November 25, 2003

The black art of fleecing your customers

Author: Joe Barr

The facts of this story are true. It describes an outage on my TimeWarner RoadRunner account that occurred November 21, 2003. Only the names of various TW employees (except for Peter Gregg's name, which is real) and a bit of my dialog has been changed. I put no words into the mouths of TimeWarner employees. During the course of the outage, I was told everything you read here by at least one TimeWarner employee.

Part 1 - 11:00AM Friday, November 21

"Hello, this is TimeWarner RoadRunner. My name is Darryl. How can I help you today?"

"Hey, Darryl. This is Joe Barr. My RoadRunner is dead."

Darryl got my phone number and pounded away at his keyboard for a minute. Then he was back to inform me that he didn't see any outages in my area.

"That's fine," I told him. "I am reporting one. I just got home and my RoadRunner cable light is out. The line is down."

"Have you powered down your modem?" Darryl asked, obviously oblivious to everything except the script in front of his nose.

"Yes, but the cable light never comes on," I answered, thanking my lucky stars that I knew the script he was working from probably at least as well as he did.

"How about your PC?" Darryl asked, "Have you powered it down, too?"

This is the new sucker-punch question. If you haven't, they won't help you. It's good-bye and good-night as far as they're concerned. I had fallen for it during a previous outage, but not this time.

"Oh, yes," I lied, "I'm no noobie at this, you know. I sometimes shut that sucker down in the middle of whatever I'm doing just to show it who's boss. Sometimes I sneak up on it and shut it down when it's not looking. But anyway, that is the very next thing I did after I powered the modem down. I shut that sucker down so Windows could heal itself. But this time, at least, it looks like Windows was not the problem." I lied about running Linux, too, so as not to take any unnecessary risks.

Truthfully, I have no idea if that bit of idiocy that has become a part of the TimeWarner "technical support" rap-sheet is to cure a FUBARed Windows box or not, but it sure sounds like it to me.

"OK, then," Darryl said, "We'll need to schedule a technician to come out there and check."

"Great!" I said. "When can I expect him to be here?"

"Monday afternoon," he beamed.

"But it's Friday morning! What am I supposed to do until then?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I'm trying to help you. We need to schedule an appointment for you so a technician can come out and see what's wrong."

"I know what's wrong. You're a cable company. Your cable isn't working. Why can't you just send somebody out to fix it?"

"Please don't raise your voice, sir. We don't have any reports of outage in your area, sir. If we did, we could get someone out there sooner."

"How many people have to report an outage before you do anything about it?" I asked.

"Five, sir."

"Let me speak to your supervisor!" I demanded. I was hoping against hope that I could negotiate a better response time than three days.

"Yes, sir. I'll be happy to set up a call-back for you."

"A call-back? Why don't you just transfer the call to him? His name is Peter Gregg."

"I'm sorry, sir. That's not within our capability. All I can do for you is to schedule a call-back."

"But I need to use the phone line in order to access the Internet since RoadRunner is down," I ranted, "He'll never be able to reach me. Why do you insist that I have to take my telephone line out of service in order for you to fix your damn cable?"

"I'm sorry," Darryl mumbled. "It's all we can do."

"Are you chained to your desk, Darryl? Why can't you get up off your ass, walk over and tap your supervisor on the shoulder, and tell him I want to talk to him?" I demanded.

"Sir, if you don't watch your tone of voice and your language, I am going to have to disconnect this call. I've told you I cannot do that."

"Darryl, what would you do if your head caught fire and exploded? Would you be able to stand up and go put it under a faucet, or would you have to sit there, put in for a call-back, and wait for a supervisor to come back from break?"

Darryl hung up.

Part II - 1 PM Friday, November 21

"Hello, this is Gloria. How can I help you?"

"I want to speak to Peter Gregg or an equivalent supervisor. One was supposed to call me back, but never did."

Gloria checked my phone number and said she would try. A minute later she was back. "I'm sorry, sir, neither supervisor is available to take your call."

"Gloria," I asked, "do you have a media relations department? I'm writing a story about the kind of tech support you get from TimeWarner RoadRunner. And how it's apparently impossible to speak to anyone that knows anything about fixing a problem."

"I'm sure we, do," Gloria said archly, "but I have no idea what their number is."

"OK, Gloria," I said, desperately trying to think of some way to spur her to action. "Look, you're a cable company. You've got a cable down. I can see it. There must be somebody in your company -- anyone at all, supervisor or not -- who has the first clue about fixing it. I would like to speak to someone like that."

"You are speaking to someone like that, sir" Gloria bristled.

More on page 2...

"Fine. Then why don't you test the line to see where the outage is?" I asked.

"The modem needs to be online, sir. Our equipment can't tell anything if it can't speak to your modem" Gloria responded.

