The Moral Obligations Of For-Profit Companies: How Verizon’s Notification Process Is Your Problem (by Alexander Taub via Forbes.com)
If you’ve been following me on Twitter this past week you will have undoubtedly read my tirade about Verizon Wireless. I have been a long-standing, loyal customer of theirs for as long as I can remember, and the service they provide is usually excellent: calls rarely drop, customer service is helpful and supportive, and I still have unlimited data. That was until I received an email with my bill this month — for $661.14!
Last month’s bill was $198.15, so an added $463 took me by surprise. I called customer service and asked why the bill was so much over my typical amount. They told me that I used almost double my allotted minutes (that I share with my wife) and that the $463 was my overage fee. I asked why I had not been notified via email or text message that I was getting close (or in this case, going significantly over) to my plan limit. I had previously received notifications when my data plan had been close to the limit, which was the impetus for my switch to an unlimited data package, so I was curious why this wasn’t the case for minutes. I would have obviously upgraded my account and paid the $30 more a month to have unlimited calling.
My first approach was to place a call to Verizon to get this sorted out and have some of my questions answered. The customer representative over the phone took the stance that Verizon has no way to know if a customer is getting close to going over your minutes plan. But my consultation with a Verizon Support rep online proved the opposite: “It’s much easier to monitor call usage. The call time shows when you end a call.”
Confused, I ended up complaining and got the bill knocked down into the $500 range. I was still upset, so I did what any person between the ages of 18 and 34 would do when they are upset about a company, organization, ideology or just about anything else: I took it to Twitter.
I never thought I would say this but I’m really considering switching from verizon to at&t. I loved VZ but this is obscene @verizonsupport
— Alexander Taub (@ajt) June 15, 2012
I received some solid support from friends and followers. And my tweets did not go unnoticed: Verizon Support was very quick to respond to my issue. I got into a back and forth DM conversation with Verizon Wireless Support.
While on this topic, I want to just take one minute to talk about how awestruck I am at the use of social media to make a statement or have your voice heard. It is scary powerful. I only have 1,800 followers on Twitter, but I imagine that people with tens of thousands of followers can really make things happen when needed. This is an entirely different post, but this experience made me a bigger believer in the power of social media.
Although Verizon was gracious and reduced my bill further (taking the total down to $469.91, where it stands right now), they completely missed the bigger picture and overlooked the fact that they have a moral obligation to alert their users about overuse.
This issue extends to one of the biggest problems I have encountered with Verizon (and most carriers out there): traveling to other countries and your data plan. Do you know that when you bring your phone to another country and don’t switch your phone settings you will be charged for every email that attempts to reach your inbox? Yup. Most people learn this when they get an $800 bill in the mail. Carriers should notify users abroad that they are incurring costs on data: currently, they do this for phone calls overseas, but not data; instead, you get a text message saying “Hi, Welcome to ___. Phone calls are $__ per minute and SMS is $__ per text”. Better yet, if they were truly trying to do right by their customers, they should automatically switch the person’s setting so that they don’t incur the additional costs.
But I am not the only one who took to social media to get a message across. Another highlight of this public spat with Verizon is that I discovered a cool company, called PublikDemand.
From their site:
We’ve all been let down by a company’s customer service before. We’ve stood in line all afternoon at the airport to reschedule a cancelled flight. We’ve been put on hold for hours while trying to get a bogus charge removed from our wireless bill. Interacting with large companies is a frustrating and mind-numbing experience. PublikDemand is here to help. After being told “there is nothing we can do” and “I’m sorry that’s just our policy” one too many times, we started PublikDemand to help consumers get what they want. Use the power of the collective voice to be valued, respected, and heard. After all, corporations should work for you.
While I was on my tirade on Twitter, a good friend, Michael Levy, introduced me to the founder of PublikDemand, Courtney Powell. Our conversation struck a chord, and they immediately took up the case. I was impressed with their platform and by the scope of their reach. For the first time my wife was jealous that I had a bunch of followers on Twitter who I could drum up for support on virtually anything.
So that is the background on my issues with Verizon. My two arguments about the moral obligations of for-profit companies, specifically Verizon’s phone plan are:
1) If you have a plan for 1400 minutes and hit that number, the phone carrier should not allow you to make more calls! Unless you specifically need to make emergency phone calls, you should not be able to make phone calls after you have hit your limit. At minimum the carrier should at least notify you that you have used up your monthly minutes and ask if you want to buy more. That’s the moral thing to do; not letting you go over and charging you an obscene amount.
2) If carriers were moral and ethical (and cared about the best user experience, which I’m not even touching), they would send you a text message or email when you are within 100 minutes of using up your minutes plan. This would put the ball in your court. You can either risk going over your plan or you can upgrade to a higher package. In terms of what is needed technically, this is a 24 hour hackathon project, really there is no big technical hurdle to do this.
My goal in writing this article is to start a conversation about this issue and companies’ general moral obligations to their users. But it is also to demonstrate the magnitude effect of social media and having our messages heard.
I want to end with something I heard at the Union Square Ventures mobile app summit (for USV portfolio companies that I attended last week): in the age of Twitter and social media, it is difficult for bad customer service or unethical operations to stay hidden. If you are a company and people have issues with your service, customer support, hidden fees, etc., it will be found out. People have voices and opinions, as well as a forum through which to express them. In conjunction with organizations like PublikDemand that amplify these messages, there is no sweeping anything under the rug. This is the future.
Editors note: The reason for the overage shouldn’t really matter, but for full disclosure it has to do with a mix of two things- my grandmother passing away this month and starting a new job (and being a satellite office). These two things made me go way over.