MCI Customer Service Hell

by Henry Farrell on November 28, 2006

“Sean Carroll”: writes about his miserable experience with Orbitz customer service, comparing it to the Hell’s Embassy scene in _Perdido Street Station_ where the suave tones of the demonic ambassador are accompanied by a disturbing echo from below “in the appalling shriek of one undergoing torture.” Which reminds me that I promised myself last week, after enduring 2 hours in customer service hell with MCI, that I would blog about it so as to warn anyone else considering signing up with the company to avoid them like the plague.

The background is this. Late last year, we cancelled our MCI service when we decided to get Vonage instead. For some reason, they didn’t cancel the service completely, and continued to automatically subtract money from our account through a direct debit arrangement. When I called them up to complain about this, they apologized profusely, and promised to refund the money that they had already taken, and stop billing us. Needless to say they didn’t follow through on this, despite a further follow-up phone call. Not only that, but the “refund” that they issued consisted of a credit to our account – which they promptly grabbed back again as payment for our non-existent service.

When I called them last week to complain about this, they magnaminously agreed to give us a credit for an additional sum that they had been claiming we owed them for “receiving” the service in the interim. However, the customer representative refused to refund us for the 20 odd dollars that they had taken from our account, then issued as a credit, then taken again, on the basis that they had already “paid” it to us (that they had paid it in a form which we weren’t able to use, and then taken it back from us again seemed too complicated for them to understand). When I asked to speak to a manager, he seemed sympathetic, but said that it was outside his authority to issue a refund, and that he would transfer me to a different department that could do this. This department in turn said that it couldn’t do this, and transferred me to yet another department. And so on, with frequent and lengthy interludes of muzak-punctuated white noise while I had to wait on hold. By the time that I had been transferred to my seventh representative (back in customer service again), who was proposing to transfer me to person number eight, in a department that had already said they were unable to do anything, I had had enough, and hung up. At this stage in any event I had been transferred so often that the phone signal had degenerated to the point of near inaudibility in any event.

This left me with a strong impression of a company which (a) is quite inept, or (b) has deliberately structured its customer service system so as to make sure that people _can’t_ get through to anyone with authority, or (c ) some combination of the above. In any event, it’s a company that I’m never going to have anything to do with again (and that I would strongly advise others not to have anything to do with either).



rea 11.28.06 at 5:57 pm

Makes me glad I’m lawyer by trade.

T-mobile tried something similar with us. Litigation doesn’t solve everything, but it sure gets their attention.


The Continental Op 11.28.06 at 6:23 pm

I strongly suspect that the explanation is option (b), though I’d be the last one to discount the possibility of corporate ineptitude. In any event, I concur with my fellow lawyer, rea. This looks like a situation ripe for an unfair business practice lawsuit. Here in California, you’d have good law on your side. I don’t have any idea what the situation is in DC.


Randolph Fritz 11.28.06 at 6:53 pm

Correspondence. Paper, certified, return receipt requested mail. It helps if you know some of the relevant law and can cite it, or at least can point out that abusing the banking system is illegal, but usually a certified letter to the firm’s executive offices will get attention.


jacob 11.28.06 at 7:19 pm

I’m with Randolph on this one–letters beat phone calls all the time. I once dealt with a Canadian mobile phone company (Rogers) so irritating it couldn’t manage to bill me for several months, and then when it did couldn’t bill be correctly. After several months of communication, I finally offered to pay them if they could manage to send a correct bill by a certain deadline. They didn’t, and I haven’t heard from them since–and I never paid a penny.

This American Life had a great episode once in which Ira Glass solved someone’s MCI customer service problems by calling with a tape recorder on. It’s a brilliant piece of radio.


Jonathan 11.28.06 at 9:04 pm

I think it may be an industry wide culture of “hey, what are you going to do, leave us? All the other companies are just as bad.” With Verizon it was 4 months of letters and calls after I moved from Brooklyn to Queens and found that my new lines could not handle DSL as they promised and the phone would only work 3 days a week at the best of times. AT&T kept trying to bill me for 3 cell phones even though, we never had more than 2 phones, and neither were under contract at that point. Of course AT&T only added the 3rd phone after I had asked them to shut off my wifes phone after my wife had died. This took 9 months of letters, calls, and office visits before it turned into a FTC/legal issue. Cingular would not put all the charges on the bill at one time, then chargeing late fees on items that were not on the statement on the day I went into the store to pay the bill IN PERSON BY HAND. This has since been turned over to the DA.

I found that SEC filings will give you the corporate addresses and some digging will get you a phone extention in the building. I found that it saves a little time to just go directly to corp management and avoid Customer Service altogether.


raj 11.28.06 at 10:06 pm

Never rely just on phone calls.

And it doesn’t hurt to send a letter to the bank telling them that they are thereafter not authorized to accept debits from the company in question from your account. CC the company in question. When the company learns that they will probably not be paid, they will terminate your service forthwith.

Recognize that MCI is the former Worldcom. Worldcom went through bankruptcy after it was essentially outed for having engaged in securities fraud. One should always be suspicious of dealing with companies that have been alleged to have committed fraud–they can defraud you, as well.


luc 11.28.06 at 10:48 pm

It’s mostly useless, but when I’m stuck in that kind of “customer service” hell, i try to have some fun myself by playing games with them.

When you are transferred to another department, just make up some story that you’ve been assured by whomever you just spoke to that the procedure is X and he must do Y to fix it. Anything to make them unsure about their work, so they check again whether they really can’t do anything. Even being caught in such a lie is fun.

