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The Slickdeals Approach to Cable Company Negotiations
By: Gabe Goldberg (SD User: Gabegold)
February 24, 2010
For some people, their cable company is "the company they love to hate". Most folks just accept the cable company for what it is, a semi-regulated utility providing useful or necessary services. And the remainder -- often to the mystification of the first group -- just love their company, even singing its praises when cable service is discussed.
To make sense of this variation, remember that cable service is generally provided by regional monopolies, with territories granted by local governments, so features, customer services, and costs indeed vary widely. And even one company's characteristics can vary with geography, depending on factors such as local management, franchise arrangements and fees, and infrastructure age and quality.
Do your homework and make sure that you're ready to negotiate, not beg
As early as possible in this process, request your free credit reports and ensure that you're shown as being financially responsible, with all account payments up-to-date. Felicia Blow, Cox Cable's Director of Public Affairs, notes that the better a credit history is, "the more flexibility Cox has in avoiding the customer having to pay deposits and the like to get or restore service".
But separate from everything else is the need to negotiate effectively with the company, whether establishing new service, changing what's provided, or simply haggling for a better deal.
So, prior to any conversation or transaction, do your homework. Understand everything you'll need to consider and perhaps mention: competition to cable services in your area (satellite and over-the-air TV, phone company DSL or FiOS, cell phone service), services offered, service levels (e.g., Internet connection speeds, TV channel bundles), features (telephone caller-id, voicemail, speed dialing, three-way calling, etc.), list prices, bundle discounts, and current or recent promotions offered.
This is complicated enough that you want to get it right, selecting no more or less than what you need and want, while paying the best price possible. So start with a list (or, better, a spreadsheet) showing what to discuss, each item's relative importance to you, the cable company's quoted price, and any available bundles or promotions.
Make sure that you're not buying more services than you need
Just as a retired couple likely doesn't need a seven-passenger SUV and a young singleton won't rent a McMansion, don't get carried away by glittering features and services. Cox's Blow suggests remembering your "station in life" before ordering the fastest Internet connection if you'll just send email and do light Web surfing, though if you have far-flung family, a generous phone package might ultimately save money. Similarly, a killer online gamer might go for blazing DOCSIS 3.0 Internet bandwidth and skip phone service entirely, depending on cell phone connectivity.
Bundles -- combination service packages costing less than the sum of their individual components -- can save or waste money. Think carefully about whether it's worth spending more money to save some, or whether better value comes from mixing-and-matching bits from multiple providers.
Consider freebies offered but remember that they only have value if they're useful. Internet services may include spam filtering, security tools, parental controls, anti-virus, anti-spyware, etc., but compare their quality to other free and fee tools to ensure that you're getting best of breed. If you won't use them, don't let a cable rep seduce you into paying premium prices because they're included.
You'll likely be offered prepaid protection for inside cable facilities. Unless you're aware of problems, it's usually best to decline this -- it's essentially overpriced insurance against rare problems with cable wiring. The company is responsible for connectivity to your dwelling's main termination, and will usually address (Internet, TV, phone) signal quality issues at no cost. But check with neighbors regarding company service and fee policies regarding inside work.
Even customers can negotiate
Once you're a customer, you're not done chatting with your CableCo. Don't suffer service problems or billing issues silently, or just gripe to friends and neighbors. Cable companies understand they've had public relations problems and work to be better liked. Online services such as real-time customer service chats may resolve problems at 3 am. And some companies have online monitors watching for complaints in forums and on Twitter.
Even satisfied customers benefit from occasionally evaluating services and adding/deleting features, and calling to request lower prices can cut monthly bills. This can involve citing competitive services -- for example, if your neighborhood has just been wired for FiOS with promotional rates offered, you can threaten to terminate service unless the lower price is matched.
Make this more credible by mentioning that you're not tied to CableCo email addresses; note that you use Webmail service accessible through any ISP or that you have your own domain (both of which are good practices to avoid having to change email addresses when moving from one company's territory to another!). If you've suffered problems or outages, suggest that it's only fair for you to be compensated by lower rates.
You may be required to commit to service for some period in order to have fees reduced. I was able to reduce my monthly Internet cost $20, to $29.99, while getting about 30Mbps download and 3.5Mbps upload speeds -- hardly shabby, and worth agreeing to stick around for a year. If you're content to remain a customer and don't expect to move soon, that's a good bargain. Of course, watch the calendar and haggle again if your rate ever increases.
Finally, if you work with a competent and helpful rep -- whether for initial orders, account changes, service or billing issues -- ask for direct contact information, both telephone number and email address. It's immensely helpful having continuity in dealing with normally faceless businesses, and service providers increasingly recognize how much personal service improves customer satisfaction. Not all companies or reps provide this, but -- as with everything else this article suggests -- it can't hurt to ask.
Gabriel Goldberg is a technology consultant, writer, and editor. As one of two guides on AARP's Computers and Technology Web site, he wrote feature articles and answered Web board questions; he's also done this for other senior/boomer venues and AOL. He edited and wrote an IBM technology magazine and contributes to trade and consumer publications such as the Washington Post. He's written for newsletters published by EEI Communications' and Computer Economics. He has written/edited industry/vendor white papers and co-edited and wrote three technology books published by McGraw-Hill. As Media Fellow at the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, he profiles research efforts. He's acquired many friends and clients through personal networking. Gabe likes translating jargon and techno-babble into clear English, and enjoys explaining gadgets and wizardry as a radio and television show guest. Previously, he was Vice President at a small software company and also worked at IBM and in the leading-edge data center of a high-tech not-for-profit federally chartered consulting organization. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to freedigitalphotos.net for the image above.