Column: ‘It’s the principle of the thing!’ Couple fights for 44-year-old phone number
This is one of those stories where the stakes may be small but the issues raised are large, reflecting how difficult it can be for consumers to navigate customer-service obstacle courses.
Huntington Beach residents Robin Gross, 69, and her husband, James Brown, 68, are longtime phone customers of Frontier Communications and before that Verizon Communications. Frontier acquired Verizon’s California landline business in 2016.
Gross and Brown recently decided to transfer their phone service to Spectrum and bundle it with their Spectrum internet service. (Spectrum partners with the Los Angeles Times for a nightly TV show.)
Normally this wouldn’t be a hassle. Federal regulations allow telecom customers to switch their phone number, typically at no cost, from one service provider to another, a procedure known as “porting.”
“I’ve had this number since 1976,” Gross told me. “It’s older than my kids. I wanted to keep it.”
As you’ve no doubt surmised, this turned out to be easier said than done.
When the couple upgraded with Spectrum, the company said it would handle everything. It gave them a temporary phone number until the porting process could be completed.
Days passed. The old number was AWOL.
“I kept calling Spectrum to ask what was going on,” Gross said. “They kept saying Frontier wasn’t releasing our number.”
Brown called as well. He said Frontier eventually acknowledged that it closed down the couple’s account before the number was confirmed to have been transferred.
“They said that if we wanted our old number, we’d have to reopen our account for a month and pay a $25 fee,” he recalled.
“I told them they were holding our number hostage,” Brown said. “But they wouldn’t budge. I finally had to hang up because I was frustrated.”
Well, that’s no good. But why not pay the $25 fee and get the matter done with?
“No!” replied Gross. “It’s the principle of the thing!”
Added her husband: “It’s a shady business practice. We’re not going to give them more money.”
I wrote recently about how customer service seems to have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many service reps working remotely or buried under a backlog of requests for help.
A study last year in the Harvard Business Review anticipated these troubles, finding that the average American consumer spends 13 hours a year stuck on hold trying to resolve problems.
Researchers concluded that in many cases, businesses deliberately make it as tough as possible for customers to resolve issues.
“This structure, we argue, keeps a lid on the amount of redress customers are willing to seek,” they said. “In other words, by forcing customers to jump through hoops, the organization helps curb its redress payouts.”
Brown told me he thinks Frontier’s current financial woes have affected its customer service. The company, which racked up $17.5 billion in debt while acquiring Verizon’s assets, filed for bankruptcy protection in April.
“We never had a problem before,” Brown said. “Now they seem to be playing hardball with people.”
His anger, however, may be misplaced. Or not.
Although Gross and Brown said they were told by Spectrum that Frontier messed things up, Frontier says Spectrum was actually the one that let them down.
Javier Mendoza, a Frontier spokesman, said an investigation into the situation revealed that Frontier transferred the couple’s number to Spectrum the same day they requested the change.
“It appears the new carrier did not activate the telephone number and canceled the port request, thus leaving the phone number in Frontier’s pool,” he told me.
Putting the number back in the pool meant it no longer belonged to Gross and Brown. It was at that point available to anyone.
“As a courtesy, Frontier will temporarily re-establish the account at no charge and coordinate with the other carrier to complete the transfer of the phone number,” Mendoza said.
Spectrum is telling a different story.
Dennis Johnson, a company spokesman, said Spectrum didn’t cancel the port request, regardless of what Frontier says. And he said Spectrum, not Frontier, stepped up to make things right after I got in touch.
“We contacted Frontier and worked with them to transfer the phone number to Spectrum Voice without additional charges,” Johnson said.
More than a few readers, I’m sure, are shaking their heads at the spectacle of two huge companies pointing fingers at each other and vying to take credit for fixing a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.
And we, as consumers, are supposed to deal with that?
If you’re having customer-service issues during these strange times, don’t lose hope. Here are some tips:
- First and foremost, be polite. These are crazy days as well for service reps, nearly all of whom aren’t to blame for their companies’ penny-pinching practices. A little civility goes a long way.
- Don’t be shy about escalating. Front-line service reps are frequently not given the power to resolve matters on their own and will often give an unsatisfactory response. Ask to speak with a supervisor.
- If that doesn’t work, write to the company’s chief executive or president, detailing the nature of the problem and providing as much documentation as possible. Most big companies have special dispute-resolution departments at senior levels.
- Be persistent. If it becomes clear that you’re not going away, some companies will finally throw in the towel and offer the response you’re seeking. Squeaky wheels and all that.
What happened to Gross and Brown is yet another example of how customer service could be immeasurably improved if service reps were empowered to handle things on their own.
As it stands, most reps are confined to dead-end scripts and have no authority to resolve unusual problems.
A little digging on Frontier’s part at the outset could have revealed the nature of the issue, saving a pair of departing customers — possibly returning customers down the road — a lot of grief and wasted time.
By the same token, Spectrum could have done its own due diligence when a pair of upgrading customers reported a snafu, rather than immediately dumping all the blame on Frontier.
Moreover, it’s pretty obvious in hindsight that you don’t hit people with a nickel-and-dime fee just to fix a problem not of the customer’s making.
Like I said up top, the stakes here are small — 25 bucks. But Gross was correct: It’s the principle of the thing.
“Whoever dropped the ball, this just never should have happened,” she said after her phone number was restored last Friday.
“I just hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Gross said.