Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



July 22, 2004 -- This is a story about corporate bureaucracy, consumer-hostile policies and just plain, old-fashioned stupidity. And it's not about the big airlines.

I went into a Sprint store recently to upgrade the family cell-phone situation. My wife was on a Sprint plan in my name and I was with a different supplier. I thought a family plan with more minutes, one bill instead of two and other upgrades made all kinds of sense. (Chuckle…) I had this naïve thought that graduating from one Sprint phone to two, with better (and more expensive) phones, would be a slam dunk.

The sales guy was friendly. We settled on a plan with several extras, the same phone model for his and hers and, after some discussion, he came up with an approach to bring the price down to a palatable level. I wasn't interested in sending in for rebates or laying out hundreds of dollars.

The sales guy got on the phone to place the order after I had filled out a form so that my credit could be checked. I found this process irksome since I'd had the Sprint deal for three years with nary a problem. Then I had to fill out a second form, identical to the first, ostensibly to verify my finances for the second phone. Much conversation, vexation and even anger on our side of the phone. My sales guy was eventually joined by a saleswoman who announced triumphantly that my credit was good enough for five lines. But still there was no OK from the other end of the phone because I wanted my existing plan cancelled before I agreed to the new deal.

After two hours and 40 minutes I walked out, telling the clerk to call me when all is settled, which he did two hours later. My wife went in to pay for and pick up the phones, but she called me twice because of more petty issues. Among other things, the sales clerk I'd dealt with now wanted a photo ID and credit card from my wife before releasing the phones. I asked my wife to put him on the phone.

"Look," I said, "this has gone far enough. Give her the phones or the f-ing deal is off." She got the phones.

This is, after all, a petty tale. These cell-phone giants spend millions to promote their products and open call centers and retail stores. In the end, however, they've succeeded only in propagating a new adage: The customer is always wrong.

Think this tortuous saga is done? Think again. Chapter Two is about to unfold.

That night, we tried using the phones, both of them, several different ways. They seemed to be working fine. And here the irony begins to build.

The next morning, one of the two phones developed a peculiar quirk. It turned on, but only to something called the American Roaming Network. The voice robot said that the network will charge me $2.99 a call and $1.99 a minute or thereabouts. I'm steamed and I sure don't want to be charged for these excursions into roaming land.

I took the errant cell down to the Sprint store, which I have subsequently learned is actually a Sprint franchise operation. My sales guy was off for the weekend, but yesterday's good-for-five-lines woman was there. So was a supercilious young man, who may or may not have been out of his teens.

They examined the instrument. The diagnosis: "The system" was slow or down, thereby hampering the activation of the phone. That can't be, I explained patiently, the other phone is working and I'm perfectly capable of dialing in to the American Roaming Network.

The duo's advice: Just turn off the phone for an hour after we reprogram it and you'll be OK. They were both vague about the ovepriced carrier that the phone kept connecting to. So for the second time in two days I headed a few doors down for a heart-healthy sandwich, killed an hour and, presto! When I turned on the now reprogrammed and presumably healthy phone, I was still connecting into the American Roaming Network.

So back I went to the Sprint store. The phone was examined again, reprogrammed (again) and pronounced fit--if turned off for at least eight hours.

I went a step further: I kept the phone turned off overnight.

The next morning, Sunday, I turned the phone on, dialed a number and... I went back to the future, namely the American Roaming Network. I'm getting traumatized by these techie troubles as we embark on Chapter Three.

My next step was a call--on the other Sprint phone, which had been working all along--to the customer service number on the paperwork.

I got a guy in Texas who was incredulous at my problem. He tried to fix things from his end, to no avail. He had me take off the battery cover to seek an "ENS" number, but I couldn't remove the battery and I flunked out on the number. He was patient. I wasn't. Then he had me go through a series of endless numerical exercises on the dial pad. He called me. I called him, half a dozen times--and now the phone was working.

The guy in Texas said the malfunctioning phone was probably never programmed or reprogrammed. It was now an hour and a half later. He speculated that my problem may have stemmed from inexperienced--No Foolin'!--sales help at the Sprint store, not with the Sprint activation center. Sure. (In point of fact, I subsequently discovered that Texas guy was probably right. The American Roaming Network turns out to be a default for cell phones that have not been registered and activated on any carrier's roaming system.)

Chapters Four and Five are being combined for the sake of brevity and sanity. My just-cancelled single-phone account had been paid monthly via an automatic withdrawal from my bank. I wanted the same deal for the new contract, so I called customer service once more. This time it was a woman in New Mexico. She asked some questions and out poured my whole, sorry saga. She was surprised, shocked and atwitter.

She not only set up my direct pay, but she also reduced the bill I got at the franchise location from $134.56 to $85.53. And she assured me that the next or first new invoice would reflect that number. (And this didn't take more than 20 minutes.) However, when that bill came, it was predictably at the original, higher amount. I now patiently await an adjusted bill.

A footnote: The other day I received a phone call from Sprint wanting to discuss my phone call on July 2 to someone at Sprint. When I couldn't confirm the conversation, whichever one it was on that date, he hung up. You go figure.

What all this means is anybody's guess, except that the confusion and incompetence is staggering. Just as it is at the major airlines. And like air travel, cell phones represent a critical lifeline for the frequent business traveler. Yet the mantra of "service, service, service" apparently does not apply.

Copyright © 2001-2004 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.