I once called their press department and had them explain to me why their billing department was in disorder, and if it would have any consequences for their business. The silly girl had her mobile phone number on press releases on the internet.
And even though I said I was just a disgruntled customer, she asked me at least twice if I wasn’t a journalist.

Once my ‘case’ was transferred to someone higher up, and the person on the phone at customer service insisted that I had to wait until they contacted me. She made the fault of naming the guy. I put on my business voice, dialed the general number of the head office and asked to be transferred to the guy. And the problem was fixed in no time.

It’s all a bit useless juvenile fun, but it’s way better than getting mad at a system you can’t beat.


ed 11.28.06 at 10:52 pm

This isn’t cute. MCI is a seriously crooked company, and one of the reasons I refuse to get a cell phone. I’m surprised the government hasn’t put them out of business.


Dargie 11.28.06 at 11:12 pm

They like like rugs around there. And the charges can come back at you six months or a year down the road, so watch out.


P O'Neill 11.28.06 at 11:36 pm

Not only is MCI former Worldcom, it’s current Verizon, although they seem to be keeping the brand names separate. One other thing I’d take from this, having had a somewhat related experience with Comcast, is avoidance of direct debit. It’s convenient, but the end-of-relationship (or even change of address) trigger can make it a real headache.


Tracy W 11.28.06 at 11:58 pm

I agree with raj – simplest thing to do with those people who insist on taking money out of your account is to tell your bank they’re no longer authorised to do so.

In fact I now don’t authorise anyone to make payments out of my account, I’ve had too much hassle in the past (one time and a lot of horror stories from other people).


Colin 11.29.06 at 2:16 am

Just to add a different story, I canceled Vonage a month or two back and it was like ending a bad relationship — an emotionally-draining half hour on the phone. Not only did they transfer me from customer service to a separate “cancellations department” with multiple delays, but the cancellations rep tried repeatedly to argue me out of canceling, offering this thing and that thing and pathetically asking if there was anything they could do to keep the account. Again and again the rep asked why I was canceling, and whatever I offered, there would be talking points about why that wasn’t such a good idea. It was like I wouldn’t be allowed to cancel until I’d convinced them. I was reduced to whimpering “please” and eventually that did it.

Comcast, by contrast, treats you with open contempt from beginning to end. There’s a certain integrity in that.


tps12 11.29.06 at 9:21 am

Fortunately, telecom deregulation has made these kinds of problems a thing of the past.


Russell Arben Fox 11.29.06 at 9:43 am

I spent over two hours on the phone with a single customer service representative at SBC/Yahoo on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Our phone and internet service had ended that morning, whereas I had asked them to be cancelled and transferred to our new address (we moved over the holiday) on Friday. After going through numerous screens, putting me on hold for fifteen minutes at a time, he determined that the problem was unsolvable as things presently stood, that the entire order had to be cancelled, and a new order written up. For some reason, this took him an additional half an hour. (I packed some boxes and took a shower in the meantime.) Finally, he had it all straightened out: the best he could do, was cancel our service on Friday, and start it up again on Monday–no same day transfers were possible. I relented, and finally hung up.

On Friday, at our new house, we had both phone and internet service. Go figure.


Stentor 11.29.06 at 1:43 pm

I like explanation (b), but I think you’ve phrased it a bit too top-down — I think it’s as much an emergent property of lots of blame-shifting individuals as it is of deliberate design. It’s a lot easier for Joe Schmoe in customer service to transfer you to someone else than it is for him to figure out how to solve your problem, and since you’re gone as soon as he transfers you, he has no incentive even to make sure he’s transferring you to someone more helpful. Not to mention that if he succeeds in cancelling your account, he’s going to end up having to justify it to his supervisor (and so on up the hierarchy).


Patrick 11.29.06 at 3:41 pm

I used to work at a tech support outsourcing company.

Our voice mail was intentionally structured so as to delay you for several minutes before you could speak to a person, even if a person was available. Every minute a CSR spent on the phone, he was paid at a bonus rate. So you wanted to keep those minutes down. Many people would either solve their problem while navigating the voice mail help, or, more likely, would read the manual in that time and solve their own problem.

We also had a policy of, when someone asked for something that a CSR could not do, saying “I’m sorry, but we can’t do that.” In reality, we could, but it took a manager. But hopefully that line would discourage people from asking.

Free tech support is a drain on a retail company. By the time you need to provide it, the customer has already paid all of the money he or she is going to pay. So it only lowers profits. The goal is to intentionally make tech support unpleasant for the consumer, so that he or she does not become reliant upon it, while making it accessible enough that people will use it rather than return the product to the store.

Just offering some insight.

PS- If a caller called during hours in which we were in operation, but was on hold until after our closing hour, we stayed late and took the call. Disconnecting a caller in that situation would have been a firing offense. I can’t say the same for my medical insurance provider. At 4:30, your call is dropped, even if you have been on hold for over 20 minutes.


paul 11.30.06 at 9:41 am

I think patrick has the answer to jonathan’s “I think it may be an industry wide culture of “hey, what are you going to do, leave us? All the other companies are just as bad.””

Companies like MCI (or Vonage, or any big company that provides services whose marginal cost is tiny compared to capital, marketing and support costs) don’t want customers who ask for proper service in the case of errors. Those customers dig into their profits.

So it’s not just “What are you going to do, leave us?”It’s “Leave us, please. And if you try to get any of you money back we’ll make it cost you more than it does us.”

In the long run such behavior may be self-destructive (unless it drives a race to the bottom, in which case it merely depresses the entire market), but the long run implies some kind of equilibrium, and that’s long gone.


aaron 11.30.06 at 10:44 am

Daily, I find myself thinking, “I thought we created welfare so I would have to deal with people like you.”

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