Yesterday, I checked my mail to discover that I had gotten dinged with a $400 overage charge by T-Mobile, which up until that moment and a subsequent ‘customer care’ experience, had been my favorite carrier. What was a simple, easily avoided, and easily fixed situation turned into one of those experiences that turns a loyal customer into someone who will switch providers at the first opportunity.
By now we are all familiar with the capped, faux-unlimited plans that the mobile operators offer (with the exception of Metro PCS, which offers a real unlimited plan for $40/month, but only in the SF Bay Area and a few other cities). They sell you bundles of minutes that look too big to use, but really aren’t, and then put the onus on you to know when you’ve gone over.
I’ve worked in telecom for most of my life, so I am wise to the tricks that these companies use to fleece customers. Let’s take T-Mobile, or any other cellular operator as an example. They use a variety of tricks that make it difficult for customers to keep track of where they are, and thus, make it easy for them to go over their limit, at which point, overage typically costs about $24 per hour.
Among other things: their billing cycles start and end on mid-way through the month (so you can’t keep easily track usage on a calendar or in your head); sometimes usage is updated on the website and elsewhere, sometimes not (some charges, though usually things like roaming, may not show up for days or weeks); and in general, they don’t make it easy even for experienced users to know when they are about to get dinged. I’ve used T-Mobile for years, and frequently use their #646# service to track my current usage, as I had been doing last month. It consistently reported that I was well under my limit for the month, so I didn’t worry about making domestic calls. I then received a bill that showed I was well over the limit, far beyond normal, which resulted in about $400 in overage charges.
I called ‘customer care’ and offered to upgrade to a higher rate plan for 12 months, if they would back date my current and previous bill so I would not have to pay these overage charges. Needless to say, T-Mobile was not very accomodating, never mind that I had been a loyal customer for years. All they did was tell me how they provide customers with tools to monitor their own usage, like #646#, which I told them I had already been using, and that misled me into thinking I was under my cap when I wasn’t. They didn’t listen, and persisted in explaining that it was all my fault, and no, there was nothing they could do. (I always hate it when a ‘customer care’ department says ‘we can’t do that’ when what they really mean is ‘we won’t do that’; can’t and won’t are different words and this is an instance where I am picky about proper English).
All of this got me to thinking about how often this must happen to less sophisticated customers, and how avoidable it is.
First of all, I think that these capped plans are fundamentally fraudulent because they lure customers into a sort of bait-and-switch as most people do not live by the clock, and they intentionally do not provide customers with tools that will prevent them from going overtime without realizing it. Here are two simple, and easy to implement solutions that would make this a non-issue.
First, mobile operators should be required by regulators to notify customers when they are overlimit, simply by sending an SMS or voice mail to the subscriber. “Hi, this is a friendly reminder from T-Mobile that you’ve used all of your daytime minutes, act now, and we’ll upgrade you to a premium plan with 2,500 daytime minutes for just $20 more per month.” The customer is clearly using your service a lot, so why not spare them the rude surprise _and_ give them an opportunity to buy up. It costs nothing to send an SMS on your own network. Piss that customer off enough that they leave and that will cost you thousands of dollars in lost business.
Second, they should also be required to play some sort of audio tone, to clue customers in that normal (e.g. unmetered) rates do not apply, such as when you’re over limit, calling an international number, etc. After the call is over, they can, you guessed it, send an SMS. “Hi, this is T-Mobile, did you know we offer ultra-low rates to Mexico if you sign up for our XYZ plan? Call 611 to learn more”. You guessed it, another way to spare a rude surprise _and_ sell something.
This is merchandising 101, and while I understand the mobile operators make a mint off airtime charges, this business is going to be replaced by flat-rate plans sooner or later. The carriers that figure this out, and stop dunning their best customers, are going to do very well. The carriers that try to milk a dated business model for all its worth may do well for a few more years, but when the tide turns, the ill will they’ve built up will outweigh whatever new stuff they come up with.
It pains me to say this because overall I think T-Mobile is one of the better companies, certainly better than other unnamed mobile companies whose customer service is so bad that it has caused visitors to their stores to snap and go on window smashing rampages. I know many people who have refused for years to even consider buying service from ____ and ____, and I don’t blame them. I was a customer of both ____ and ____ at one point, and would never send them a dime either.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I am skeptical that the carriers will get it right with dual mode cellular. In theory it is a good idea, but in practice, I expect most of them to try to have their cake and eat it too; by doing things like restricting customers to using only carrier provided wifi gear, charging users per minute for wifi calls, or just charging too much extra per month to make it worth the bother. We’ll see, maybe they will get it right, but I’ve seen enough examples of carriers of all types doing stupid things to maximize short-term profits at the expense of customer satisfaction.
Hopefully T-Mobile will pick up the clue phone and stop doing stuff like this. I want to like them.
But isn’t it sad that we measure these companies not by who we like most, but by who sucks least? By that measure, recent complaints aside, I still won’t switch back to ____ or ____, and will wait for a newcomer to offer a real flat-rate voice and data package, something like Metro PCS, but with wider coverage and GSM.