Tony Norman: Breakups over the phone sound so difficult

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This week I switched mobile phone carriers. It was one of the most traumatic events of recent years.

As I walked out of the store with a new smartphone and a head full of promises about this new relationship, I felt bad about the relationship that didn't work out.

Without naming any of the carriers involved, let me say that the service I left behind was perfectly adequate. Its sales people are courteous and intelligent and pass no moral judgment if an expletive falls from your lips concerning bad reception.

Prior to this week's drama, my most traumatizing event at a phone store occurred roughly a decade ago when a middle-aged salesman rebuked me for "taking God's name in vain."

He was offended by my tone during our brief conversation and asked me to be more considerate about how I talked to him. Of course, I walked out on him during the middle of his pitch, but I'd be lying if I said the encounter didn't rattle me. That wasn't supposed to be the way capitalism worked.

Fast forward to the present. Difficulty having a conversation lasting more than a few minutes with my nearly 2-year-old phone before reception got spotty drove me into the shiny display room of a rival carrier.

At first, I was just browsing, attracted by the lavish promises made in television ads about how this phone carrier would make all things right with the world. It even offered to pay early termination fees I would be assessed for leaving my other contract early.

It sounded like a marriage made in heaven -- a massive data plan at a cheaper rate and no two-year contract. The allure of an open relationship appealed to me more than anything else. If I didn't like the service, I could leave without recriminations.

Before I knew it, the saleswoman was doing a "soft credit check," the first step toward consummating a deal. I was ready to make the switch to her carrier. All she needed was a code number that only my old carrier had. I would have to call the old carrier to get it, a duty I dreaded because it would mean fessing up to my intention to break my contract.

It was the first time I ever got a phone tree that immediately routed me to a human. As maddening as phone trees usually are, I was hoping this one would give me the info I needed without having to deal with an actual person. No such luck, of course.

The pleasant man who answered offered his first and last name and where he was located, as if determined to help me remember a prior acquaintanceship that didn't exist. He asked firmly, but politely, why I needed the code since the company was determined to do everything necessary to keep me.

After some stammering on my part, he offered to lower an already reasonable monthly rate. He put me on hold before returning with more goodies. If I needed some kind of booster antennae installed at my home, he was happy to arrange it. "We hate to lose a good customer," he said repeatedly. He sounded plaintive, bordering on desperate.

Since I had no complaint about the actual service other than bad reception in certain parts of town, I realized how petty it sounded. I felt terrible. Still, I soldiered on, while acknowledging that the fault was more with me than with my old carrier and that I was happy with the service overall.

When he asked, quite reasonably, why I wanted to leave if everything was "all right," I realized the absurdity of the situation. This wasn't how capitalism was supposed to operate. Whatever happened to the pitiless logic of the market?

Meanwhile, the saleswoman worked discreetly at her workstation activating my new phone. I was embarrassed about how wimpy it must have sounded on my end. I was half-apologizing to a representative of one of the biggest corporations in the country about "needing a change." I even told him I would return to the indignity of a two-year contract the moment the new carrier screwed me over in some as yet unimaginable way. That seemed to make him feel better.

When he finally released the code, I was exhausted, but grateful. I now understood how every woman who had ever broken up with me felt the moment I poured on all the guilt manipulation.

Leaving the store clutching my new phone didn't feel like a triumph, though. I decided to put off a planned call to my cable/satellite provider until the next outrageous bill.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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