One Fool’s Experience with Delta/American Express’s “Platinum” Customer Service

Please allow me to vent.

I don’t write this because it is unique in any way. Precisely the opposite. What follows below is the kind of stuff every American consumer deals with on a regular basis … if, like me, they’re foolish enough to put up a fight.

To keep a long-ish story as short as possible, the saga begins last June at the Fox Car Rental desk in Las Vegas. Because I’m a cheap bastard I reserved a car at Fox’s “airport location” completely based on price. Their’s was cheaper than Budget, Hertz, etc. Was I happy to discover that Fox’ “airport location” is not one but two shuttle bus rides and a half an hour away from the airport and that the building itself is a chaotic, dirty mess? No.

Likewise, was I in any way amused to be told I was free to wait there amid a scene out of “A Bad Day in Karachi” for “two or three hours” for a car to become available? Or that I had to compete with two other guys, one at each shoulder, barking at the same beleaguered clerk about the fact that they didn’t have their reserved vehicles either? Not so much.

But my Cheap-O-Dar began blinking bright red when I noticed a $150 deposit added to the quoted bill. Did I believe the tiny, tired, bird-like little woman/clerk when she said, “It’s just routine. It comes off when you bring the car back.” Not really.

Flashing forward: I returned the car as scheduled, a week later, on July 6 to be exact, took an Uber to the airport and flew home.

A few weeks later I check, just to make sure you know, that funky $150 “deposit” has been lifted from my American Express bill. Shocker: It hasn’t. Getting anyone at Fox Car Rental on the phone proves futile, so I call American Express, issuer of my all-powerful, all-servicing Delta Airlines Platinum American Express card, and tell them this is wrong and I’m disputing the charge. The representative is very business-like and puts a stop on the charge and promises an investigation.

“Damn straight!”, I say to myself, pleased that my $195 a year annual fee for the (let me repeat and foreshadow) Delta-American Express Platinum Card buys me such powerful and efficient representation. Fox Car Rental, you have screwed with the wrong dude!

A couple more weeks pass and I get a letter from (Delta-American Express Platinum, Inc.) informing me that their investigation has been completed and the charge will be returned to my account. In other words, pay the $150.

Now the fun begins. I call (Delta) American Express and essentially ask, “WTF?” On what grounds is American Express upholding this charge? Well, odd that I should ask that.

Without offering any details about who (if anyone) they spoke with at Fox, the AmEx rep goes into a long explanation of AmEx’s policy regarding collision claims. Point being they completely misunderstood/botched the reason for the dispute. This has nothing to with collision claims. Apologetic, they vow to redouble their thoroughness, power and efficiency and really, truly get to the bottom of things … this time.

Again hearing nothing for a while, I call AmEx back to inquire on their progress. And lo! There has been some! Fox has refunded $82 and change. Huh? Is there an explanation for why that amount and not the rest? Uh, no. AmEx has no information of contact between them and Fox. Do I want to dispute the $64? The underlying tenor of my response was, “[Bleep] yeah!.” AmEx again promises a thorough, powerful and efficient investigation.

Now, much like my wife and everyone saner than me, (which is pretty much everyone), you’re probably saying, “For chrissake. Forget it. It’s just $64.” But — you guessed it — it’s not the money so much as … the principle of the thing. Companies like Fox calculate they can get away with this stuff 95% of the time. Sane people will let them have the money simply because it isn’t worth their time to fight it. But this a form of moral consumer jihad I’m waging! Infidels and non-believers need to STFU.

What further fuels my crazed zealot-like focus is the reading of a handful of consumer complaint websites on Fox Car Rental and the innumerable ways they have jacked other customers around with that $150 deposit. I hate to accuse an American corporation of a routine, institutionalized scam, but there, I just did. If half of the on-line complaints (most very detailed) are true, I’ve got lots of company complaining about pretty much the same thing.

