Stop Us Before We Scam Again 

Ameritech just can't seem to stop abusing its customers.

On the outside, Brian Dogoldogol was a golden boy. In the eyes of his bosses, he sparkled like the glass facade where he went to work each day. He surpassed his sales goals every week, sometimes by as much as 300 percent. But in his heart, he felt like a schmuck. After all, his job is to sell thousands of dollars worth of stuff to old ladies and single moms -- stuff they don't really need.

A born salesman, Dogoldogol could make the latest brand of cat litter sound compelling. Still, something chafed his conscience: The customers who called him presumed he was there to help them. They didn't know that helping people was a minuscule part of his job.

Dogoldogol works for Ameritech, the local phone monolith. To the outside world, he's officially known as a "customer care representative." But within the company, his title is "sales and service representative" -- a telling designation, he says, "because at Ameritech, sales always comes before service."

Dogoldogol's department handles calls from people who dial Ameritech's customer service numbers. Their priority is understanding their bill or getting static on their line fixed; his priority is to talk them into buying a total of six different products and services.

"Which would be OK if this were a telemarketing company pushing bumper stickers," says Dogoldogol. "But it's the phone company. We're a public utility. Where is the public in this?"

A top-performing employee for more than two years, Dogoldogol used to be able to keep his nagging conscience at bay and just do his job. He earned thousands of dollars in incentives and prizes. His bosses wrote him glowing notes:

"Great job on Call Flow last week! Woo hoo!" reads one.

"Just wanted to let you know how proud I am of you," gushes another. "Continue to be the shining star that you are."

But one day last summer, a little old lady with a trembling voice called to get her phone disconnected. Dogoldogol could hardly hear her through his headset. Recently widowed, she was selling her house and moving to a retirement home, and she could no longer pay her bills.

"She could have been my grandmother," says Dogoldogol, 37, a transplanted San Diegan whose laid-back, surfer-dude bearing belies his high-strung nature.

As he took the call, his boss hovered nearby. "Offer! Offer!" he yelled at the back of Dogoldogol's head. "Sell DSL! Sell DSL!"

DSL, a high-speed Internet line designed for businesses and home offices, was the company's highlighted product that week. If Dogoldogol didn't offer it to the woman, along with five other items, he could be reprimanded and written up.

"Sell DSL! Sell DSL!" his boss continued to shout, his hand now on Dogoldogol's chair.

Dogoldogol put the phone on mute. "Stop this right now," he told his boss. "She can hear you. Stop."

"It was like he had just gotten the Holy Ghost and couldn't stop chanting," Dogoldogol recalls. "He didn't even know DSL wasn't available in her area."

"You make the offer anyway," the boss retorted. "I don't care if they don't have money. I don't care what the need is -- DSL, DSL!"

Dogoldogol refused. Shortly thereafter, he marched down to CVS, bought magic markers and poster board, and fashioned some homemade placards.

He brought his signs to the Ameritech building in an artist's portfolio, keeping it under his desk as he took calls. Come lunchtime, he'd unzip the case, retrieve the signs, stand before the building, and protest while his co-workers munched on their PB&Js. For seven straight weekdays, he picketed his workplace.

"I shouted, 'Make some noise, Cleveland, call the [Public Utilities Commission]!' The hot dog man got into it. He was shouting, 'Make the call now!' On average, people stopped me 20 or 30 times an hour. Groups of women would walk by and say, 'Oh, honey, we know.'"

After lunch, he'd return to his desk and take more calls.

Not many companies can brag of an employee with the balls to picket without a strike. But few companies are as unpopular with consumers as Ameritech.

Last year, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio ordered an independent audit of the company. By then, Ameritech's reputation throughout Ohio for missing repair appointments, bungling installations, and charging residential customers for services they hadn't asked for was well established.

The PUCO had already fined Ameritech $130 million -- but suspended $122 million of that until the audit was complete. It had also warned Ameritech to ease up on high-pressure sales. In fact, the agency had received so many complaints about the company that, in the fall of 2000, it started charging Ameritech for the extra work its staff put in to process all the grievances.

In September, the 400-page audit was finally released. It didn't have much good to say about a company that was already in the doghouse.

From 1994 to 2000, complaints about Ameritech's service in Ohio have increased by 13,000 percent, according to company reports filed with the Federal Communications Commission. The lady standing at the bus stop probably has an Ameritech horror story. So does the crane operator who lives across the street.

