"Wow, look! A dinosaur!"
We were having brunch a few weeks ago, after playing snow disc under clear skies with temperatures running in the high 40s; the Milkman was referring to my cell phone.
I took a certain amount of pride in my old Audiovox CDM-9000, which I'd had for almost 5 years. It's never been a priority for me to have the latest, greatest, gee-whiz new-fangled doo-dad. When I bought my PDA (a B&W Handspring Visor Edge) over 3 years ago, it was right around the time they had discontinued making it. I've had my stereo amp and tuner since college (if they were people, they'd be allowed to vote by now), and they were refurbished models when I bought them. I'd been looking for a new cell phone, but it was hard to justify since the one I already had was working just fine. The buttons were starting to go, but overall I couldn't complain: it got good signal and I'd never really had any problems with it. (And there's that whole trying not to spend money because I still don't have a job thing.) I hadn't really NEEDED a new phone.
You'll notice that I wrote a lot of that in the past tense.
And that would be because the Milkman's little comment was apparently something of a harbinger of doom. Pretty much the next day, my phone died.
So it really was time to get a new cellphone.
The problem is that I'm pretty picky about the features I've wanted in a new phone, and Verizon seems to be determined not to offer the combination I've been looking for. For what it's worth, I wanted a tri-mode phone, clamshell, with an LCD display on the outside, and NO CAMERA.
I mean, how hard is that?
Hard enough apparently.
The sticking point seems to be the camera. They're pretty much ubiquitous these days, and while I think it's pretty nifty that it's A PHONE AND A CAMERA (AT THE SAME TIME!!!), when it comes right down to it, I don't need it. Just like I don't need mobile web. Or video on demand. (Crikey, I don't even use video on demand IN MY FREAKING HOUSE!)
I don't want it. I don't need it. And I sure as hell don't want to need it.
I'd been checking the Verizon website on a fairly regular basis after learning that they would offer up to a $100 credit on a new phone to existing customers. But the selection has always been fairly limited*.
Ok, the selection sucked.
So I figured I'd just be stuck with my old phone for the rest of my natural life.
Let me now state for the record here that I've always held a wee bit of contempt for Radio Shack. Just a deep-seated visceral response probably rooted in an ancient Apple ][+ versus TRS(trash)-80 rivalry and memories of lame electronics kits and crappy alkaline batteries. I admit that it's fairly irrational, but there it is. And it hasn't been helped by a few recent experiences where the service has been uninspiring to say the least.
Let's take my original attempt at finding the replacement battery as an example.
I had originally looked for the battery at a Shack down on Main Street in Waltham. I don't find the stores particularly well organized, but I manage to find the rechargeable phone batteries. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be in any particular order and they all seem to be based on phone models and, silly me, I just wrote down the specs and part number of the BATTERY. (And did I mention that even if you know the phone model number, the phone model information is printed on the back of the package, so you have to pull the package off the rack to see if it's the right one?) I go through them anyway, hoping to pattern match on the voltage and current, checking to see if it fits a Panasonic phone (for any model), but no luck. So I go talk to the guy behind the counter (after he helps two other people in the store).
I have to bring in the phone, he tells me. I ask him again just to make sure I was hearing him right (I was), and then left, too dumbfounded to ask why he couldn't somehow, maybe, look it up, like, on a computer or something.
Yeah, I'm not so fond of the Shack. In my head, I think of them as the Scrap. Or, Radio Crap.
So back to Fresh Pond. I walk into the store, fully expecting to be disappointed when I'm asked if I need any help and I tell him about the battery I'm looking for. And he just walks over to the rack and hands it to me. And then says something to the effect of: "I think this is the one you want, but I'll double-check on the computer." Huh, a computer. Who'da thunk it? I'm amazed at the technological advances they've made in the last week. So cool, I get my battery. After I pay, I look over the cell phones before I head out. (I find it odd that the Shack sells cell phones, but whatever. It's particularly interesting that the other Shack in Waltham that's in the mini-mall down the street is just 2-3 storefronts down from an actual Verizon store. And while I'm on the subject, does anyone else think that these brick and mortar corporate cell phone stores are stupid? Especially when they probably have better accessibility through these 3rd party resellers? Like Radio Shack?) The sales guy notices me looking and asks again if I need any help. I tell him no, Verizon never has the phone I'm looking for, but I usually check just for shits and giggles. He asks what I'm looking for, I give him the list, and then he points out two (not one, but TWO) phones that are the droids I'm looking for.
"Are you sure they're tri-mode?" I ask.
"Yup," he says.
Huh, again. I file this information away (since I'm still trying to be circumspect about my spending), thank him and leave.
So when my phone dies, I go through the motions and check the Verizon site, and then hit Fresh Pond the next day.
Different guy, just as helpful. He pulls out the phones so I can actually play with them. Gives me the scoop on their features, but also brings up their specs on a computer in the store. And then leaves me alone so I can figure out what I want to do. I end up with the Motorola v260, and it'll cost me 30 bucks if I renew my contract with Verizon for 2 years. Yeah, cool, whatever. I've stuck with them for over 5 years. I like my plan. Sure, no problem.
