Automatic phone bill payments with Aliant: The absurdity continues

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Society, Technology
September 12th, 2006 • 11:35 am

Last year, I wrote about the problems that had occurred with our local phone company (Aliant) with the preauthorized payment of our phone bills.

I am afraid I have to report that, one year later, things have not improved one bit, and are actually even worse.

We have two phone accounts, because I am on dial-up and need to use one phone line for Internet access. One phone account is under my name, and the other one is under my wife’s name. But both of them are set up for preauthorized payment with my VISA card. In other words, every month my credit card is automatically charged for the amounts of both phone bills on the day that they are due. We don’t have to do anything.

Except when the VISA card information changes. Last year, in July, I got a new VISA card with the same number, but a different expiry name. As indicated in last year’s post, I immediately got on the phone with Aliant and notified them of the change, so that things would go smoothly and the next payments wouldn’t fail.

And yet they still did fail. Because of the time it takes for this lousy phone company to process such payment information changes, the new credit card information was not in place in time for the next payment cycle, and so the preauthorized payment didn’t work. The following month, the two phone bills for the two accounts had a mention that the payment hadn’t gone through and a total that included the amount due for the past two months. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

I called the company and got through (reasonably quickly) to a live person. I explained to her what had happened. She did confirm that the change to our credit card information was made on July 19, but said that it was “too late” for the August bill payment. Apparently, they need to be notified “at least 30 days in advance.

I asked her how much sense it made to require a month of advance notice in the context of a monthly payment. Regardless of when in the month you phone to notify them of a credit card information change, it is never going to be a month in advance! As I told her, I got my new VISA card from the bank, activated it, and on the very same day I phone Aliant to notify them of the change. How could I notify them any sooner?

It is completely absurd. And of course the person I was talking to couldn’t be bothered with this. To her, it was very simple. I didn’t notify them more than a month in advance, and so I was too late. It obviously didn’t occur or didn’t matter to her that notifying a company more than a month in advance of a change to a monthly payment arrangement is, in this particular space-time that we live in, purely and simply impossible.

Now, I suspect that somebody at Aliant is aware of the absurdity of all this, since I wasn’t actually charged with a late payment fee. The bottom-line, as she eventually conceded, was that I didn’t have to do anything, and that the July bill would automatically be paid at the same time as the August bill, and all would then be back in order.

Well, that was last year. This year, my credit card information changed again. On the very same day that I got the new credit card and activated it, I went to the Aliant web site, logged in, and updated the VISA card information in the preauthorized payment section for both accounts.

Since I actually updated the VISA card information in the system itself via the web site, I thought that this time at least there should not be any disruption in the preauthorized payment cycle.

Believe it or not, there was, and it was even worse than last year. Last year, the monthly payments were not processed properly, and we got charged for two months on the next bills, but at least we didn’t get charged a late payment fee.

This year, not only did the payments not go through as expected—even though I had actually updated the credit card information in their system myself through the web on the very day I got the new credit card—but on top of it all we did get charged a ”late payment fee“! It was a small amount of money, but it’s the principle of the thing that galls.

Not only is their system bad enough that it’s not even able to update preauthorized payment information automatically when you make the change in your account information through the web, but on top of it they make you pay for it!

Needless to say, when I saw the new phone bills this morning, I was incensed. I got on the phone and gave them a piece of my mind. I got to talk to a hapless sales representative first, and then to a supervisor. To make matters worse, because the second phone number is under my wife’s name, they refused to even discuss anything about this account with, supposedly for privacy issues, even though we are husband and wife and it is my credit card, with my name on it, that is used to pay for both accounts.

They were willing to refund me for the late payment charge on my phone account, but they were telling me that my wife would have to call them back herself to fix the problem on the phone account that is in her name.

I quietly explained that this was utterly unacceptable, that I had already spent more than enough time on the phone discussing a problem that is not even my fault, and that they could not possibly expect my wife to waste more time on the phone trying to reach a customer service representative and fix the problem in her account.

The problem is quite clearly with their system, and I am quite sure that it must occur for each and every person who has a preauthorized payment plan with their credit card each time the credit card information changes, because, as indicated last year, the time it takes for their system to process the credit card information change is simply too long in the context of monthly payments.

I can—barely—understand that a change made over the phone might take some time to be processed. But I make the effort of going on the web myself and make the change myself in my account information on their web site, surely it’s all entirely automated and does not need to take more than a few seconds! Yet quite clearly it still takes them weeks to process this information and make the appropriate changes to the preauthorized payment plan so tha the payments work properly.

This is utterly ridiculous. I already complained about it last year, and clearly nothing has been done about it. I don’t know if most people in this situation just don’t pay enough attention and don’t notice the small late payment charge on their bill, or just figure that it’s small enough not to bother. But it’s not the amount of the late payment charge… It’s the principle of the thing. Why on earth should the customer be penalized for a problem that is entirely the company’s fault? And why should the customer have to waste precious minutes of his own time to get them to fix it each and every time it happens?

I explained this to the supervisor, and finally managed to convince her to get them to call my wife back to fix the problem with her account. She still said that she “couldn’t promise” that they would call back, but that she would try (!). You can be sure that, if nobody calls within 48 hours, I will be on the phone again with them. They are not going to get away with it this time.

The whole situation is completely and utterly absurd. In this day and age, when customers can update their account information themselves in real time through the web, there is absolutely no excuse for the system taking so much time to update itself. And there is definitely no excuse for charging the customer for it!

Sadly, this kind of situation is only allowed to persist because the local phone company is still effectively more or less in a monopoly position. Surely if there was any kind of real competition, customers would not put up with this kind of problem and would immediately switch to another company. If the company is allowed to maintain its monopoly, then it must be held to higher standards. But clearly nobody (local government or whatever) is bothering to do that, so it’s left to individual customers like me to harass the bureaucracy again and again until someone finally does something about it.

And that is, obviously, profoundly discouraging.

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