Getting the distinct feeling that my $195 annual fee (for unparalleled customer service) isn’t buying me quite the power and efficiency I had hoped for, I try again to contact someone — anyone at Fox. And I succeed! An actual person answering an actual phone, who actually tells me the $64 is for an extra day’s rental, since I returned the car on the 7th of July, not the 6th as I promised. Telling her that that would be really tough to do since I was home in Minnesota on the 7th, and had been for a day, means nothing to her. In classic corporate fashion, it’s not up to the company to prove they’re right, it’s up to me — the customer — to prove they’re wrong.

Back to (Delta) AmEx. They have requested a copy of my original rental agreement with Fox, but (you guessed it) as yet have no new information on the dispute. Well, I tell them, I do. (Because I made a phone call.) I tell them what Fox is claiming about the extra day and that to resolve this thing — powerfully and efficiently — AmEx should go get a copy of my boarding pass for the July 6 Delta flight and slap it in Fox’ nefarious little faces.

So now. Are you ready for some true inter-corporate comedy? The (last of several) AmEx customer service reps tells me they can’t do that. You see, they have no real connection to Delta Airlines. Firewall. In my best interests. Customer privacy protection and all that.

Again, my exact line wasn’t, “Are you [bleeping] kidding me?” but that’s what I was thinking. “Right on the card it says Delta SkyMiles American Express, and you’re telling  you have no access to Delta Airlines and no way to get something as simple as a copy of a boarding pass? And if you can’t get it, who can?

I already knew the answer to that one. Once again, as a key component in the Delta/American Express Platinum customer service protocol, I the customer, would be the one doing the leg work in settling this dispute for AmEx … on my behalf.

I call Delta customer service. There’s a four-hour long queue. They finally call back.

The lady is very polite and friendly. She commiserates about Fox’s scummy business practices and assures me that at the moment she doesn’t have access to flight records. (“It’s so far back” — not quite two and a half months). But, as a valued customer,  I am able to write to a Delta archive department in Atlanta … via snail mail … and ask them to retrieve a copy of the boarding pass … after paying Delta … $20. It’s another customer service thing, you understand.

Feeling pretty woozy at this point, I ask why I don’t see any record of the trip to Vegas, coming or going, on my Delta SkyMiles account? I mean if I did I could just kick that over to my high-powered AmEx investigators.  The friendly, polite customer service rep tells me that’s because I failed to … manually enter my SkyMiles number. (I’ve had the card just over a year.)

“What?!”, I blurble. “I bought the ticket on the Delta site with the Delta SkyMiles American Express Platinum card which has all of my information from my SkyMiles account number to, [bleep] I don’t know, how often I floss my teeth. What’s the possible point of not automatically entering the SkyMiles number when I’m buying a Delta plane ticket for myself?”

The response is deep scripted gibberish about what if I wasn’t who I said I was? What if I was instead, “Ted Green”, buying a ticket?” In other words, yet another customer service in the name of “customer privacy”. It’s entirely for me own good.

Or perhaps, I tell her, is it because Delta’s bean counters have run a few numbers and calculated how many fewer travel awards they’ll have to pay out to eligible customers if X% of those customers fail to manually enter their SkyMiles data? Shall we, mam, freely speculate on possible “savings” and enhancement of shareholder value?

“Oh, no! I assure you that’s not the reason.”

Of course not. Delta’s only responsibility is to serve.

Bottom line as of today. There is no resolution to this titanic struggle. Delta wants a fee for providing a simple service and AmEx is continuing to, well, they’re continuing to continue, by doing what, I have no idea.

In terms of cost per time spent, I’m pretty sure I’m deep into deficit spending. My only satisfaction to date is a perverse one. Namely, the chronicling of a not at all unusual episode of the American hospitality/service/finance industry, which as we all know is out there every day building consumer trust through customer service … powerfully and efficiently.





