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Bell Atlantic: Customer care problems pile up
Telephony / August 7, 1995

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON -- For most customers in western Virginia, getting used to the new "540" area code will be little more than an inconvenience after years of dialing "703". But for Bell Atlantic, the headache won't go away so soon.

In mid-July, the company mailed out 338,000 notices of the impending changes -- but all of them went to the wrong subscribers. As a result, all Bell Atlantic customers in northern Virginia got the reminders, even though their area code will remain "703", while those farther west in Virginia -- whose area code really ischanging -- never saw the notices.

The blunder, which made the front page of the Washington Post, in a story headlined "Three Little Digits, One Big Goof," has so far cost Bell Atlantic more than $100,000 in printing and mailing expenses.

"We got a number of calls from people who were confused," company spokesman Paul Miller told Telephony. "As soon as we realized what happened, we decided to contact the press ourselves and get the word out."

The ill-fated notices contained four white gummed stickers for people to affix to their phones as a reminder that they'd have a six-month grace period until the 540 code becomes mandatory on Jan. 27, 1996.

Miller attributed the blunder to a "programming error" he said has nothing to do with area-code splits.

"First of all, the programmer who works for us keyed in the wrong exchanges. He operated off the wrong list and extracted the labels. Then there were two quality checks that weren't made before they were sent to the mailing house. We didn't spot-check them."

Miller said the $100,000 expense will be borne by Bell Atlantic stockholders -- not by customers -- and he assured Telephony that "it's not going to happen in Virginia again." But he declined to name the mailing house that sent out the notices, and refused comment on what sort of disciplinary action, if any, would be taken against the employee who mixed up the lists.

"This was a simple mistake that shouldn't have occurred. The person simply picked up the wrong list," Miller said. "It had nothing to do with how are records are handled within the computer. It was a breakdown of the quality process. The spot check did not occur. Our systems are operating fine."

Apparently, not fine enough. On July 20, the company sent notices to thousands of New Jersey customers notifying them that because of "modernizing the electronic switching system that provides your telephone service," the caller ID boxes they had purchased might no longer work. And the company is offering to replace only those models that Bell Atlantic supplied; customers who purchased other models may be stuck.

"I can't imagine for the life of me that they would get something that wouldn't work with a certain kind of box," says Jeff Cotrupe, senior analyst for New York-based Northern Business Information, a division of Datapro. "Those CLASS services they provide are among the most profitable things they've got. Why would they want to take a chance?"

Cotrupe notes that with increasing global competition, Bell Atlantic -- like its sister Baby Bells -- are coming under a lot of pressure to "quickly handle things in the cheapest manner," which often results in administrative errors of this type.

"They don't want to make waves, or alert anyone to anything they absolutely don't have to, so for them to make a mistake of this magnitude and put a whole lot of customers on red alert is surprising," he said. "It's worse yet that it happened in one of the most visible metro markets in the whole world."

Meanwhile, Bell Atlantic this week is mailing out 338,000 notices to the correct group of 540-area-code customers, who live in an area from Virginia's southwestern tip northeast along the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Potomac River and east to Fredericksburg. And a letter of apology is going out to those 338,000 customers who should never have gotten the notice in the first place.

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