Alaska Communications Systems, Part II

Posted by Arlo on Jan 5, 2007 under Life of Arlo

Fake Google ad, retracted!I got a call the other day that, frankly, surprised the hell out of me.  It was ACS, calling to tell me that they’d read my blog.

The call came in while I was asleep.  I woke up enough to grab the handset and check the caller ID.  “ACS PRODUCT MAN,” it said.  It occurred to my sleep-addled brain that it might have something to do with what I’d written, but it also occurred to me that they might be trying to sell me something.  Either way, I didn’t want to talk to THE MAN.  I settled back down, keeping an ear out for the answering machine.  It didn’t pick up when it was supposed to, but then my cell phone started to ring.  “How the hell did they get my cell number?” I thought.  Then I remembered they were the phone company.  (And later Oksana reminded me that we left our cell numbers on our answering machine’s outgoing message.)  I was tired.

When I finally checked my voice mail, there was a message from an ACS employee who said that she’d come across my blog over the weekend.  (Whoa.)  She sounded apologetic and wanted to offer Oksana and I a “special offer” to make things right.  I had a brainstorm and checked Google.  Sure enough, my blog was already on the first page of results for “Alaska Communications Systems.”  Could that be how they found it?

Listening to her message again, I noticed that she sounded most concerned about the treatment we’d received at the Juneau office.  It’s true, much of our frustration came out at the counter, but I’d hoped my writing conveyed that the letters from their marketing / retail sales department was the heart of the issue.   

I never expected to get anything out of ACS by writing in my blog.  Maybe in the back of my mind I thought that something might come of it, but honestly I was just venting my frustration.  I worried over the impression they must have had of me.  I didn’t want to be “that guy” on the other end of an unpleasant phone call.  I returned her call.

I daresay we had a pleasant conversation.  She started out by apologizing profusely for the experiences we had, and I tried to explain that, for the most part, I was quite satisfied with ACS’s service and wasn’t trying to be difficult.  Thoughout the course of the conversation, I think she better understood Oksana’s and my frustrations.  For my part, I gained a better understanding of the difficulties they face as a company.  (It turns out that the FCC has mandated that they switch from a TDMA to a CDMA network; ACS really didn’t have a choice in the matter.  Alaska is a tough place to establish any infrastructure, and even now they’re petitioning for an extension.)

When discussing my particular problems, I told her that it felt like an insult to sign a new contract after six years.  She explained that it was the only way in which they could offer free phones.  If they didn’t lock us into one, what would stop us from canceling our service and taking our $300 phones to another network?  “Well,” I countered, “What about the fact that all the other cell phone companies work just like you do and will only let you use one of their own phones with one of their own contracts?”  She had a good answer: That’s not going to be the case much longer.  I asked if that means the U.S. cell market is going to become more like that of Europe’s, where we’ll be able to take our phones (or at least the simm cards) from company to company.  She implied that it was.  If true (and I’m not even going to think about wading into FCC/mobile phone laws to verify it!) that’s a good thing.  Also, I grudgingly had to admit, a good reason for requiring contracts.

Before she brought up her previously mentioned “special offer,” she asked what she could do to make sure we stayed with ACS.  I thought about how this was my big chance to lay out a list of demands (“Make them outrageous to start with,” I thought, “So that the eventual compromise is better!”), but I didn’t want to abuse the situation.  Instead, I told her that I only needed two things to completely satisfy me:  1) Despite the deadline for a free* phone passing, we’d still like to get in on that offer, and 2) I wanted the moral victory of not having to sign a new contract. 

What’s the harm in not signing a contract if I give my word that we’d stay with them for the next two years?  I reasoned that our six previous years of timely payments demonstrated our loyalty and our monthly payments would be exactly the same either way.  My “requirements” wouldn’t cost them a cent.  Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to make the contract decision on her own.  She told me she’d speak to the product manager and get back to me later that afternoon. 

When she called back, I was actually surprised to hear that they wouldn’t budge on the contract issue.  But before I could express any further frustration, she told me what they wanted to do for us instead.  We were offered free phones that were better than the previous offerings as well as an incentive on a monthly plan that would actually save us some money.  I told her I’d have to talk to Oksana first, but that I thought their offer was fair.  Better than what I wanted, in fact.

That evening, Oksana agreed… grudgingly.  She still maintained the opinion that our previous phones worked just fine and resented that ACS was forcing this inconvenience upon us.  We crunched some numbers, still looking at the idea of getting a phone from a Seattle-based carrier.  Ideally, we wanted nationwide minutes, but couldn’t justify ACS’s difference in monthly costs.  After some calculations, we realized we could pay for 80 minutes of per-minute long distance fees (or 40 minutes of roaming) before we exceeded the difference between nationwide and statewide plans.  That was good enough for us.  Besides, we planned to continue using our Skype Phone for longer calls, anyway.  I called ACS back and now we’ere scheduled to pick up our new phones — and contract — next week.

We’re walking away from this as satisfied ACS customers.  There are a few lessons I’m taking away from this whole thing.

1)  You never know who will read your blog.  It turns out I have a friend that works in the ACS marketing department.  I swear to God I didn’t know that when I wrote the first post!  (By the way, thank you, you-know-who-you-are!)

2)  ACS really does value the loyalty of their customers and will go the extra mile to make sure they are happy.

3)  There are people out there that will read this and realize that, with a little complaining, they can get ACS to offer them a “special offer,” too.  These people are assholes.  If you’ve ever worked in a service industry, I’m sure you can spot when people are trying to take advantage of your customer service.  You can’t say what you really think about them for risk of losing their business (or your job), so you deal with these people as best you can.  It’s because of people like this that cell phone companies have to lock us into contracts. 

Despite my “success” here, I don’t plan to make a habit out of being a squeeky wheel.  You shouldn’t either.