Saturday, February 6, 2016

MONEY | 10 Ways to Cut Cable Bills (Updated Feb. 14, 2016)

Lieber doesn't suggest this one. I do. Also land lines.
Feb. 7, 2016–Right after his fine story on pesky recurring credit card charges, Ron Lieber has another good article in the NY Times yesterday on how to pay less for your cable service, internet, phone, alarm system or other utility.

He sat in on BillFixer agents who lower your monthly bill in return for keeping half the savings for a year.

(This business model is not actually so new. It was used by a New York City company 20 years ago that lowered my phone bill. It is also used by companies that promise to get you a cut in your property tax.)

Since good information can save you money, I will summarize the tips that Lieber picked up in his investigation, along with what I learned from the 40 comments on Lieber's article that I plowed through.

First, I should say that Lieber has a question about the ethics of BillFixer's claiming to be the customer when they are only an agent. This does seem to be illegal, long part of agency law.

However, commenters don't think it is unethical given the refusal of companies to talk with anyone but the customer and the unwillingness of cable-phone companies to communicate their prices in a transparent way. (I have asked for a list of discounts, for example, and I was told that this is internal information only available online to company agents.) Several commenters on Lieber's article argued that in their view cable companies don't treat their customers fairly or ethically, so they don't have "clean hands". The Roman Catholic moral theology that I learned has a special dispensation for untruths that don't qualify as lies, because the questioner has forfeited the right to the truth...

In any case, the following tips bypass the ethics/legality issue of agents claiming they are someone they are not, because you, the consumer, are urged to use them for yourself if you have the time. I have added a few extra tips along the way to the ones that Lieber provides. The last tip is my own.
  1. Try coming in as a Leaver. The “Cancel My Service” option on a phone tree may be the best place to start, because the best deals may be reserved for the staffers at the cable company who are responsible for trying to keep customers (they are called retention specialists). It costs a bundle to get a customer–they don't want you to leave without giving you a fine offer.
  2. Be nice. The cable company call center gets some abusive customers. You may feel that they deserve it. But the agents just work there. They have the authority to give you deals that they might not feel like giving to people who make them feel bad. They might also do some mean things to you. It has happened.
  3. Be prepared. Two ways to prepare: (1) Get information on what other companies are offering. (2) Ask your employer, former employer (if you are retired; see below) or union (or employee association) if there is a discount available for employees. Did you know that government employees or retirees get a 17 percent discount from AT&T? When I first heard about this I was astounded. It applies to Federal, state or local employees, and retirees.
  4. Fish around. Sometimes the deal may be a free service or an upgrade on service status. 
  5. Ask for a new-customer discount. With new plans every month, you are.
  6. Ask for a credit. Often a customer-service agent can just hand out a one-time credit; it has happened to me. Chatter on about a lot of unexpected bills, the needs of your children or parents, or whatever; better if it's true, which it probably is. The agent may decide to give you the credit based on considerations that have nothing to do with what you are saying, like getting on with other business.
  7. If you are a retiree, say so. Two reasons: (1) It means you probably have allowed ample time for this business. When they ask if you want to be put on hold, say "No problem, I'm in no hurry. This is important to me." (2) Be aware that corporate and government discounts usually continue for retirees. Just bring in or fax or email proof–such as a pension payment showing source.
  8. Be cautious about a proposed new plan. Does a reduced fee require a new contract? Commitment? Minimum period? Be on orange or red alert.
  9. Write down the details. Then call back. Confirm you got what you were promised. You may have not been fully informed about your deal.
  10. Cut the cord. Do you really need cable TV? Do you really need a land line? "Cut the cord" usually means cutting out cable TV and telephones. Of course most of us still need an Internet connection and this is ultimately delivered on a phone line (DSL) or a cable-company (FIOS or wire-cable line). My wife Alice and I watch our favorite shows via the Internet–Netflix or whatever, and friends send us links to free classic movies on YouTube etc. Most young people we know don't bother with a land line, because their iPhone is with them wherever they go. Increasingly we are relying for phone service on the iPhone.