I can only recall two outages of more than a few minutes' duration.)

One moral of the story is that we're going to think twice before signing up for a cable modem again. The service we had in Highland Park was very unreliable -- it used to go on the fritz at least once a week -- and here in Flagstaff, it was at least as bad, not to mention the fact that it only worked in one direction. But beyond that, this little episode illustrates that big companies -- especially monopolies -- have a lot to learn about customer service.

So there are two sides to the SLOB issue. Big companies often deliver the goods faster and cheaper -- but their customer service stinks. Competition is good for those of us on the buying end. Now, if only we had a locally-owned cable company -- or a phone company, for that matter. But that's another column....

Copyright © 2000 John J. Kafalas

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