Consuming Interests: Customer Service at a Cost

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More Companies Make You Pay for Customer Service Agent’s Help

Companies have added yet another obstacle to talking with a live person
about a question or concern: fees.

More businesses are subtly discouraging calls to customer service agents
by charging for the conversation, as well as directing people to
websites or automated phone systems. Some banks, computer companies,
travel agencies and satellite television and cable companies are
adopting this practice.

Consumer groups worry the trend will only continue as companies look to
cut costs.

"I have often thought we would face it in other industries as well,"
said Linda Sherry, a spokesman for Consumer Action. "It costs a lot to
have live people answering questions. But to us, it should be a part of
the cost of doing business."

The fees continue a long-term trend of companies cutting back on
customer service and having consumers do more on their own. It comes as
grocery and home improvement stores direct shoppers to self-checkout
lines and some banks charge for using teller services after a certain
number of visits. Other businesses are using live chats on the Internet
to discourage in-person or telephone discussions.

Sherry said charging fees for talking with a customer service
representative has been most prevalent in the computer software
business. She said consumers can spend hundreds of dollars on a
complicated computer system; then when they have problems setting it up
at home, they have to pay more money to get customer service help.

Dell, for example, charges $59 for trouble-shooting software problems.

Some companies say they are trying to keep their agents available for
people who really need them and to discourage people from overusing the

DirecTV doesn’t charge for general questions. But it will charge $5 for
calling to order a pay-per-view movie with the help of a customer
service representative rather than doing it with the television remote
control or through the Internet. There is a $1.50 charge to order
through the company’s automated telephone service. The fees have been in
place for several years, according to the company.

"It helps both our agents and customers," said Robert Mercer, a
spokesman with the satellite television company."It makes the most
efficient use of our agent’s time so they are available to help our
customers with issues that require live agent assistance."

Cable company Comcast said it doesn’t charge to order pay-per-view
movies through a customer representative.

Air Canada rolled out a service two years ago called "On My Way" that
gave passengers the privilege of personalized attention from a customer
service representative — for a charge of $25 or $35 per trip, depending
on where the person was traveling. What the customer rep does, such as
rebooking a missed flight, was once standard service that airlines
provided free, analysts said.

Doug Heller, executive director of Consumer Watchdog in Los Angeles,
said customer service should be free, especially if consumers are paying
hundreds of dollars for a product or service.

"It rightly drives people nuts," Heller said. "Once you buy something,
you shouldn’t have to pay more to make it right."

Last year, the group won a $750,000 judgment against Nextel
Communications, which had been charging customers $2.50 to view detailed
paper bills. The company was sending consumers summary bills each

Some companies are rethinking the fees.

Until last year, Wells Fargo charged customers $2 when they called a
representative for a problem that could have been solved using the
automated system.

It changed the policy after deciding that customers should have more
options, said spokeswoman Aimee Worsley.

In November, travel company Expedia dropped a fee it charged for booking
by phone through a customer service agent. It had been charging the fee
for only several months.

Sherry said some people probably clog up customer service lines for
small issues but that everyone shouldn’t be punished. She suggested
charging people only after they reach a certain number of calls and
allowing the first few calls free of charge.

"It is a part of the cost of doing business," Sherry said about customer
service. "It is the front line of the business, because you certainly
don’t want the CEO answering calls about complaints."

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Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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