Verizon issues? Don't call me, call PSC

Maryland still has a regulatory hand in ensuring decent customer service

March 28, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

Emails and phone calls from readers of this column who have had an unsatisfying experience with Verizon continue to come in — and Saturday, a pleasant woman who walks regularly through my neighborhood stopped by to tell me all about her unpleasant business with the humongous telecommunications company. She'd made a couple of appointments to have a Verizon technician come to her house to investigate a staticky line, and the tech never showed. That's a common complaint.

I described a couple of frustrating experiences with Verizon customer service in columns in January and February — complaints that, placed alongside tsunami in Japan, seem wholly trivial. Even if we skip the guilt-inducing comparison with Japan, or any other country in temporary or perpetual crisis, you'll probably agree that complaining about time-consuming, exasperating efforts to get telephone or Internet service established or changed is puny stuff in the big picture of modern life.

But these services have become increasingly expensive, and so more is expected of the providers.

The providers, of course, want to make profits, but stellar customer service means an adequate, well-trained staff, and that costs money. (The Communications Workers of America, the union representing Verizon employees in Maryland and surrounding states, has complained that job cuts and shifting workers to the installation of fiber-optic service had resulted in deteriorating customer service.) Most of the time, when we get crummy customer service, we take our business elsewhere. Tire repair shops, restaurants, supermarkets — if they treat us shabbily, it's, "Ciao, baby." That's not so easy with the regulated utilities, particularly in the realm of consumer communications; we only have a few choices. So a lot of us just put up with the delays, interruptions and multiple phones calls to Bangladesh required for what we need.

I want to thank the hundreds of readers who wrote and called to share their stories about Verizon customer service. (Most of the commiserations were about residential service for home or so-called "copper wire" phones, and the Internet, not Verizon wireless.) Your stories were detailed and told in a pleasing, sardonic style. Some were absolutely mind-numbing. Others, like the one about the Verizon workers who dug a FiOS trench to the wrong house, were amusing. So, thank you.

But, if you have complaints, you need to contact the Maryland People's Counsel or the Maryland Public Service Commission — not me.

In fact, just last year, the PSC played hardball with Verizon over this very issue — customer service and responsiveness. The PSC had received a critical mass of complaints from customers who experienced lengthy delays in service in 2007 and 2008. (Nearly 80,000 customers experienced delays during that period, though not all of them had filed complaints, The Sun reported.).

So, Maryland being one of a few states that still has some regulatory power over the big phone company, the PSC proposed what it called "the beginning of a new regulatory paradigm" in which Verizon's ability to make a profit here would be tied to customer service performance. The company was required to meet certain customer service benchmarks — "metrics," some might call it — and file reports with the PSC in order to avoid penalties that could run into the millions of dollars. The PSC order put a limit on increases in the price of basic telephone service "until Verizon shows a measurable increase in service quality," and it required "stricter service quality requirements," including credits on bills of dissatisfied customers.

What has happened since?

Well, the "new regulatory paradigm" is in place. The Verizon customers who have been reporting their headaches to me should report them to the PSC. We have a system for this and, more than that, a specific agreement to make Verizon improve its responsiveness to customers. The company has to reduce the amount of time customers find themselves without service, and it has to keep appointments for home visits.

According to Theresa Czarski, deputy to Maryland People's Counsel Paula Carmody, Verizon files reports about customer service with the PSC. At some point soon, she says, we'll know if the company has made any progress.

Look, it gets lonely out there. Dealing with a big company can be frustrating. You think you're the only one, that there's no constituency, no critical mass of outrage. But there was, and it happened in this case. If you have a complaint, do something about it. Call the PSC — you know, assuming you have phone service.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He hosts Midday, Mondays through Fridays, on WYPR. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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