Consuming Interests: Customer service at a cost

More companies charging to talk to a customer service rep

May 14, 2010|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

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 system.

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 month.

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."

An earlier version of this article misidentified which bank had eliminated customer service fees for calling when the problem could have been solved through an automated system. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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