07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Report From Hell - One of a Series

It happens to everybody. Today was my turn.


For a number of years, we've been signed up with a low-priced, long-distance service called Telecom USA. Really liked it. No basic fee. Pennies a minute to call England and Canada. I have family in Canada, and my daughter Anna spent her "Junior Abroad" year in London. Telecom USA has been extremely useful. For "useful", read "cheap."

They liked me at Telecom USA. I could tell. Every few weeks, this cheery-voiced young woman -- she was automated, but cheery-voiced nonetheless -- she'd call me, and thank me for using Telecom USA. And I'd say, "You're welcome." I am unfailingly polite to the automated.


June the tenth, I receive my most recent bill from Telecom USA -- five dollars and forty-three cents. The bill is not due till July the first. I've got three weeks to pay it. I set the bill aside.

Three days later, on June the thirteenth, I'm surprised with another letter from Telecom USA. I open the envelope and take out the letter, wondering what it could be. It turns out it's not good.

On the top of the letter, stamped, bold and in "caps", are the words: FINAL NOTICE. This already seems odd, since I had never received any previous notices. The letter makes it sound like I've been holding out on them. It's an admitted flaw of mine. I do not respond well to unwarranted accusations of wrongdoing.

I read the FINAL NOTICE letter.

Dear Telecom USA Customer:

Your cancelled Telecom USA account has an outstanding balance.

I immediately got angry. I know I'm going to have to call these people, and if you're a regular reader, you're aware of how uncomfortable I am on the telephone. Especially talking to strangers. This would definitely include strangers who see me as a deadbeat.

I'm a Good Boy. I pay all of my bills on time. When I go on vacation, I pay them early. How dare they FINAL NOTICE me!

Why am I going to have to call these people? Because there are two mistakes in the letter's first sentence. As far as I knew, my Telecom USA account had not been canceled. And there was, I was certain, no "outstanding balance." I only recently received my last bill. And the payment wasn't due for three weeks.

I'm a busy man. I have blog posts to write. I can't waste my valuable time dealing with people sending me erroneous FINAL NOTICE letters. On the other hand, I can't have a canceled long-distance service. What if I have to call long distance?

I have no choice. I pick up the phone. And I call the number provided in the letter.

What Happened

I wade through half a dozen cycles of "series of options" instructions, till I finally get to a person.

"Customer Service."

They were unaware they were being ironic. Unless they're the same guys who called Fox News "Fair and Balanced."

With patience mixed with indignation, I inform "Customer Service" that I have no "outstanding balance", and demand that he explain to me why my Telecom USA account has been canceled. "Customer Service" tells me that, before he can help me, I have to call the "Collection Department" and speak with them.

I (reluctantly) call the "Collection Department." (That's where the deadbeats call.) But because I want the process to move forward, I do. There I encounter the only sweetheart in the entire operation. Her name is Cecilia. Cecilia senses from my urgency that I'm on a rampage. (Before the call, I had instructed myself to stay calm. I "lost it" in about thirty seconds.) Working in the "Collection Department", Cecilia deals with "unpaid balance" people all the time. Her experience tells her I'm not one of them. Her trust in me turns down the flame.

Cecilia, who's based in St. Louis, volunteers to guide me through my ordeal, an ordeal that involves speaking with people from around the world, some of whom speak so quietly, I can barely make out what they're saying. "They're not as outspoken as we are over here," explains Cecilia.

The problem was this. It's a circle. The first "Customer Service" assistant Cecilia transferred me to explained that he was unable to unblock my service until a "Customer Service" assistant in another department reactivated my account. When I was transferred to that department, however, the assistant there referred me to the department where they unblock the service. Cecilia immediately jumped to my defense.

"We've already been there."

It was a heroic effort. And heartily appreciated. Unfortunately, it didn't help. For the next half hour, I was ping-ponged between the department where people told me I needed my account reinstated and the department where people refused to reinstate it. After three round trips, leaving me exactly where I had started, Cecilia offered some sensible advice.

"If I were you, Earl, I would give up."

I thanked Cecilia for her help and her company, and unhappily took her advice. But not before being informed by the last "Customer Service" assistant I spoke to that Telecom USA had recently been sold by MCI to Verizon. I was then asked if I was interested in signing up for a new long-distance service with Verizon.


I hung up. After allowing myself some "seething time", I called AT&T and signed up for a long-distance service with them. The rates are higher. I'm going to miss those automated "Thank you's." And I'll probably never get to talk to Cecilia again. But what are you going to do?

When I'm on my deathbed, the thing I'll regret the most will be the time I lost getting the runaround from Telecom USA. Well, maybe not the most, but it'll be up there.

Post Script

Twenty minutes later, the phone rings. It's Verizon, with a follow-up (automated) survey, inviting me to rate my experience with their company.

"We see that you recently called us about some problem. We'd like to know how we did."

The survey included a series of multiple-choice questions, and ended with an opportunity for an extended verbal report. I simply told them what happened. Based on the grade I gave them, if Verizon were a student, they would now be attending remedial summer school.

A three-word summary?

"I hate you!"

Okay. I've vented.

Now how about you?

Earl Pomerantz' s blog can be reached at