Fed up with spending a massive amount of time talking with a Comcast customer service representative to lower his phone, cable and Internet bill, Kenneth Courtland, an IT consultant in Chicago, found himself in a conundrum – instead of receiving a discount, he found himself agreeing to their most expensive package.
The “package” had barely saved him $10 each month because of the promotional pricing, but after the first year, Courtland was faced with a bill that was 30% higher. The only offer Courtland received to lower his current bill was to agree to a new two-year contract. Apprehensive of his bill rising again after the initial period ended, he sought the help of Julian Kurland and his brother, Ben, who founded BillFixers, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company which negotiates monthly bills for consumers.
The brothers and their staff of 11 people spend their days sweet talking, persuading, battling and negotiating with customer service reps at gyms, cable, cell, satellite, phone and newspaper companies to help customers who have given up on reducing their bills. After the initial honeymoon period ends after a sign up, consumers find that the deals promised to them that were seemingly a bargain often have evolved into a Kafkaesque situation. In order to lower the current bill, some companies lure people back in for even longer contracts and potentially even larger bills down the road.
After battling companies when he was in college and also helping out his roommate, Julian Kurland said the work is “actually sort of fun like a game now because we know what to go for, so it’s extremely satisfying to do this on a large scale.”
If the thought of calling the cable or cell phone company and being forced to listen to Muzak in order to reduce your bill fills you with trepidation, anxiety or a smidgen of resentment, BillFixers will do the heavy lifting without consumers having to pay an upfront fee. Once the company negotiates your bill, its fee is 50% of your savings, similar to the arrangement offered by BillCutterz, a Corpus Christi, Texas company.
After BillFixers talked to Comcast, Courtland kept the same service for 12 months, but did not have to sign a contract, saving him $600 or around $50 a month.
“People get in trouble because when they first sign up it can be hard to tell what the price really is and they get surprised when prices change dramatically,” said Kurland.
Promotional Deals Go Awry
New customers often get lured into agreeing to special deals which offer steep discounts. When the first year ends, the sticker shock sets in as the price for the services can rise exponentially by as much as 50%.
Companies can get away with these shenanigans, because the exceptions and extra fees are often listed in the fine print or the deal does not include prices for equipment or other fees, making it confusing, said Kurland. A consumer who receives a $100 package for his cable service will wind up paying an additional 40% or a total of $150 for the cable box, HD or a modem and taxes and fees.
After getting the runaround for days and weeks, customers no longer want to deal companies. They surrender because they do not feel like have any recourse, mistakenly believing they are responsible and agree to a contract or lack the inclination to make another call. Other people are unaware that they can call companies and negotiate lower rates.
Kurland, a licensed non-practicing attorney in Tennessee who has clerked for several judges, said consumers have rights and often get into the contracts by accident. They are not aware that they have the right to call back the company to tell them they did not agree. In those cases, companies will often admit to making a mistake and give consumers the same price without a contract, he said.
Since BillFixers launched in August 2014, Kurland has made thousands of calls and his persistence and knowledge of the “magic” words means the company can resolve the issue and obtain a discount 95% of the time for consumers without signing them up for extra services or lengthy contracts.
BillFixers acts as an agent for consumers and typically can negotiate better and fairer deals for them in under two hours. Even though the company's employees know the tricks of the industry, they still face talking to an endless amount of unhelpful representatives or calls which turn into busy signals, hang ups before they get to the automated menu, transfers to departments which are closed for the evening and other dead ends.
“There is nothing worse than being on the phone indefinitely haggling over how much you should pay for your cable package,” Kurland said. “The main reason people call us is that people have tried doing this for themselves, even ones who know the trick words.”
After getting the runaround, consumers often feel beaten down and do not have the will to fight them anymore, Kurland said. The company can save consumers an average of $300 a year and the majority of people who call for their help are seeking a less expensive cable package. In many cases, the cable package starts at $100 a month the first year and then skyrockets to $130 the second year.
“We can negotiate with the company and get consumers back to paying $100 a month,” he said. “They want someone to pick up the torch and take it the rest of the way,” he said.
This issue has not gone unnoticed by the Federal Communications Commission which said that consumers who choose to obtain several services together as a package, otherwise known as bundling can find themselves confused over the billing. Consumers can file a complaint to the FCC, which issues a tracking number for updates on their status.
Bundling your services can lead to larger issues. Although consumers can save $10 a month for all three services at first, when the contract ends, the increase applies to all of them, Kurland said. Since customers can not negotiate cheaper prices for just two of the services, in order to keep their cable, phone and internet, they wind up paying more.
Tips to Negotiate Better Prices
Consumers must be tenacious and dogged in their efforts, especially if they have been customers for several years, Kurland said.
“Be persistent on the phone until they are willing to give you those services for the right prices,” he said. “If you have been a customer for a long time and have paid your bills on time, they will negotiate to keep you as a customer.”
People who want to negotiate a better deal should ask for the retention or customer loyalty department first because only those employees have the ability to give discounts, he said.
“Try to be friendly on the phone because it helps enormously,” Kurland said. “The representatives deal with angry customers all day – instead, if you're friendly, the rep is much more likely to help find every deal they can.”
Once a new deal or discount is struck, consumers should check back to make sure the change appears on their bill. Although some companies send email confirmations, many of them use confusing language listing partial credits and rates or an estimated figure of the savings which will not match the amount that was given over the phone.
“Make sure everything went through because there are any number of reasons it might not have taken place,” he said. “Don't trust your new price until you've had it confirmed by two separate representatives.”
Incorrect medical bills are often cited as one of the top vexing issues to consumers. Since the consequences of medical bills and mortgages are more serious since they can affect credit scores, Kurland said the company is conducting research to see if it’s a viable option.
“We want to be in a position where we won’t make any errors at all,” he said.