Joseph C. Sommerville, president of the Ohio AARP, has his own Ameritech tale. The phone line in his home office was down, and he wasn't able to get an Ameritech repair person out to fix it for weeks.

"He called and called," recalls AARP spokeswoman Kathy Keller. "We said, 'Dr. Sommerville, you've got to call the PUCO.' Finally, he had to say, 'Look, I'm the state president for AARP, and I'm tired of my line being out.'"

Jay Parrot, executive director of technology for the Canton City Schools, has a file folder crammed with Ameritech stories. In the past year, more than 20 phone lines at elementary schools, high schools, and the board of education were not hooked up properly for weeks, sometimes months.

"That's a conservative estimate," Parrot says. "People were not able to call out. Or they'd have a phone number that maybe rings in two separate locations.

"We had one issue here, involving an elementary school, where the line was requested on September 25, 2000, and it still had not been installed on May 4, 2001. And we had a new high school where we really had a lot of problems getting phone lines. The night before the school opened, there was only one phone number working in the school."

Even Ameritech Ohio President James Smith has called his own company's service "lousy." He was referring to Ameritech's performance in 2000, but this year isn't shaping up as a winner either.

From August 1999 to May 2001, Ameritech customers suffered from bad repair service more than a million times, according to the audit. A phone being out more than a day, a new line taking more than five days to install, or a missed appointment by repair workers qualifies as bad service.

The report also states that customers who call the "customer care line" often don't even reach Ameritech, but are routed instead to outside companies hired to take 1-800 calls.

"Many customers were clearly frustrated when they learned they had not reached the Ameritech representative that could resolve their need or problem," the report states.

The outside companies not only couldn't handle all customer problems; they also had trouble transferring people to the Ameritech department that could. Instead, they instructed customers to hang up and dial a different toll-free number. Such outside companies, often located in other states, are once-removed from regulators like the PUCO.

Ameritech spokeswoman Denise Koenig has a sunnier outlook. "We can now assure our customers are getting their phone repaired within 24 hours," she says, noting that the company now shows up for 95 percent of its scheduled appointments, which is better than the state standard. "And we've undertaken a plan where all Ohio calls are going to be taken in Ohio."

The promise sounds good -- until one factors in the recent announcement by Texas-based SBC Communications, Ameritech's parent company, of plans for "several thousand job cuts." So how will Ameritech be able to hire more people in Ohio? Koenig doesn't know.

Dogoldogol still works for Ameritech. Because he's union, he can't be fired for his views, and Koenig won't comment on the change of heart of this once "shining star."

She will, however, defend the company's practice of pitching six products to those who thought they were calling customer service. "We feel our sales practices are ethical, legal, and appropriate. How we market is absolutely fair. The telecommunications landscape has significantly changed, and we try to give our customers the type of information they need to make an informed decision."

But the audit tends to back up Dogoldogol's side of the story. Auditors extensively interviewed Ameritech employees and listened to eight months' live and recorded calls. The investigation was inhibited because Ameritech didn't bother to tell PUCO investigators that outside companies were taking some of the Ohio calls. Ameritech also broke its pledge to keep PUCO eavesdropping a secret, instead telling managers when the agency was listening in, the report states.

Yet even with these roadblocks, the report shows that Ameritech has "serious problems with service quality," says Judy Jones, a PUCO commissioner. "There have been some improvements, but they've got a long way to go."

Besides continuing to screw up phone service for weeks on end, the company also hasn't toned down its sales pitch since the PUCO warning more than a year ago.

"Every call is a potential sales opportunity, regardless of the original calling reason," the audit notes. "These marketing tactics are clearly taking advantage of those Ohio customers with a service problem needing attention."

If a customer calls to remove voice mail or caller ID, she's subjected to "aggressive marketing," the report states. "Not only must customers defend why they want to change service, they must listen until the representative has the opportunity to pitch all available features before completing the call . . . There is little recognition of the customer's right to say 'no.'"

Nor has Ameritech been forthcoming in letting customers know about credits they're due. In the past two years, because of Ameritech's mistakes, almost 50,000 Ohioans haven't received credits on their bills for missed appointments and delayed service. Fifteen thousand of those didn't get credits because Ameritech's computers couldn't handle non-numeric numbers, like 524-TALK.

Another 23,000 customers were denied credits because Ameritech overused the "Acts of God" clause, which grants the company extra repair time after a disaster like a tornado or flood. According to investigators, the company stretched the meaning to include less severe weather.

Yet another 10,000 found Ameritech underreporting their service problems as static or crossed lines -- when they really had no phone service at all.