The Sadly Not-So-Unusual Case of Lambert vs. AT&T

Lambert_to_the_SlaughterWant to hear a good AT&T customer service story? I’m not promising this compares with some of those classic Comcast bits, but it does have the value of being personal as well as depressingly familiar to everyone who has lost hours of their life complaining about extraordinarily bad service and Big Corporate charge-gaming.

Long story pretty short:  A few days before a dozen or so of us flew down to Panama for our son’s August wedding I was directed to an AT&T store that I was told specialized in setting up international calling plans. Twelve miles and 20 minutes later the clerk is walking me through the options. $60 month gets you 50 cents/minute calling. $30 gets you $1/minute.

I tell him all we really need is texting ability. Just to keep track of everyone and not waste a lot of time sweating on tropical street corners for people who are lost and/or delayed. No problema he tells me. Texts are free. “Free”, you say? Well then we’ve got a deal. With no further qualifications, warnings or cautions, I sign up and leave fully expecting to text or call (for a buck a minute) to my heart’s content as we mill around Panama City.

Damn, I think, I am one seriously high-tech bastard.

Morning #1 in Panama. Nothing works. Calls to my wife’s phone on the desk next to me. Nothing. My sister-in-law downstairs. Nothing. Brother-in-law at a hotel. Nothing. To AT&T tech support back in the States … something. But they have no idea what the problem is. They promise to take it up to their super double secret tech squad and call me back. Which they do … to say they still can’t figure it out, but I should maybe try adding the 1+ international code … or just a 0 … or nothing at all … every time I try to make call.

This goes on for over two hours until they promise to call back again … and of course never call.

Although I’m unable to contact anyone in our travelling party I am able to contact the rental condo-owner in Texas and a cab driver in Panama City. Texting is about the same. Nothing to anyone we’re with, but a couple cellphone shots make it to a sister in Ohio. Did I mention even my AT&T voice mail is in accessible?

Point being, it’s a fiasco. Since I was quite proud of avoiding precisely this kind of mess by signing up for AT&T’s international plan prior to leaving Minnesota, I’m enduring a lot of jokes at my expense. Along the lines of, ‘Yeah, you’re the go-to for tech, Brian. You da man.”

Eventually we all download WhatsApp which promises to connect everyone via data service … which of course starts the meter spinning on AT&T’s international data-use rates.

Service so erratic as to be useless. We lose hours unable to connect with people who are waiting to hear from us, and on and on.

Cut to a week after we return. I call AT&T customer service to walk them through the farce, demanding explanations for why this was so appallingly bad. On the Richter/Comcast scale of my customer service rants I reined this one into about a “five”. No Joe Pesci-like swearing and threats of violence. But enough pitch-of-peeve so they know I’ll cancel service if they don’t offer some kind of compensation.

Eventually the AT&T agent, out of the blue, offers a $100 credit. This catches me mid-rant, spittle still forming in the corners of my mouth. “$100?”. Uh, okay. How are you going to do that?

“We’ll credit it on your next bill,” says the voice of the person whose name, e-mail, phone, blood-type and next of kin I fail to get before I hang up, a bought-off, calmed-down customer he personally will never speak to again.

Thirty two days later I get a text notifying me that my latest bill from AT&T is both ready to view … and has been paid, thanks to auto-pay. The total? $314 and change.

I feel blood in my nostrils and I’m on the phone with AT&T customer service within five minutes. Several versions of “WTF?” and, “Where’s that $100 credit?” later and I’m informed … you guessed it … there is no record of the promised $100. But what they do have is a very long list of calls proving that I had all the service I needed in Panama.

“You can download the bill from our website,” they say, which may be true except that of course the website isn’t accepting/recognizing either my number or AT&T’s four-digit pass code.

Back in the car. Twelve miles and 35 minutes later (rush hour traffic) the clerk at the “international specialist” shop prints out four pages of calls, texts and data. I tell him that just eyeballing the thing we’re looking at easily four or five times the number of calls and texts that we ever used. “You’ll have to call customer service about that,” he says.

