Long-distance switching craze is like being dialed for dollars

Staying Ahead

October 05, 1998|By Jane Bryant Quinn

IT'S A jungle out there, and for once, I'm not talking about investments. The subject is long-distance telephone calls. The marketing is wild. If you haven't lined up a special, promotional deal for yourself, you haven't tried.

The salespeople who reach you by phone will sweeten almost any deal, if you'll quit your current carrier and switch to theirs. You're probably also being barraged with direct-mail offers.

The carriers' arsenal of incentives includes free long-distance minutes, frequent-flier miles, videos, rate discounts and cash. Bargain-hunting consumers -- called "spinners" in the industry -- whirl from carrier to carrier, picking up every special offer that comes along.

An old friend of mine -- Allen Whitney of Worcester, Mass. -- called recently with a tale that beat all. He had been subscribing to AT&T's One Rate Plus plan, which waived its monthly, $4.95 fee for his first six months. When he got a second number, at a second home, he asked that the fee be waived again. AT&T said no.

So when he got a call from a sales rep for MCI WorldCom, he was ready. The clincher was MCI's Sunday rate of five cents a minute. At AT&T, his Sunday calls were 10 cents a minute. What's more, he was mad at AT&T. He made the switch.

AT&T struck back. It sent him a letter, saying he was missed and enclosing a $100 check. By cashing it, he'd return to the fold.

One thing about Whitney -- he doesn't stay mad. "An enticing offer," he concluded. He cashed the check.

Here's where the story gets interesting. When MCI learned that he was back in bed with AT&T, a sales rep called with a proposal. "I've got a way for you to double your money," he said. Return to MCI. Then AT&T "will offer you another $100 to switch back again."

Surprised, Whitney pointed out that if he made another round trip, MCI would lose him as a customer. That didn't bother the salesperson, who said he just had to "make his numbers" -- his commission or quota. (MCI wouldn't comment on how he was paid.)

Would AT&T pay for the same customer twice? Yes indeedy, according to spokesperson Mark Siegel. The second check might not be as high as $100, but then again, it might. Since Whitney spends around $40 a month on long-distance calls, he could wind up with five months free.

He couldn't pull that trick a third time -- at least, not in 1998. If you leave AT&T twice in a year, you won't get any more "come home" checks, Siegel says. AT&T will gladly take you back, but will make you no financial or other discount offer. If enough time passes, however, you might be courted again.

MCI was not pleased to hear how its telemarketer met his numbers.

"We would never condone such a statement by any of our representatives," says spokesperson Brad Burns.

But in jungles, that's how people behave -- especially if they get paid for it.

AT&T says it's mailing out fewer checks than it used to. MCI and Sprint used to offer cash, but gave it up a couple of years ago.

Instead, MCI offers frequent-flier miles through nine U.S. airlines. That's a nice way of pulling a more affluent crowd, and keeping them while the miles build.

You get roughly five miles for every dollar spent.

Sprint is currently offering new subscribers a free "Titanic" video (current customers can get it, too, if they ask). To lure former customers back, Sprint offers free calling minutes and frequent-flier miles.

AT&T offers anywhere from 100 to 250 free calling minutes. To get 250 minutes (about 4 hours), you might have to stick with the company for at least six months.

At any of the three, you might discover free trials or other rate promotions. If you haven't had an offer by mail, call each of the carriers, tell them how much you use long-distance, and see what they'll do for you.

Changing carriers is usually easy. Your local phone company simply switches your account.

As for Whitney, he didn't take MCI's offer. "I felt guilty, taking AT&T's money and then leaving," he said. But how guilty? So he doesn't have the soul of a spinner. But he did tell MCI to call him back in a couple of months.

Washington Post Writers Group

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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