Saturday, February 27, 2016

RANT: My Ordeal Switching from Cable to Satellite

Sure! It's jut that easy! Right?
Does anyone have a good story about signing up for cable, satellite or other TV/Internet service? Or rather, so good that you'd feel compelled to write about it, or share your story? I rather doubt it. Because, even though it's not something we usually do very often, the experience is almost universally bad. I suppose getting new cellular service is right up there in the same category, but at least there, you usually end up with a flashy little device to carry around with you. But it shares a lot of the same problems.

First, there is the bait-and-switch. Promises of insanely low monthly prices for the newest, the best! $19.95, $29.95, $39.95!  Premium service free for the first three months! Low, low prices for a year! Free accessories! Instant rebates! Free installation and equipment! Hundreds of dollars in gift cards! You'll get better than you currently have for less money! And they spend so much money in mailers, commercials and ads, trying to give you an offer that you can't refuse.

And sometimes, you can't. Because if you've had your current service for a year or two years, suddenly the high price you grudgingly pay every month swells--either by a seemingly innocuous couple of dollars, crawling ever upward--or a suddenly inflated price. Then, those come-ons start to sound pretty sweet. Especially the "more for less" part of the equation.

I've already been at my "new" house for just almost a year.  My Time-Warner Cable plan (expensive, but less per month, and with less sparkle and flash than I'd had at my old house) was about to go up, and its limitations had become obvious. Improving the service was only going cost more by layers of $9.99 and $19.99 tack-ons, and we're already paying a crazy amount for our "bundle." Plus, I wasn't looking forward to hours on the phone negotiating. The initial contact last year had already been a frustrating struggle. So, I entertained the idea of switching.

First, I had some ATT/DirecTV salesmen arrive at my door. I listened for a few minutes, but happened to be busy, so I shooed them away, told them to come back later. They did return, with the hard sell. I didn't bite. Yet. But I'd been roughed up enough that I was easy pickings for the sales guys at Sam's Club, a couple of weeks later. They promised better equipment (Record five shows at once, not just two! Pause live TV in any room! Set recordings in any room! Three months free premiums! As good or better than you have for less per month!). It all sounded too good to be true, and I'd been through this before. I knew that the "low low price" has a way of creeping up before you sign the
It always feels like this, doesn't it?
dotted line, and the service you were promised ends up being significantly less. I was determined to not get suckered again.

So, I agreed to let them come out, assess whether the service would compare well, actually be less per month, not skyrocket in year two, not have hidden costs and unwanted compromises in service. But no matter how hard you try, you just can't avoid all the pitfalls of the process. Every step has been a pain in the butt, enormously frustrating, to the point of inspiring fits of rage. Why does it have to be this way? As I've already been very wordy, I'm going to try to distill down my frustrations:

- The sales pitch at Sam's Club started out fine, but much of it was a near-inquisition to AT&T's customer service while standing in the middle of a busy store, complete with repeated requests for my Social Security Number and a credit check. Every bit of 20 minutes was spent on the phone, with a difficult to hear or understand, heavily accented CSR. I nearly called it off right there.
- The details of my plan--which I was repeatedly promised could be outlined in detail later--remained vague, as did the details of pricing. The estimate up front sounded good, but the feeling of any kind of hard-and-fast real numbers were elusive. To my insistence, I was assured that I wasn't committed to installation until I was satisfied. But yes, they'll need a refundable $19.95.
- Scheduling for service entailed two appointments, one for satellite service, and one for phone and internet. AT&T recently acquired DirecTV, but it hasn't been a happy marriage, at least not yet. The install was set for Friday, at overlapping time windows (8-11, 9-12). I still was uncomfortable about how it all would work.
- By the time I got home, I already had a flood of emails, and discrepancies were already starting to creep in. They were already referring to me as a new subscriber, and for all appearances, I was feeling committed to the process. But I had confirmation numbers--two of them--on emails--also two of them.
- Wednesday, I got a call that AT&T was coming for install. No, that's not the deal, you're supposed to come Friday! And we're not set for installation yet, I still haven't committed! I want to make sure the plan I was promised is all it's cracked up to be! So, I told them, NO, it's Friday 8-11. I called to ensure that was the case. I called to confirm the terms of the deal, to a better (but still not confident) feeling that it was what I'd been sold.
- Thursday, after still more email come-ons, I was told they were coming again, that day! NO, Friday, it's Friday I told them. I got another call, with my account details, but asking for an entirely different client. Nope, that's not me, I said.
"Steve" from AT&T
- All through this process, I was being called "Mr. James," which is my first name, so I wasn't even sure they knew who I was. I also had to deal with two different companies for three different services, from several CSRs, some with thick and impenetrable accents.
- Friday finally arrived, and one of the services (I couldn't recall which) was 45 minutes from arriving). It turned out to be the DirecTV side, and they started unloading equipment! Dammit, I hadn't committed to the service yet! But, I had confirmed--twice--that the pricing was good, and now, after all of the above, I decided I'd put too much into this to walk away. So, I let them begin work.
- Noon approached, and still no AT&T side of the equation had arrived. I called, and found that there was no active order. Even though this pricing was bundled. Even though the services were interdependent to function, and would be replacing my existing service. Even though I had multiple confirmation numbers and hours on the phone. I was told we'd have to restart the process, and it would be impossible to send out a tech that day. Unacceptable! But I was arguing with yet another strongly-accented, hard to understand CSR. I demanded another person to talk to.
- Trying mightily to be considerate, I talked to a more local person, finally. There was truly no way to get someone out that day, unbelievably. But I gave a good enough fight to get someone for the next day, promises of another gift card, and increased service for (allegedly) the same price.

As of this writing, I have satellite service, with a package of better equipment than I had, but slightly less in the way of channels (something I may try to address). I have a few new holes in my walls that I didn't expect, and still don't quite comprehend, as my house was fully wired for cable. I have internet and phone service allegedly arriving today, with a mid-range speed (and a promised, to-be-installed-later) upgrade to a higher speed. I don't doubt that I'll have to fight again, to get that price down to the "better than you had, for less per month" promise. But I also have that gift card promise, that--by the end--had grown to a $300 Sam's Club gift card, and separate $110 gift card, and a $200 gift card. And I still have my old cable service, which I had to keep in order to have internet in the meantime.

That last bit was a bit odd too. I'd lost internet service from the moment they started installing the satellite service. And for hours, we were in the dark ages, with no connectivity. It inexplicably started to work again, hours later. Clearly my house's cable wiring is still intact alongside, but I have no idea why it was out for those hours.

So, the story is not over. And far from unique. But I'd love to know why this process is so painful. I'd love to know how an industry as vulnerable as this one would make their customers go through this. I'd like for AT&T/U-Verse/DirecTV to get their corporate shit (and uncomfortable marriage) together. Most of all, I'd love to know why I'm saddled with so many channels I'll never use (home shopping, international languages, religion, sports), and losing several that we do.

I'm convinced that the old model will die. Eventually, the process will have to become more streamlined, the content selection more ala carte, and the power more on the side of the customer. But for this 2-year process, I'm stuck with what I have. I mean, after they've drilled several holes in your house, and you've unstrung and restrung the spaghetti wires in several rooms, who wants to go through the process of undoing it and starting over? 

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