Let Them Use Smart Phones

I’m probably the un-hippest “A-Lister” who flies Southwest Airlines. The A-List is a status that Southwest Airlines awards to people who fly over 25 flights in a year. The basic A-List perk is that you get on and off the plane faster. It seems everyone who sits around me has a smart phone. As soon as they get to their seat, they check their e-mails until a cabin attendant instructs everyone to turn off all devices. As soon as the plane lands, every smart phone fires up.

As for me, my TracFone stays in my briefcase. I’m glad to be disconnected. I’m online most of the day, so any downtime is very welcome.

We have four TracFone’s in our family. Collectively the bill is around $25 a month. Sunday I had a problem with my service, and I needed the TracFone customer service number. When I Googled TracFone up came a recent New York Times article titled “The Minutes Were Prepaid, but the Grief Was Free.” “The Haggler,” the New York Times consumer advocate (aka David Segal), was on the case.

Why was the Haggler on the case? It seems a TracFone customer bought minutes without understanding that minutes expire if the phone service is not renewed after 90 days. In my experience, the service expiration time for my TracFone is always prominently displayed. Somehow this customer missed the information and felt aggrieved enough to contact the New York Times.

I was interested in reading the article. TracFone has always provided good service to my family; and when there has been an issue, their customer service people have been among the best I have encountered. Yes, they are located in a call center somewhere in Central America; but without fail, they are polite and helpful. Grief? How could such an economical service provide somebody grief?

I mention the location of Tracfone’s call center only because the Haggler thought it was important to establish that Tracfone had outsourced its call center:

Of the many legitimate companies that the Haggler has tried to reach — as opposed to sham operations that are hiding from customers and the law — none have been as elusive as TracFone. It has no media relations line, and all the phone numbers listed on its Web site, which are printed beside the company’s Miami address, seem to ring in lands far, far away.

“I am in Miami,” a TracFone rep said, in an accent that did not exactly suggest Florida.

Really?

“Yes. Any question you have about TracFone you can ask me.”

“But my question is for someone who can speak on behalf of the company, to a reporter,” the Haggler continued. “Can you connect me to someone in your Miami headquarters?”

“I’m in the Miami headquarters,” this rep said.

Uh-huh.

“Who is the governor of Florida?” the Haggler asked.

Long pause. “Do you have a question related to TracFone?” the rep asked.

“Can you name a baseball team in Florida?”

Longer pause.

“Fill in the blank,” the Haggler said. “Florida is the blank state.”

More silence.

Notice how the Haggler tries to associate TracFone with a sham operation. Why is it important to the New York Times that the TracFone call center is not in the United States? Perhaps that makes the company automatically guilty? Why did the New York Times consumer advocate have to bully the consumer representative and then feel proud enough to show off his bulling prowess in print? Rather than being amused, I was disgusted by the Haggler’s bullying behavior.

I do admit that the accents of the TracFone representatives are often thick. But if I don’t multitask while I’m on the phone, if I fully listen, they are not hard to understand. The truth is when I reach a call center overseas, I am not annoyed; I am touched. I am touched that the world is becoming smaller. I am touched that my consumer purchases are contributing to an emerging middle class in a country where poverty is more pervasive than in my own. In my own small way, I feel I am contributing to world peace and helping to alleviate human suffering.

The Tracfone problem I had yesterday was tricky to solve. It was Sunday, but my call was answered on the first ring. The customer service representative spent over an hour with me on solving the problem. He then called me back later that day, Sunday evening, to make sure the issue was resolved. I have used Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T in the past. Except if their service has radically changed since I was a customer, their customer service could borrow pages from TracFone’s playbook.

Why the poor attitude, Haggler? Perhaps you don’t see the need for a company like TracFone? Perhaps in your world everyone should either have a smart phone or receive a free government lifeline phone? Perhaps, in your worldview, companies should not outsource call centers?

Haggler, Tracfone provides a needed service to those who can’t afford high-priced service or those who choose to spend their money on other goods and services. Your column is a sad sign of our times—honest businesses are derisively dismissed by the public and the media while dishonest politicians are lionized.  You fashion yourself a consumer advocate but rather than helping people, Haggler, at least in this case you are contributing to more misery in the world.

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