Sunday, March 29, 2015

AT&T Calling

It's that time of year again. You know, when you're fed up with your phone/internet/cable company because your guaranteed low price suddenly doubled, or worse. Oh yeah, you realize, it was a contract. So you look online or open your mail to discover that new customers can get a low, low rate. But you don't qualify, because you're already a customer.

Your choices:
1) Throw a tantrum, if public, this may get you some sympathy
2) Go on social media to complain, only to be spammed by the company who want you to call them
3) Chat with a rep who will only be able to give you a few dollars off a month
4) Sit on the phone for an hour while you are transferred from one part of the company to another, getting more and more angry about the value of your time, though in the end you get a substantially lower rate

With approaches 3 & 4 you'll have to endure hearing repeatedly from them how important customer loyalty is and how much they appreciate your business. When you tell them that you struggle to see that appreciation given the inflated prices you are charged, you get the company line: the good rate you were initially given, the reduced rate you had last year (when you went through the same aggravation), was a gift but that gift has ended; after all, they couldn't give you that deal every year. Why not you wonder, but don't bother asking because this call has already taken too much of your time and you wonder whether any meager savings is really worth your time and frustration anyway.

And why do I do this every year? I ask myself that repeatedly. My savings is typically $100-240 for the year, not exactly an enormous sum in the current economy, nor much of a savings overall. I rarely get the equivalent of what new customers get. Though sometimes, when I get the right level of employee, they have the power to make that happen when I threaten to take my business to the competition.

I may be overstepping here, but all of this rings of dystopia to me. I know, I know, I'm prone to this perspective. But I've been dialoguing with a university literature class recently about dystopias and one of the concepts we can't quite agree on is how our current cultural milieu plays out in dystopian writing. So I've been thinking a great deal about those qualities. And here's a place that I experience them annually.

The business world has not always been this way. Once, there was a concept that the customer was always right. It's not that it was true, but the adage implied that businesses needed customers so they would compromise to keep us coming back. That hasn't been the case for a long time. But the abuse we now suffer at the hands of those who hold our connectivity, a highly prized commodity, hostage has come to be seen as inevitable, when it wasn't always. That's the first seed of this dystopian story.

The second comes in the double-speak. Much like Orwell's 1984, the rhetoric spoken and the rhetoric lived are utterly incompatible. "Savings is loyalty" is not that far off from Orwell's "Freedom is Slavery." Or maybe "Ignorance is Strength" is really closer. After all, my ignorance is their strength, they hold the power of the purse. Theirs grows larger and larger while mine shrinks, every time.

Seed number three comes in the form of smoke and mirrors though I know that sounds more like a magic act than a dystopia. The way it works with AT&T (substitute company who frustrates you here) is that there are so many plans from the internet to direct mail offers, which overlap and conflict, that it's impossible to figure out what the best deal really is.

Seed number four, is that dystopias always involve a powerful entity, often the government. Rewrite Big Brother as today's big corporation and my scenario offers a perfect plot device. The fact that today there's little distinction between government and business, given lobbyists and campaign contribution laws that make corporations into people, just makes it all the more realistic. Realism and/or dystopia? I'm fine with both/and because dystopias always take reality into a future place where particularities become extreme. Here, that would be corporate greed running amok.

Yesterday on the phone the AT&T rep kept telling me she could give me a $51 dollar rate plus the $7 modem fee which would save me $15. I told her I had gotten a $55 rate the day before and that included my modem. "Can't you see that figure on my account?" I asked. She merely stated that I could only have one offer at a time. I said, ok, but your offer is actually more expensive. You're not saving me $15, this deal would cost me $3. She couldn't seem to do the math. She just kept saying, you're paying $66 plus the modem now so that's a $15 savings. I was in crazy land. It was a fun house and the smoke was obscuring all reality, the mirrors were curved and I was suddenly very short.

I had to make a choice, hang up and admit how much time and energy I had wasted or ask for her supervisor. Of course, the first choice also involved trusting that my previous deal had in fact been logged but somehow wasn't current in her view. Could I take that chance? Did I want to talk to a supervisor.

Not unlike the many offers unavailable to me, I was in a situation where I wanted to believe I had a choice. That's what it means to be American, to have choice. But in both cases, choice was merely an illusion. AT&T wouldn't let me choose among their offers because I was ineligible due to my status as a customer, meaning someone capable of being abused. And to think that either hanging up or staying on the line would give me a better deal was equally illusive; neither would give me what I wanted, a better rate, so there really wasn't a choice.

What did I do? It doesn't actually matter. What matters is the discovery that choice has become a dystopian illusion! Getting internet from AT&T costs me $58 a month. Knowing there's no choice to make is priceless.