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Customer disservice

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It seems like a silly quest. For seven months, Sandra Burke has been raising bloody hell with the country's second-largest Internet service provider over $13.90.

All she wanted to do was cancel her EarthLink dial-up service. But her credit card kept getting charged. What followed were countless calls to EarthLink, untold aggravation, and a letter to the Better Business Bureau. And even when her account was finally credited, and the matter seemed behind her, EarthLink turned around and charged her the $13.90 again.

"And, I'm like, they're just doing it on purpose now," she says. "They're just being jerks. That was the one that just appalled me."

Faced with the prospect of hours on the phone for such a piddling amount, many of us would have just swallowed our pride -- and the $13.90. But Burke had had enough. "I totally don't think it was an accident. I don't think it was incompetence. I think it was fraud."

Ironically, two weeks ago, J.D. Power and Associates rated EarthLink as the nation's best Internet service provider in terms of customer satisfaction. Yet here in Atlanta, the Better Business Bureau has tallied more complaints about EarthLink -- 728 so far this year from across the country -- than against any other business in metro Atlanta. Over the last three years, 1,224 customers have complained against EarthLink.

It's a sign of what a joke customer service has become that a company can be No. 1 in a customer satisfaction poll and also rack up the most consumer complaints in the region.

But the problem isn't just EarthLink's. The phrase "customer service" has become a bigger oxymoron than military intelligence. Blame can be passed all around. There's the corporatization of America, where customer service runs way behind size and profits. There's, paradoxically, the success of the economy, which makes it hard for companies to find qualified people who really give a crap about your problems. There's the greed of the companies themselves, who somehow never make an error in your favor. And when they stiff you for a few bucks, as they did Burke, there's an endless maze to navigate, one that's easier just to avoid than get lost in. Don't assume it's not intentional; one consumer advocate estimates that around 5 percent of companies have designed their customer service departments deliberately to confound and perplex, figuring most customers will just give up.

Whether it's intentional or not, the effect of bad customer service is universal: the fraying sanity of the American consumer. Avoid the maze, and you get screwed. Enter the maze, and you lose your mind.

Forget all the platitudes that companies spout about the customer being No. 1. When your cell phone bill is screwed up, or when you're having trouble with your insurer, you are one thing in that company's eyes: the enemy. And the customer service department is the first and best line of defense.

Who hasn't been forwarded from a representative to an associate to a technician, only to be put on hold and forced to listen to endless Kenny G, punctuated by a recording that repeats the same lies?

Your call is important to us.

Please remain on the line. A customer service representative technician will be with you in BEEP 13 BEEP minutes.

Your call is important to us.

Most miffed customers hang up. Some write a letter. A few even contact the Better Business Bureau, a private agency funded by companies. The bureau investigates complaints from consumers. But it lacks any enforcement ability, instead relying on the companies themselves to make amends, if the companies deem that amends are called for. If a company has behaved particularly badly, its membership can be revoked and -- look out -- can no longer display its Better Business Bureau membership plaque.

The office of the Atlanta Better Business Bureau is tucked away in a nondescript business park near the airport. Dean Smith, president and CEO of Atlanta's Better Business Bureau, and his employees -- fewer than 20 -- keep track of complaints against 14,000 Atlanta companies.

"We're overwhelmed and understaffed, for certain," he says. Membership fees are based on the size of the company, but the average is $300 -- not high enough, Smith says, to support the kind of work they need to do.

"We aren't able to be out in the community as much as we'd like to be, trying to help people avoid being victimized by unscrupulous companies, just because we have so much going on here."

For 13 years, Smith has labored for the rights of consumers at the Better Business Bureau. Three months ago, he was named head of the Atlanta office.

By studying the hundreds of thousands of complaints that pour into his office, Smith has over the years spotted a plethora of tricks companies rely on to squeeze money out of their customers.

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