Back home, after 10 minutes of magnifying glass and annotation work it’s pretty obvious that I’ve been charged for dozens of calls to people in Panama with us that never went through. Texts too, most likely. And better yet, while the out-going calls to AT&T tech support, to complain about the lack of service we had paid to get were “free”, the calls back from AT&T’s super-duper techs, telling us they had no explanation or solution for why we weren’t getting any service … were billed to us at the rate of $1 minute.

But finally, and only at this point, after literally a dozen or more interactions with AT&T retail/customer service/tech support do I get the two clarion trumpet “full disclosure” moments that explain everything.

The agent matter-of-factly tells me, “Well, we don’t ever promise [international calling] will work”, and, oh, by the way, “Yes, you are charged for placing the call or text.”

Excuse me, what? Are you saying you’re charging people for calls that you don’t even connect? That we’re paying simply for dialing the number?

“Yes, and you were told that when you signed up for the plan.”

By this point the sarcasm in my voice was dripping, kind of like the hideous space monster in “Alien”.  “Uhhhh, no. No one ever at any point, until this moment, ever told me that the system might not actually work, much less that I’d be charged for the act of dialing the number. Moreover … mam … what fool would ever buy your international calling plan if those two key details were disclosed to them upfront, in their friendly neighborhood ‘AT&T international specialist’ shoppe?”

“Well,” she said, and I loved this, “they should have told you.”

(Because I’m into an OCD-psychotic episode with this crap, I’ve since walked in to three other AT&T stores in the Twin Cities and “inquired” about international calling plans, specifically asking if I’m charged only for calls that are connected. The response each time: “Oh yeah, of course. Only if you’re connected, of course”.)

When I tell her that as (damned) annoying as all this is, I’ll let it go for the $100 credit I was promised a month earlier, she puts me on one of those holds to talk to yet another “specialist”. Most likely she just hit “hold” and filed her nails for three minutes. But she comes back to inform me that after “carefully reviewing” my account the specialist will not agree to the $100 credit or any other credits of any kind. Basically, it’s my fault for not knowing how the game is played.

A friend visiting the house while I’m going through this says, “You have to get to a supervisor in their retention department. Customer service has no authority to do anything.”

The next … and final call … is back to customer service, or almost. After going through the whole ID, pass code and reexplanation thing … I’m disconnected. (And despite calling, you know, a telephone company, which has my phone number, do you think anyone calls back? Hell, what was the last time any customer service, other than Apple, called back after you were disconnected?)

Back again … ID, pass code, re-tell the story and demand (demand, I say!) to talk to a supervisor, pronto! I’m put on hold until “Daunte” gets on the line. Now, knowing that it reflects badly on low-level customer service reps when they have to call in a supervisor, and considering every other facet of this tale, I don’t think it’s cynical to imagine the first rep hitting “hold” and turning to his buddy “Daunte” in the cubicle next to him and asking him to “play supervisor with the nutjob on line 8”.

The finale:  “Daunte” carefully reviews the file notes and declares AT&T to be utterly blameless in this incident and under no circumstances will the company offer any sort of compensation.

“Do you, Daunte,” I ask, “want to keep me as an AT&T customer?” fully expecting him to say something like, “Oh god, man! Yes! If you leave, our stock price will disintegrate. Me and Abner here in the next cubicle will be out on the streets, living in cardboard boxes, or worse, taking customer service calls for Comcast! Shit no! Don’t go, man! I beg you! Have mercy!”

In reality “Daunte” says, “That’s your choice.”

My choice, two hours later, was to switch back to T-Mobile and run down to the bank and sign papers putting a stop/disputed payment on that last auto-pay to AT&T. When, not if, they make a principled stink about not being paid for services rendered, I’ll take them to small claims court where one of their “assistant regional junior VPs for international special-ism” can explain with great clarity and a straight face how, without prior disclosure, AT&T charges customers for services they fail to provide.

… where are my pills, dear?