Tuesday, April 13, 2004
03:24 pm EDT —
— *ring* Hello?
The Nielsen Group has discovered through much scientific research that mobile phone conversations are annoying.
01:56 pm EDT —
— I didn't know these were the same thing
Probably the single largest pet peeve of mine is being told by a company that I'm late paying a bill that I wasn't late for. Out of high school, I worked in the accounts payable department for a pharmaceutical. I learned a fair amount about managing money from this role, and that knowledge has served me well. One of the things I learned in this job is that you should not pay bills early, but rather pay them on time or late. Well, it was the policy of my employer to pay all bills on 38 days from the billing date, which made basically every bill late. That was when the check cut, so it was another couple of days before the payee received the check. It was also policy to never pay late fees. Each billing cycle for all of our vendors, we'd subtract the late fees listed there, subtract past due balances, and only pay the portion of the bill that applied to the current period. Eventually the late fees would disappear as someone in the accounts receivable department from whatever company we'd paid late would look over the account and notice that we had a pile of late fees, and notice that we were a global multi billion dollar company, and one of their biggest customers as a result, and they'd erase the $1.25 here and $3.45 there in late fees.
This doesn't work for Joe Citizen. If I pay bills late, no one is going to forgive these trespasses. I'm not a big customer, and they can do with out my patronage. So I can resign myself to the realization that I merely need to pay bills on time. That doesn't mean I'm going to pay them significantly early. If a company sends me a bill on the 1st of the month, which is due on the 20th of the month, I'll cut them a check somewhere around the 16th, plus or minus depending on weekends. This should guarantee that they have the check in their hands by the day the bill is due.
Some companies have made a policy though of requiring some amount of time between when a payment is received and when they tell their accounting system that the check arrived. They'll tell you, "I'm sorry, but it takes up to 5 business days to process a payment." Of course they used a magical machine they have sitting in their department to teleport my check right out of the unopened envelope to their bank practically before I've finished putting the flag up on the mail box.
On one hand it annoys me that they'll take my money before they recognize that they've taken my money, on the other hand it is at least fortunate that I have a dated canceled check as proof that they received my payment on time. The caveat with that though is that it costs me $2 to get a copy of a canceled check from my credit union, so when arguing with the billing department of the company who accuses me of paying a bill late, I can get them to waive the $1.25 late fee if I'll only spend $2 to get the canceled check. Fortunately, it's not actually this way any more, I can actually log in to my bank account online and download an image of any canceled check. I only have to spend $2 if I need them to pull an authentic copy off of microfiche and mail it to me.
You know what? More than once I spent $2 to dodge a $1.25 late fee. Out of principle (you've heard me tout my principles before), I refused to be charged for something I don't owe, and I further refused to allow a company to rip me off like that. I would also spend as much time as I could on the phone with said company complaining about this. When talking to these people, I try very hard to be polite (and I think I do a fair job of actually being polite). It's not the fault of whomever I'm talking to that my billing is screwed up, so I don't want to give them a bad day, only enforce my point: don't abuse your role as a large company with thousands or millions of tiny customers. If the CSR on the other end of the phone cops an attitude with me though, it's all out war. I don't use offensive language, but I do use all of the linguistic power I've learned from my parents, siblings, and college professors to put and keep them on the defensive until they cede my point. I kid you not when I say that my coworkers gather around when I talk to people about screwed up billing. Well, it's more of a proverbial gathering -- chatter stops, the radio goes off, and everyone listens, it's not the literal gathering of people in the sense that my cubicle becomes crowded.
I can always get them to lift the late fee, and I always do, no matter how much effort it takes. Every minute of effort on my end is at least a minute of effort on their end. However, as much as I enjoy a good spat with someone over some new subject, I'm not keenly interested in reliving the same spat every month, nor am I inclined to pay my bill early to avoid the hassle. If what I've described above becomes a reoccurring pattern with a company, I'll drop them flat. This is the reason I pay MORE for my Verizon Wireless phones than I paid for my Cingular phones. Not once has VW told me that I was late on a bill that I wasn't actually late on. Cingular told me this every month. Their official policy was that you should have payments in their office 5 business days before the due date to avoid the late fees. Well, if that's the case, why isn't the due date 5 days earlier? My favorite question to ask any lippy person on the other end of the phone when talking to Cingular was, "What does 'due date' mean?"
Invariably they'd take the bait and say, "That's when you have to have the bill paid by."
Me: "What did I do?"
Them: "Sir, I can remove the late fees, though in the future you might want to pay the bill earlier."
Me: "I'm not going to. Next month when you assess late fees again, I'm going to call your customer service department again, and we're going to repeat this process."
I'm now subscribed only to services which do not incorrectly assess me late fees, but recently I got assessed late fees. This time it was not any sort of billing error that caused me to be charged late fees. Rather, it was a website usability issue at hand. As you can imagine, website usability issues are something that strike close to home for me, as it's my job to produce work devoid of such problems.
The cryptic subject of this blog is "I didn't know these were the same thing." Let me decrypt it for you. I signed up for automatic billing with Verizon. This is where they charge a credit card of mine on the day a bill is due, and the only thing I have to worry about is identifying whether something's wrong with the billing before this happens. As much as possible, I want all of my payments to be automatic. Ideally I'd like to never have to interact with any payment system again in my life, short of performing a personal audit on the bills in order to make sure everything is in order, and I don't have to call customer service and entertain my coworkers.
Well, when you sign up for automatic billing with Verizon, they assume you would also like to stop receiving a paper copy of your bill. No thanks, I'd like to keep receiving that for my records. This goes along with the audit-and-not-otherwise-interact principle. I don't want to have to sign in to a website and deal with a poorly engineered UI to look up old information on my bills. Who is to say that this information will be available 2, 5, 10 years from now when I want access to it? You might claim now that you'll have that information, but when you discover that maintaining this information costs you 8 petabytes of storage, maybe you'll archive this data and I won't have access to it. No thanks, I'll maintain my own data archive, thanks.
So Verizon subscribes me to paper free billing when I sign up for automatic billing. It's a natural conclusion, some people want to not be bothered by this stuff at all, not even to audit their bills, I can understand that. That's not me, so I'll resubscribe myself to the paper billing, and I'm all set. Perhaps there was some fault in me that failed to identify the possibility that if they subscribe me for B when I sign up for A, then perhaps they'll unsubscribe me from A when I unsubscribe from B.
I wonder if it's just me, but if A and B are joined at the hip, then they should not be called "A" and "B" but rather "A and B". Do you see the difference? It's subtle but essential. The website should read, "Sign up for Automatic Payment Plus Paper Free Billing." Likewise, "Unenroll From Automatic Payment and Paper Free Billing." Now I have to argue this point with CSRs to whom it's perfectly natural to believe that these are the same thing with out it needing to be vibrantly stated as such. Now, it is stated as the last sentence in a paragraph that defines what automatic payment is, and the sentence is clear, but I never got this far in the reading, as I thought I had a pretty good idea what automatic payment is -- it's automatic payment. Wherever this cognitive breakdown occurred, be it Verizon.com webmaster, Verizon.com billing department, or my own hasty brain, I'm still out the late fees unless I can convince a CSR that these two are not logically equivalent.