Consumerism runs amok on YouTube! Nitwit customer battles math-impaired Verizon reps!

verizon.gifFILM AT ELEVEN!

OK, there’s no film, but there is an audio. More on that in a sec.

utube.gifThis post presents a lesson in public relations we all too often forget — or ignore. It’s a lesson about the customer interface. But first, the backstory:


I learned about the YouTube entry, “Verizon Still Can’t Count,” while reading Jim Horton’s blog. The audio recording is 15 minutes of a disgruntled consumer dismayed over his wireless bill.

The Verizon customer argues that he was quoted a rate of .015 cents per KB for wireless Internet access. He was billed at the rate of 1.5 cents per KB. So, this is one pissed-off dude who believes he was charged 100-times the quoted rate. No small squabble.

The story didn’t resonate with me until I got an email from a student asking for my take on it. It’s goes against my grain to pass up a teachable moment, so here’s the essence of my response, edited to make it more clear.

I did see that story, Eric. In fact, that “conversation” with Verizon is now tearing up YouTube. Don’t waste your time with it. I did.

PR bloggers like Jim Horton are rightly using the Verizon case to illustrate the importance of the customer interface in any relationship, and how that interface often is our most vulnerable point in the relationship — you know, the snippy receptionist, the slovenly waiter, the rude cop on the beat who can wreck all the good work PR folks do.

But there is another angle on the story. While the Verizon people come off sounding like math morons in this tape, the customer’s complaint doesn’t add up either. I’m not sure the “consumer advocates” who are criticizing Verizon listened carefully, or maybe they just didn’t do the math themselves.

Supposedly the guy was told by a service rep that he could purchase wireless Internet access for.015 cents per KB. If so, the Verizon rep erred. What he should have told the customer was “one and a half cents” per KB, which is really .015 dollars, not cents. It’s a error, but I can see how it happened.

Anyway, the disgruntled customer uses 5,000+ KB in his first month and gets a bill for $76. Unreasonable? Doesn’t seem so. But the customer claims he’s being charged at 100 times the rate he was quoted. He’s furious that the Verizon reps can’t or won’t do the math with him.

So let’s DO the math here, shall we? If the man truly believes his rate should be .015 cent per KB, then he must also believe his bill for 5,000 KB should be just 76 cents, or one one-hundredth of the total he was billed.

I hate to insult people I’ve never met, but this guy is clueless. But its the Verizon reps who came off that way. Now the world gets to beat up on Verizon. It ain’t fair, but that’s the way it is.

I told you there was a PR lesson or three in this. Here they are:

One, some consumer advocates habitually take sides against business with or without evidence. They’ll spew spew their cyber-venom without regard to accuracy or consequence. But that’s just the way it is, and we gotta be ready for it.

Two, big business remains the whipping boy in citizen journalism, just as it is in mainstream journalism. But in the citizen version, you don’t have to check facts or do math. You just post that sucker and watch the feeding frenzy. Sadly, the mainstream media are sometimes among the first sharks to arrive. Let’s hope not in this case!

Three, correcting misrepresentation that spreads online is almost impossible. I’m doing my part with this post, which on a good day might get 4-500 readers. But as I write it, YouTube’s “Verizon Still Can’t Count” has seen 350,000 views, most of them in the last 48 hours. The battle was lost before Verizon could even got their lawyers on the phone.

Before I shut up, let me come back to the lesson that Jim Horton makes so well in his post. He reminds us that our hard work as PR people is only as effective as our weakest link, which too often is the customer-service interface. Pay attention to it.


5 Responses to Consumerism runs amok on YouTube! Nitwit customer battles math-impaired Verizon reps!

  1. Paul says:

    I’ve been following one of the stories with Verizon and customers having different ideas of whether they were charged fairly. In the case I’ve been following, the issue was with roaming charges, with the quoted rate being 0.002 cents per kB (and the actual rate being 100 times as much). As you’ve pointed out, it does seem like 70 cents is far too little to be paying for 35,000 – until you realize that the customer had an unlimited account for the US. Normally, he wouldn’t pay anything (besides his monthly bill) for downloading that much. Paying 70 cents more because you happen to be in another country at the time doesn’t seem too strange. A really good deal, perhaps, but not impossible.
    The thing is, misquoting a companies rate over the phone once is understandable. Not being able to understand that you’ve made a mistake is an issue. Repeating this issue many, many times is inexcusable (or at least inadvisable). A company that claims to take pride in its customer service should have seen that there was an issue immediately and taken steps to correct it. Something as simple as making sure the staff knew that there was an issue, and what to do if they recieved a phone call about that issue, would have helped. The customer service rep is one of the main user/company interfaces, and as far as the customer is concerned, they /are/ the company.

