How Cable Companies Force Customers to Lie

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If you have never threatened to cancel your phone, pay TV, or Internet service, chances are you’re paying too much. Why must providers force customers to go to such lengths in order to feel like they’re not getting ripped off?

By now, consumers should know what to do when they discover one of their monthly bills has suddenly gone up. The simple, albeit annoying, counter-strategy has been discussed ad nauseum by the likes of money-saving blogs (FreeFromBroke, WiseBread, GetRichSlowly, lifehacker, Bargaineering), as well as mainstream media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC.

The advice boils down to: Call up and ask for a better rate. Don’t hang up until they scale prices back. Threaten to cancel some or all of your service if you must. Chances are, you’ll have to do just that, even if you don’t want to cancel and probably wouldn’t anyway.

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The WSJ offers these tips for negotiating lower prices:

Providers often will allow customers to continue cost-saving promotions well after they expire. Other providers will cut you a new deal every six months—but you have to call and ask. Often, if customers threaten to cancel service, they are transferred to the “retention department” staffed with representatives who are trained to offer customers deals to stay put.

Isn’t this exercise a colossal waste of time and energy for customer and company alike? How can it make sense for a company to essentially penalize customers for their loyalty? What we have, especially with cable companies, is a system in which those who stick with a service the longest, and who pay their bills on time and never complain, are rewarded with ever more expensive monthly bills. But if you’re a squeaky wheel who regularly calls up and hassles customer service representatives? Rewards will be yours, in the form of cheaper monthly rates.

Is it any wonder that in a survey conducted last year evaluating customer service in various industries, consumers rated TV, phone, and Internet providers as having the worst?

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Among the latest to launch a rant—not including me right here, right now, of course—about cable company tactics is Forbes writer Timothy B. Lee, who rehashed his interactions with Comcast in more than one post. Lee only uses Comcast for Internet service, and he’s seen his monthly bill escalate from $38 to over $80 per month in just three years. What drives Lee especially batty is that he feels forced to lie in order to avoid exorbitant price hikes:

While objectively speaking, spending ten minutes on the phone and telling a few white lies isn’t a big deal, lying to people grates on me. Every time I go through this process, my dislike for Comcast increases by another notch.

A Slate post, responding to Lee’s experiences, suggests that, because there’s usually only one cable Internet provider in most markets, this amounts to a monopoly—a monopoly whose rates must be regulated to avoid unfair pricing.

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Normally, there would be natural incentives for companies to practice behavior that didn’t make customers hate them. Such behavior tends to be bad for business. But when there’s more or less a monopoly, business tends to be pretty good no matter how consumers feel. Judging by customer service surveys, as well as Consumerist’s annual “Worst Company in America” tournament—which featured nine Telecom companies (TimeWarnerCable included) this past year, and which Comcast “won” in 2010—these providers don’t seem to be bothered much by leaving a bad taste in their customers’ mouths.

As things stand, even customers who aren’t getting ripped off are left with bad feelings about their providers—because they’ve been forced to call up, wait on hold, haggle, be passed around from representative to representative, haggle some more, and perhaps lie more than a few times, to avoid higher and higher bills.

Imagine what good will — loyalty even — a company would generate simply by not forcing customers to go to such annoying lengths.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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