SOUDER: Well, at least the phones were smart

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One man's journey into the dumb world of buying a smart phone.

By Chuck Souder

Well, another Christmas is now in the books, and I hope that you had a peaceful, joyous time with family and friends and that you came to more fully appreciate the true meaning of the season: consumer electronics!

Yes, Christmas is the time for all manner of high-tech gizmos and gadgets – from Xboxes and PlayStations to TVs and Blu-Rays to Kindles, Nooks and Kobos to iPads, iPods, and iPhones (¡Ay, caramba!).

Since we fairly recently updated our kids’ gaming system and our TV, and this year we got each other Kindles for our birthdays, our last uncharted territory was the realm of the “smart” phone.

Because we are not always on the cutting edge of societal evolution, up until now my wife and I have gotten along nicely with the “dumb” phones we have been using for several years. However, since both of our phones were in the process of dying slow and painful deaths, we knew it was time for an upgrade.

So a couple of weeks before Christmas, we headed to the T-Mobile store to check out our options. When we arrived, we met a very helpful young salesman named Ben who, after determining our budget (as cheap as possible), very patiently showed us different models that would meet our needs, all the while being careful to use low-tech words that wouldn’t confuse us.

After we had been properly educated we made our decision, and Ben went to his computer to begin ringing up the transaction. It is then that our phone-buying experience began to get more complicated.

As he looked up the model we had decided to purchase, Ben realized that it was going on sale that weekend. Not only that, but there was also a rebate that was only available on Saturday or Sunday that weekend.

It was then that Ben had a choice to make: He could keep quiet about the sale and rebate and sell us the phones at full price (and hope we didn’t find out and come looking for him), or he could risk his commission by telling us about the sale and hope we came back to him in two days to do the deal.

Now, I know that some people believe that “honest salesperson” is an oxymoron, but I am happy to report that Ben at the T-Mobile store did the right thing – he chose our financial interests over his own.

What he couldn’t have known was that we were heading out of town that weekend for a funeral and wouldn’t be able to come back to his store to make our purchase.

When we told him, he said that, of course, we could go to any other T-Mobile store or even make the purchase over the phone with customer service.

We thanked him kindly and left. When we got home, I did a quick Internet search and discovered that there wasn’t a T-Mobile store within 100 miles of where we were headed. No problem, I thought. I’ll just make my purchase over the phone with customer service. Should be easy, right?

After all, I knew exactly what I wanted. I didn’t need any information or help making a decision. All I needed was someone to answer the phone, take my order, and send us our new phones. What could be easier?

On Saturday evening, because our cell phones don’t get great reception at my inlaws’ house, and because I needed to return a movie anyway, I sat in the car in the parking lot at Kroger (where the Redbox kiosk was and where I could get reception) to do the deal.

Calling 611 from my T-Mobile phone, I was promptly connected to a nice, female-sounding computer who (after determining that I didn’t want to continue in Españolabecause I didn’t press número dos) told me all kinds of things that weren’t at all pertinent to the reason for my call: recent account activity, the amount of my last bill, my last payment, my current balance and my remaining minutes.

After wading through all this unnecessary information, I pushed “0” hoping to speak to a real-live person, make my very simple transaction, and get back to my family. Instead, the nice female-sounding computer said, “Ok, I understand you want to speak with an agent. But before I can help you, I need to determine the reason for your call. Please tell me why you’re calling.”

The nice computer then gave me several options, none of which were “buy a phone,” so I pushed “0” again. The computer didn’t like that and told me so: “I’m sorry; I’m going to disconnect you now.”

And she did.

Undeterred, I tried again. Same recording. Still didn’t want to continue in Española. Same unnecessary information. Pressed 0. Same “I-understand-you-want-to-speak-to-an-agent-but-I-need-to-know-why-you’re-calling” response.

This time I played along and made up a reason for my call that fit one of her options, then pressed 0 again. At long last, another actual human answered.

I explained my situation, telling her about my trip to the T-Mobile store, the nice boy named Ben and my desire to buy two phones that were on sale and had a rebate this weekend.

She said she’d be glad to help. The only problem was her computer was acting up, so would I mind to hold for a minute? Of course not.

Several minutes later she returned and began taking my information. I told her the exact model of phone. Yes, she assured me, that phone was on sale, and there was a rebate.

Again, her computer was not cooperating, so would I hold? Sure. Several more time passed.

When she finally returned and gave me the price, it was obvious that I had received neither the sale price nor the instant rebate. When I brought this to her attention, I was met with silence and then, well, you see, her computer was having problems, so would I mind to hold?

At this point, the answer was emphatically, “Yes! I would mind to hold!” – but what could I do?

So I held. Several more times this process repeated itself. All the while I kept reminding myself how much money I was saving.

Finally it came down to this: Her computer wasn’t applying the rebate, so would it be OK if she simply charged me the full amount and then credited my account for the amount of the rebate?

Just wanting to stop the madness, I agreed and gave her my credit-card number. And then, just as she was giving me my confirmation number…the call dropped.

I drove to another part of the lot where the reception was stronger and called again. By now, my patience with the nice female-sounding computer was growing thin, and I found myself screaming into the phone, “NO I DO NOT WANT TO CONTINUE IN SPANISH! NO I DO NOT WANT INFORMATION ABOUT MY LAST BILL! I WANT TO TALK TO A REAL PERSON!!

She hung up on me again. I called back. She answered and.…my phone died. I called again….

Finally, after perhaps the most infuriating hour of my life, the deal was done, and I’m happy to report that the phones arrived in the mail just before Christmas. Of course, the only thing I can figure out how to do is make a phone call – but as long as you don’t tell anyone, at least I’ll look smart carrying it.

One last thing: It will probably not surprise you to learn that the credit to my account has yet to materialize. So, if you happen to see me sitting in a parking lot screaming into my phone, please don’t hold it against me.

I’m sure the computer won’t.


Chuck Souder is on staff at Shelby Christian Church. He can be reached at csouder@shelbychristian.org