Well, no. To get the phone, I have to upgrade my plan, otherwise I have to pay $200 for the phone.
I'm kind of attached to my phone plan. For 35 bucks (plus taxes, fees and assorted reaming charges), I get 150 minutes (low in the grand scheme of phone plans, but perfectly adequate for me) in the USA OneRate plan, which they don't offer anymore, and should not be confused with their America's Choice plan that they're trying to force down everyone's throat. It means there are NO roaming charges, anywhere in the country. It's a really simple coverage/rate map, too. You take a map of the U.S. and just color the whole thing in. I like it. Simple. And it's nice to not have to worry if you're gonna have coverage or be charged for roaming** (which I can never seem figure out exactly how much they're charging).
So I'm not happy about being forced into changing my plan, but the guy convinces me that their National SingleRate plan (which also isn't officially being offered anymore) is basically the same plan that I used to have. Ok. Sold. I'm annoyed with Verizon, but close enough. And hey, new phone.
And that night, I remember that my plan had a promotional (for as long as I had the plan) service of unlimited free weekend minutes. I'm worried again. Did I lose my weekend minutes? The next morning, I call to find out the scoop, expecting the worst. Nope. I still have my weekend minutes, and actually my plan didn't get changed*** at all. It should have been changed, but since it wasn't, they're not going to muck with it. (SCORE! Fresh Pond Radio Shack, you ROCK!)
And then he tries to sell me on the America's Choice plan.
So I go over my standard story about how I don't need that many minutes, and I like not having to worry about coverage and roaming charges in some of the random places I end up, like in the middle of the Mojave desert or obscure parts of New Hampshire or the wilds of Western Mass. That I don't think the Choice plan is the plan for me. And I think I mention that I'm annoyed that they keep changing the plans and are trying to get me to switch. And then he tells me that Verizon is only TRYING TO HELP THE CUSTOMER. . . .
I'm sorry, did you just hear my eyes roll?
It's funny, I had this crazy idea that big companies basically did things to make money. And pretty much as much money as possible. (Of course, preferably in such a way that they can show a nice constant growth trajectory in revenue to make the zombies on Wall Street all collectively soil themselves.)
I mean, I'm sure that a company wouldn't stop doing something that happened to help a customer so long as it wasn't directly getting in the way of the prime directive of making more money. But let's face it: if there were no repercussions for a company to make money by, I dunno, cutting off people's arms to be sold to their next door neighbor, I'm pretty sure it'd happen. In fact, I expect the stockholders would probably demand it. I'm sure there are exception, but as a general rule, I expect a large company to help the customer only because it benefits the company, whether it be to build loyalty, to improve the company's image, to avoid the threat of regulation (Not like that's going to happen these days), or whatever.I was listening to Marketplace on NPR the other day, and one of the listener letters was complaining about how Verizon was investing in premium services (such as V-CAST) rather then improving their basic services.
There is this false idea that capitalism and the spirit of competition will just make everything better. Sure, in some markets you can get price competition, but there will also be competition in quality and service. And even then, there are dependencies: true competition, market saturation, resource availability. And what about companies that are trying to (required to) grow revenue? When stock price and market perception (read: the focus on revenue growth) trumps stability, you get companies emphasizing new features over core service, and cost reduction (like "encouraging" your customer base to switch to internal network plans), especially when you start approaching market saturation.
I find the idea particularly frightening when you start talking about health care and health insurance, where the discussion seems to focus on costs, but the reality is that there is more than one degree of freedom. Competition can reduce costs, but you can't assume that the quality of the care and service will remain fixed. Differentiation and competition will occur on both cost AND quality. And if you can't afford basic health care, you can just suck it up, and hope some band-aids and aspirin will be enough. Sure, you get what you pay for, and if you can't afford to pay: too bad, so sad.
How about an insurance company that's always watching the bottom line, decides that you're high risk (Smoker? Eat fatty foods? Family history of cancer?) so they either charge you an astronomical premium, or just flat out refuse coverage. How well does that idea sit with you? Or what about...
Um, right. I was talking about my new cell phone.
It's got a cool ring though, did I mention that?
*According to a Verizon rep that I talked to (at their store in the Burlington mall), they're pretty picky about qualifying phones which, while possibly providing better reliability and coverage, severely limits their selection. He also said that they tended to only order limited stock because they didn't want to get stuck with a bunch of older models because people were more interested in the latest new thing. (Thus: lots of camera phones; no old, boring tri-mode phones.)
**Since all of this happened, Verizon has changed their America's Choice plan to have no roaming charges. (As is typical, this happens about 2 weeks after I have to deal with the new phone/new phone plan thing.) But they still don't have full national coverage, so I can only assume that you just won't get signal in those areas.
***I've since received a monthly statement and a new contract in the mail that both seem to suggests that I'm only getting free weekend airtime as a special 2-month promotion and that I'm going to be charged $10 a month for the service. I've called Verizon's customer service yet again, and they seem to think that the paperwork is wrong and I really do have free weekend minutes at no additional charge. But I'm not going to believe it until I get my May statement and I don't see any extra charges.