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Negotiating Your Cell Contract

It's a wild ride, but haggling with your cell carrier can pay off.
August 1, 2006
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/159920

Back when I lived in San Francisco and visitors would ask me for directions, I usually had to tell them: "You can't get there from here."

Now, I know that's not literally true: Every Frisco street goes somewhere. What I really meant was, they couldn't find a way through San Franciso's alleys, one-way streets, dog legs and dead ends. Better to circle the city and approach the destination from a different compass point.

Still, everything's relative, isn't it? For example, I could crisscross all San Fran's compass points in the time it took me to coax a new cell phone agreement out of Sprint. It all started when I got a gander at Sprint's TV commercials aimed at new users. A longtime Sprint customer myself, I wanted in on those new phones, discount service plans, and early night and weekend start times. They were way better than my long-expired service agreement.

I knew I'd have to re-up for a couple more years. But I've been happy with Sprint, and I had to have one of those new phones. By the time a Sprint telemarketer called, I was ready: Sprint had me in its pocket. But it took a good day of work on my part to enable them to keep me.

I wish that I could give you a blow-by-blow of the encounter. It was actually pretty funny--in a Franz Kafka "wow, I woke up as a bug" sort of way. Unfortunately, space does not permit. Anyway, it's nothing each and every one of you hasn't experienced many times at the hands of your own cellular carrier or some other mindless bureaucracy. It was just an extra helping of what the average cell phone, bank or utility customer encounters after the message: "Your call is important to us. So we're keeping you on hold, making you navigate irrelevant menus, punch in 10-digit numbers, surrender your Social Security number and be recorded by our lawyers--so we can serve you better."

Numbers, We Got Numbers
First, the box score: I spent more than five time/date-stamped hours over five days talking to 11 different sales representatives, was disconnected three times, had to renegotiate my contract three separate times, and waited five days without cell service (for which I was charged) before I got the phone that I had paid to have shipped overnight.

About a month later, I received an inaccurate transaction summary, followed shortly by a seemingly inaccurate nine-page phone bill, which I had to study for an hour just so I could ask questions about it. It took two customer service reps another 45 minutes to cross-reference the eight separate ways my charges were calculated and show me that, yes, I had gotten the deal I'd been promised (except for one mistaken $5 charge). Folks, when a company uses nine pages of Sanskrit to describe three number changes, there's no mystery about why customer service is a rough ride.

Significantly, Julie, Mark, Kathy, Anna, Lorna, Michelle, Lucy, Dan, Jesse, Grace and another Kathy were just as polite and helpful as they could be. They tried as hard as they could to give me what I wanted, but were stymied repeatedly by the market segmentation tactics reflected in Sprint's service plans. I lost count of the number of times I was essentially told "You can't get there from here."

But in the end, I got everything I wanted and more--a $220 Samsung camera phone for 20 bucks, twice my anytime minutes for $5 less monthly, and a 7 p.m. evening start-time. I'm thrilled with my deal. It was so worth the trouble.

Try This at Home
I didn't get it because of some special talent I have. Every carrier has great deals like this. Find one that fits your budget, and hang on while they try to shake you off. (See "Deal or No Deal?" below.)

Why not call a carrier with better service? Like who? If service is so great elsewhere, why do 25 percent to 30 percent of all users change carriers every year? Why do carriers need two-year contracts and $150 termination fees to keep customers? Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates quiz thousands of consumers every year about how well each carrier "satisfies." Yes, there are differences. But they're narrow and change frequently.

I got the plan and the service I did for the same reason: because cellular carriers are under extreme competitive pressure. In an industry with alternatives--like cellular or, more recently, landline--the key to getting what you want is to ask for it. For years, my local Bell knew me as the idiot who kept threatening to take his phone business to the internet. Yeah, who's laughing now, AT&T?

Of course, I'm still a laughingstock over at my cable provider. Ironically, that's a recent, but very telling, devel-opment. You see, when Adelphia was in Chapter 11, its service reps did all they could to please, deals abounded, and installation charges were forgiven. I found out Comcast had acquired them when my bill got screwed up and accounting wouldn't return my phone calls or e-mails. Price hikes soon followed.

In fact, I just got a note from Adelphia saying an accounting error means I pay another $20 a month. If I don't like it, here's a toll-free number.

Wish me luck. I'm going in.

Deal or No Deal?
For a better deal from your cellular provider:

1. Hit the web, and fill a spreadsheet with all relevant offerings from all providers.
2. Determine what you want, what you're willing to pay and what you might sacrifice.
3. When you talk to your provider, take careful notes of who said what when.
4. When you hear "That feature isn't in this program," ask to speak to a manager.
5. Casually work details of offerings from competitors into the conversation. Don't threaten to switch to another carrier. They can take a hint.
6. Be patient and polite-no matter what.

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.