  2. CHristopher says:

    Wow. Both you and Mr Horton aren’t doing so well in the comprehension department. The quote was “.002 cents per kilobyte” and the customer repeatedly said that he had no real frame of reference since he had an unlimited plan in the US. Either you guys didn’t really listen to the recording and made knee-jerk reactions, weren’t paying attention, are being obtuse, or you just aren’t that bright.

    Good job!

  3. Thanks for chiming in, Chris. I will admit to many obtuse moments in my life, and maybe this was one of them. But I don’t think so. I just have a perspective that’s a bit different from yours, but that’s what makes a blog conversation worthwhile.

    As for the post, I stand by my comments, and will confirm that I did, indeed, listen to entire tape. Please don’t make me do it again. It was agonizing. If the customer’s bill was, indeed, 100 times what he expected, then it follows that he expected all those services for 76 cents, not $76. But I already said that, and it still makes no sense, regardless of what he believes he was quoted by Verizon.

    Like the customer, I, too, have no frame of reference as to this service, but I know that it costs more than 76 cents just to process the bill. I do have some experience with Verizon, and have always found their customer service folks both knowledgeable and helpful. But you can’t bat 1000. There is no question that in this case the reps came off sounding like bumblers, and that hurts the public perception of Verizon and provides a lesson to PR professionals who are paying attention — and gets back to the theme of my blog.

    As for Mr. Horton, he is way smarter than I, and he really said nothing about the customer being a dim bulb. That was me. Horton’s point, I believe, was that the social media give voice to any and all complaints. I don’t know as he ever said this customer was unreasonable, though he had to be thinking it. That’s my 76 cents on the matter.

  4. CHristopher says:

    I guess I just found it hard to believe that anyone who actually listened to the recording could refer to the account in question as being over ‘.015’ dollars/cents when the number ‘.002’ was repeated every couple of seconds (in fact the number has become something of popular internet meme at this point – used to indicate a point that should be blatantly obvious). Deducing that you must have taken the word of others (as opposed to really listening to the tape) wasn’t any harder when you spoke of the customer as if he should have known the rate wasn’t reasonable. This is also addressed numerous times in the recording.

    Assuming that you really just didn’t parse the actual numbers and did give the recording a fair listening, you’re point about ‘he should have known’ seems pretty weak. He pays $76 a month for UNLIMITED access. An additional 75 cents on his bill for using the same service can seem quite reasonable in that light. Either way, a customer shouldn’t have to guess and the customer in that recording displayed the patience of a saint. To categorize him as ‘clueless’ just isn’t fair. He was right and they were wrong. They continued to quote the wrong price and seemed incapable of percieving the problem.

    I personally suspect that each of the call center employees realized he was right, but was not willing to give in due to company policies designed to make it as hard as possible for people to get the company to admit error even when there is one. The alternative is that they were all so dense as to not comprehend the simple concept of unit conversions – which is just sad.

    Anyway, you detract attention from your general point (that the customer-service interaction is a highly important link in the PR chain) when you attack the intelligence of this Verizon customer. This is not a case of people not ‘checking facts’ and ‘doing the math’, this is the opposite. It’s a well documented factual case of Verizon employees misquoting rates, followed by poor math skills and extreme stupidity (or calculated willful ignorance – depending on your view).

    Condescendingly insulting the customer base as you try to make a point for good PR practices is indicative of the way many companies treat their customers – like idiots that just need to be smiled and nodded at until they shut up. Make em smile with smoke and mirrors while we joke about how moronic they are in the back office. Your point would be much better recieved if it started with respect (rather than disdain) for the customer base and left out strawman attacks against people like this Verizon customer.

    But that’s just my .002 cents.

  5. You are 100% right about the .02 vs. 1.5. I had to go back and listen again, and it was painful.

    Can’t explain the error, but since I did no significant research on that post, I doubt it came from another source. Fact is, two of my students wrote me notes about it and both quoted .02, not .15. Go figure. I had to have picked it up from somewhere. Thanks for calling me on it. Inaccuracy, as I preach to my students, will bite you in the ass every time.

    But as you point out, it’s a great lesson in PR for all of us — me included. I still believe this customer’s expectations are unrealistic, but customer service folks should be used to that and do a better job of listening.

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