"You don't have any equipment to tell you when lines are down?"

"The technicians in the field do, but we don't here. Not when we can't see the modem."

"You don't have any routers between where you are and my house?" I asked.

"Of course we do, I could ping the routers but that still wouldn't tell me if the line was down or not."

I decided not to pursue that. I mean, if the line is down they won't be able to see the modem, and if they can see the modem, the line is not down. It made me crazy thinking about discussing it. I moved on.

"Well, Gloria, do something. Waiting until Monday to even look at the problem is not acceptable."

"Alright, what number do you want the technician to call you on?"

"The usual one," I said. "But I am leaving for San Antonio at 4 PM."

"They won't come out there if they can't reach you on the phone," Gloria said.

"I see," I said, although I really didn't. "Let me see if I have this straight.

"1. The cable is down. It doesn't work. But that doesn't matter unless four other people report it too.

"2. You can't see my modem so you can't test the line to see if it's up or down.

"3. I can't use my phone to access the Internet because supervisors are not allowed to speak on the phone except-and-only-if-and-when the ritual of the call-back is observed.

"4. And now, you're going to send a technician out on an emergency call. But he's not going to come because I won't be here.

"Is that about right, Gloria?"

I hung up.

Part III - 3:30 PM Friday, November 21

"Hello, this is Joe Barr."

"Hi, this is Mike from TimeWarner. You asked for a supervisor call-back?"

"Yes, my cable is out. I would like it fixed."

"We have an emeregency ticket on that, a technician will be out today," Mike said.

"But I'm leaving for San Antonio about 4 PM, and I'm told he won't come out here if I'm not here."

"We'll tell him 'no customer contact.'"

"And he will come whether I am here or not?"

"Yes."

"That's great. Thanks. Now, Mike, let me ask you something. Is it true that you can't tell if there is a line down or not until the technician gets here?"

"We show 154 customers on the line you are on. We cannot see the modems on 11 of those customers. We can see all the rest."

"So it's not a big outage?"

"Right."

Just before 4 PM, I happened to look out and see a TimeWarner technician on the pole near my driveway. I walked over and asked him what he had found.

"Oh, a fuse blew out over there," he said, nodding back down the driveway towards a new neighborhood on the other side the county road. "It knocked out everyone who lives in this area." I told him I had to be leaving soon and wouldn't be able to tell him if it worked or not when he was done. He said that would not be a problem, he was sure the repair would fix it. I asked if it were a big enough outage to warrant continual attention until it was resolved. He said, "Yes, if three or more customers complain about the same issue it's treated as an outage."

I returned home at 9 PM that night. Cable TV was back. RoadRunner was back. There was a call on my answering machine from TimeWarner. It had come in about 5:30 PM, and they said to call them if my service was not working properly now.

So what, you ask?

What's the point of this rant? Believe me, the point is not just to make a few TimeWarner RoadRunner employees look silly. The point is that TimeWarner, like many (if not most) other ISPs, is more skilled at selling false promises of reliability and support than it is at delivering them.

What is the deal with that script ensuring the vict^H^H^H^H customer has powered his PC off and on? Is it simply a substitute for the old "What does your modem init string look like?" that AOL tech support got a black eye for during the '80s? Or is it really the best cure for problems in Windows? I find it bizarre that RoadRunner customer support won't help you if you say you haven't done it.

In many areas, TimeWarner has a monopoly on broadband Internet service. Monopolies are like the phone company and Microsoft in one important regard when it comes to customer service: they don't have to care if their customers are happy or not.

TimeWarner RoadRunner is sold to unwitting consumers with the full expectation that it will be supported. Waiting three days to determine if there is a problem and what to do about it does not qualify as support -- not even with outsourced-to-India support reps. But if I had not called in several times after the initial report, and if I had not continued to call in after having been hung up on more than once for demanding immediate repair, and for demanding to speak to a supervisor, then in all likelihood I would have remained disconnected from the Internet until sometime Monday. That's when my "appointment" with a technician was scheduled.

Sadly, this is not atypical customer support in the computer industry these days. The discipline has been in a steady state of diminishing value ever since Microsoft started making customers pay for their own phone calls for the privilege of sitting in a hold queue while they waited for someone to tell them to reboot and try it again.

I'm picking on AOL and Microsoft because they have both earned red belts in the black art of fleecing their customers. Remember Steve Case and company selling way more service than they could deliver? Hey, who cares? It's only consumers being hurt and our bottom line is looking much better as a result. But the problem is much more widespread than just those two firms.

I'm not sure of the legalities of this sort of behavior, but I'm sure of one thing. Those responsible shouldn't be held up and worshiped as leaders in the business world: they should be horse-whipped in public like common thieves. Unfortunately, here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, corporations seem to be immune from the laws that control the behavior of ordinary citizens.

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