At your service

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If free expert advice were available to you on one of the most important areas of your business, any time of the day, and as close as your phone, would you use it?

Even though it is available, many companies don’t take advantage of one of the most valuable resources they have.

If you’re thinking I’m going to say your customers, you’re only partially correct. That’s because you’ll probably find more useful advice comes from your ex-customers. Unless they no longer need your product or service, something enticed them to switch to one of your competitors — and wouldn’t you like to know what that was?

One of the most competitive new industries is the cellular phone industry. It seems as if everyone’s trying to get your business with special air time and equipment deals that change daily. As a loyal GTE customer for many years, I made the decision to switch providers after GTE became Alltel last fall and suddenly service started to falter.

I think phone service is one of those commodities that you don’t give much thought to until things start to go wrong. Suddenly, I was waiting on hold for half-hour periods, no one knew who the local rep was who had sold me the phone, or who had replaced him.

With competition so fierce, the decision to switch was easy, especially since I knew of a local entrepreneurial company that acted as an agent for both Sprint and Nextel. I had a choice of two national cellular providers, backed by local customer service reps who report directly to the owner of the company.

When I called Alltel to tell them I was dissatisfied and ready to cancel my service, they did what you’d expect a company to do: the rep on the other end of the phone tried to dissuade me. In fact, she was so adamant about keeping my business, she told me that if I left, I would be billed $300 in addition to my normal monthly rate because I broke a contract. No questions about why I wanted to cancel, just a threat.

I was confused. The only contract I signed was three-and-a-half years ago, for a two-year term. No matter how you do the math, it clearly had expired. “No,” she replied. “You renewed the contract for another two years when you called last fall to adjust your rate plan.”

While I knew how outrageous this was, because I certainly would never have agreed to another contract with Alltel, I tried for a month after that to find the right person within the company to talk to about it. The two sales reps I’d dealt with locally at various times were long gone. No one at the company’s 800 number had the authority to even discuss my predicament.

When I asked to be transferred to a supervisor, I was told to call the manager of a local Alltel store. The sounded a bit strange to me, since I had never even stepped foot into an Alltel store, but I followed the advice. It must have sounded strange to that store manager, too, because she wouldn’t return my calls.

I’m still trying to reach someone at that company who has the authority to act reasonably. While I want to get that fee waived from my account, I’d also like to tell them, as an ex-customer this time, to take a look at one of the greatest employee handbooks ever written.

It’s the handbook for Nordstrom employees, but it’s not about selling shoes. It’s just one piece of paper that simply says, “Use your good judgment at all times.” Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine.