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Originally published in SojoMail, the online magazine of Sojourners

After months of effective lobbying, my junior-high daughter finally convinced me that a cell phone would enhance her (and, as the persuasive argument went...my) life. No longer would I have the frustration of driving 15 minutes to pick her up from school only to find out that the time for basketball practice had been changed at the last moment. A cell phone would make our lives more "convenient." I'll save commentary on that saga for another column.

I'm more troubled at the moment with the way my cellular phone company deals with me. Come to think of it, I don't trust many companies with which I do business these days. Consider these recent incidents:

*When I added my daughter to my cellular phone plan, I did so under an offer for an introductory offer of several months "free" service. I got very busy the next month and just paid my cell phone bill without taking much time to look over it. The next month, I did read the bill carefully and discovered that it had no "free" period in it. So I took the time to call and wait on the phone for 20 minutes to talk to a customer service agent. The agent did not argue with me; of course I was right, and she redressed my billing over several months.

*I am a huge basketball fan. Last year I decided to sign up for a cable television service for a two-month period that included the NCAA college tournament (March Madness). The local cable company installed in my home a box in which the cable was transmitted. I paid more than 100 bucks for a deposit on the "box" in addition to a monthly service fee. My short tenure on cable confirmed once again that cable was a wasteland. I cancelled my service and returned the box to the local cable company. My cable bill came the next month with the previous month's service fee and a charge for the box. So I called the customer service number, waited 30 minutes, but with less success this time. The national company told me that I would have to work out "my problem" with the local representative. When I asked why it was my burden to facilitate billing with their own local office, they abdicated any responsibility. It took a visit to the local cable office and several more phone calls to the national headquarters before I could get the billing worked out.

In both of the above cases, the overcharge was sufficiently large to warrant an effort to change my billing. I regularly note disputable fees on my electricity, telephone, water, or credit card bills, but, frankly, I don't choose to waste the personal energy to resolve the issue. Challenging the fee is not worth the aggravation, and I just pay it.

Imagine the added revenue streams for companies when you multiply consumer passivity across a large customer base. I'm not an overly paranoid person, but I'm now suspicious that companies are, as a matter of policy, applying fees to a universal customer base whether those charges are merited or not. If the problem simply could be traced to the complexity of a large company billing a geographically dispersed mass of customers, why don't billing "errors" go both ways? When was the last time you were undercharged by your credit card company? Didn't think so. All too many corporations today send out this message: "We screw our customers and pass along the savings to you."

According to Business Week, newly designed fees will produce $100 million for hotels this year, $2 billion for banks, $11 billion for credit card companies - and an average of 20% extra on every phone bill. Case in point: When I checked out from my overnight at a hotel (national chain) in Monterey, California, last week, I noted a $10 "resort fee" added to my room charges. When I asked what my "resort fee" got me, I learned that it gave me access to its "health club" - a 10' x 10' room with a couple of exercise bikes and weight machines, which I didn't use - two water bottles in my room, and unlimited local telephone calls. In other words, I got ripped off about $8 for services I didn't use. But am I going to sit there and argue about it? No, because it's not worth the effort.

All the same, I'm getting tired of getting Washington-ed and Lincoln-ed (dollars, not cents) to death. There's a resentment percolating in me, Joe Consumer, and I'm ripe for a backlash. The average customer service call costs a corporation about seven bucks. The relative scarcity of people who do call in and challenge their bill make that a manageable cost. It's time to change the economics of customer service.

Ready, set, dial. I'll join you on hold.

David Batstone is author of Saving the Corporate Soul, a founding editor of Business 2.0 magazine, and current executive editor of Sojourners magazine, the 2003 Folio award winner of Best Spirituality magazine. For more info, go to http://www.davidbatstone.com


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