Terry Etter, an attorney for the Ohio Consumer's Counsel, cranked out a harsh, eight-page reproach when the audit was released. "Ameritech has become the poster-child for bad service," he wrote, calling the company's dereliction "unprecedented."

"It's gotten so bad, there's a phrase out there: 'We don't wanna do an Ameritech.'"

Every phone company has "pockets of bad service," he notes, but "it seems like Ameritech is the one that has the most widespread problems. There are problems across all five states in the Ameritech region."

Some people are used to the simpler days of Ma Bell, when there was only one phone company and it was a fully regulated utility.

"Our older consumers are very trusting of their utilities," the AARP's Keller says. "They've never had to shop for utilities before and compare, so they have a lot of trust in their providers. If they've had a telephone company all these years that they've been able to trust, and if the person on the other line makes it sound like 'This is the best deal for you,' they don't realize they're talking to a salesperson. They think this person is really doing them a favor."

What they don't realize is that the operator's job depends on making sales. According to Dogoldogol, each operator is on a team, and each team has a coach. Four mornings a week, the coaches gather their teams in a huddle.

"We talk about the money we made the day before and what we need to sell today," Dogoldogol says. Each rep's name is written on a dry-erase board, with his or her sales tally beside it. Employees who don't meet at least 85 percent of their sales goal are placed on a "Performance Improvement Plan." They have 30 days to jack up their sales or "face further discipline."

Koenig says that nobody has ever been fired from Ameritech for not selling enough. "Sales are not tied to job performance."

But operators can double their salaries with sales incentives, earning up to $26,000 more per year. They can also earn prizes and trips from a four-page list that includes pizza parties, "limo-cruising lunches," prepaid gas cards, and airline tickets.

According to the audit, the only prize for helping a customer has been a pat on the back and the chance to win a Mickey Mouse phone in a drawing held on November 27, 2000.

Ameritech's downtown offices are papered with motivational signs: "Pitch a Mercedes to sell a Cadillac," reads one. Another quotes the movie Boiler Room: "A Sale is Made on Each and Every Call! Either you sell the customer a product, or they sell you a reason they can't buy it!"

According to Dogoldogol, customers who don't want to hear sales pitches are repeatedly transferred to other reps until they get frustrated and hang up, a claim backed at least in part by the PUCO audit.

"If you're transferred more than two or three times, it's because we can't make money off you," he says.

After Congress passed the Telecommunications Act in 1996, consumers were promised that competition fostered by deregulation would drive down prices. But in Ohio, that hasn't happened. Dissatisfied Ameritech customers can switch to Corecomm, the only other area provider of basic local phone service. But until recently, Ameritech was charging its customers $111 to switch. That charge was recently slashed to 74 cents, upon orders from the PUCO.

"Businesses are the ones that have the competition available to them," says Etter. "If Ameritech doesn't provide the service they want, they can go to other companies. Residential customers have few alternatives, so they tend not to get the attention."

Etter hopes the PUCO hits Ameritech with the $122 million fine it suspended last year. But the company deserves to feel more pain than that, he argues. He'd like to see the PUCO prohibit Ameritech from entering the lucrative long-distance arena until it shapes up its local service and be barred from jacking up rates for add-on features, like call waiting and call forwarding. "That application here in Ohio should not even be addressed until Ameritech has provided us with decent service for at least two years."

Such hands-on measures are backed by a typically hands-off guy: Republican state Representative Kirk Schuring of Canton. Last month, Schuring introduced a bill that would tighten state regulations on Ameritech unless real competition emerges. "We're in a period of transition," Schuring says. "We don't have a fully developed marketplace. You don't have any other choice."

Schuring proposed the bill after he received 40 complaints about Ameritech -- including the file from the Canton schools -- over a period of a few months.

In the next few months, the PUCO will decide how to penalize Ameritech. "We're still reviewing [the audit]," says Chairman Alan Scriber. "We're gonna push as hard as we can to a level of standards that meet our rules. I think that they would admit that there has been confusion or misunderstanding or lack of training in the past, and they're attempting to rectify that."

Meanwhile, Brian Dogoldogol still toils away, wondering exactly when the ax will fall. Once he gets his walking papers -- a fate he considers inevitable -- he'll be relieved. "I really feel that every phone call is a personal compromise."

He'd like to forge a new career in nonprofit fund-raising. "If I'm one of the next people to go down in a terrorist plane," he says, "at least I will go down free and honest."


More by Laura Putre


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