Everyone has a story about how they got screwed over by their telephone service provider; it’s become a trope on the internet. Here in Canada we have three major companies that have a monopoly on the mobile phone market (Bell, Rogers, Telus). We have smaller companies that appear to be diversifying the market (like Virgin Mobile, Koodo, Wind and Public Mobile) but they make a very small dent in the control those ‘Big Three’ (as they are so affably called) have over the mobile phone market.
My younger brother is on my fathers family plan. I don’t know if things have changed now, if kids are generally more irreverent, or if working hard to earn something precious like a smart-phone makes you more cautious (which he hasn’t done), but he has gone through like three phones since he signed on with my dad. He broke a Sony Xperia which he gave to me. In the fine form of the impulsive and nearsighted youth, he gave me a ‘broken phone’ that really only required a 10 dollar digitizer (Screen – the glass bit, not the LCD part, which is much more expensive and more difficult to replace) to ‘fix’. In the heat of a passionate fight with my former Roommate (who happened to be my older brother) I threw my phone against the wall of our living room. I had just come out of a horrible three year contract with Rogers – who had, unbeknownst to me, extended my contract twice – so I was using a simple flip mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go (pre-paid) contract with Telus. It was a super sturdy brick of a phone, and when I threw it I didn’t expect (or intend for it to) it to break. But it did. I’ve been without a cell-phone for a few months. Today I decided to remedy that. I ordered the replacement part to fix the phone my brother gave me, on-line, and took a bus to the closest Bell store to buy a sim card. This is where things got frustrating.
If you read my post from yesterday about the value of moral principles then it will come as no surprise to hear that I don’t particularly like sales people- and especially reps from these three big companies in Canada that have a horrible reputation for manipulating and exploiting customers. They rack on service charges and fees without customer consent or awareness, and add things onto existing plans to earn higher commissions without the customers permission. When I had a contract with Rogers for my Blackberry the two times I updated my plan they re-started my contract (without telling me). They’re the Canadian equivalent to Comcast, except that unlike Americans, we have far fewer options (for internet we have smaller companies in Ontario like Primus and Source, but they’re new and they have limited networks). Well I asked the guy working in the Bell store for a sim card. He brought out two sd cards… I looked at him confusedly and told him what I was looking for by explaining my situation with this phone. He came back out with the sim card. In January I had gone into bell store and asked for a sim card for my phone. The guys who were working there – who were around my age, and kind of broke the mold of douchey unethical sales-reps – just gave me the sim card for free. I mean, they’re like 4 dollars anyway, it’s not going to dent the daily earnings. Well today this guy hands me the card and then right away starts talking to me like I had just agreed to some contract. He started pulling out all the stops, pulling up contracts for me to sign and talking about calling cards and egregious service charges. It was very frustrating.
I told him I just wanted the sim card and that I would handle activating the phone on my own. I had previously, mind you, owned a pay-as-you-go phone from Telus (the one I threw at the wall). I know that there are no 150 dollar activation fees and service charges. I know you can buy the phone, buy the sim card, and activate it on-line. He starts telling me that I have to buy a hundred dollar calling card, but tells me in a way that told me he thought he was presenting like some super generous offer (when really he was stretching the truth hoping to make a contract appear as the better option – because as start up fees, 50 dollars vs nearly 200 speaks to most people). He starts talking about the rates per minute and how long the card lasts for. I was like, whoa slow down, I have to pay what now? He says that there’s a 50 dollar service fee as well. I ask if I can take the 50 dollar service fee off the calling card, he says no. By this time his co-worker had come over. She was the good-cop, I guess. She was supposed to be the cool, down-to-earth-peer that would come in last second and cut me some sweet deal. Like Chris Traeger and Benn Wyatt from Parks and Recreation but less clever and much uglier.
I said ‘so I have to pay you 150 dollars right now for a pay as you go phone, on top of the x amount the sim card costs, and on top of the activation fee and the pre-paid plan’? He goes ‘yeah, unfortunately’. I noped the fuck out. As I turned to leave Chris Traeger chimed in with some anecdote like she had forgotten until right after I said I was going to leave; like some grand Joycean epiphany, Mr. Duffy finally realizes he’s gay… She told me she just had a ‘girl’ come in who too wanted the exact same thing. She said that she can ‘sell me the sim card’ straight up, and that I can just go on-line and activate the phone myself. Meanwhile this guy is looking at me and then at her half dejected half irate; clearly she just wedged herself between me, him and a big fat commission. She starts buddying up to me, and even gives me a tip on how to circumvent the confusion that is activating the phone on-line. She gives me the direct phone number for activating pre-paid phones; she gives me some more ‘insider secrets’ “The first thing you’re gonna wanna do is get the employee’s name and number just in-case they try to screw you over so that you can report them”. The irony of that remark didn’t dawn on me until the bus-ride home a few hour later.
While all this is going on I’m thinking ‘well, fuck, this is precisely what I came in here for’. In all honesty, their little routine worked on me. I knew they were conspiring to cheat me somehow, and weren’t inspired by social duty for pro-social behavior, but I bit the carrot because they’re really good at their job (which apparently requires you to be a sociopath and very, very little foresight). I had a moment of clarity and asked her ‘what about the 100 dollar calling card’. She shrugs that question off like I was stupid for asking it. Like this new deal she decided to cut me, and only me, because she’s ‘one of the guys’ obviously doesn’t require a calling card like the other deal had. Which reeks of bull-shit. But I wanted a phone, they knew I wanted a phone, and they played on that need.
So they give me the sim card, I pay and leave, try to fit it on, get about a hundred feet from the store, and turn around. I couldn’t figure it out. The guy fits the sim card in first try and I leave a happy camper. A few hours later I started to think. Twenty Five dollars for a sim card is pretty crazy. I was walking around doing some shopping and browsing in Chapters (a book store) so I promised myself that when I got on the bus back home I’d check out the invoice they gave me. Cut to two hours later, I’m sitting on the bus, this little kid is screaming next to me, repeating (quite hilariously, and to the laughter of her, honestly, quite awesome mother and brother) ‘I-g-g-y, do that, do that, I-g-g-y’. Her rendition lost its flavor when she starting crying and screaming. I opened the zipper on my backpack where I keep my phone (and put the receipt/ invoice), pull the invoice out, look down and realize that I had in fact been duped. I was right to think 20-25 was too much for a sim card. They charged me a 15 dollar ‘processing, service charge’ for the sim card… They charged me 15 dollars to lift a 10 ounce sim card from their desk, to my fucking hand. They didn’t process or service anything. I left the store, without any instructions, without any help and without remonstrance. I came back in and they spent five seconds slipping the sim card into its bay for me (I had accidentally popped the micro-sim out of its casing, which slides into the sim card bay on the phone). I was livid.
I came home and decided to let it go. I was going to go back to the store tomorrow and demand some kind of explanation and refund. But I still wanted the phone, so I tried to activate it on-line. And I got pretty far into the process before I realized that the bell rep who had ‘processed and serviced’ my sim card had put it in wrong and broken the contacts in the bay, rendering the sim, and the phone, useless to me. Remember, earlier that day I bought a replacement part for this phone. So in total I was out 50 dollars. It’s a good thing I realized that the sim card bay was broken, because I was one step away from paying another 50 dollars to activate the phone and my plan.
Sitting on the dark bus, at 9:30 pm, with a little Indian girl singing Iggy Azaelia and screaming in my ear, the implications of my experience dawned on me. This adding of charges without communicating the charges, this manipulation, this exploitation that appears at every corner yet still is somehow legal, is precisely the type of behavior responsible for stretching our societies and economies thin, shearing and tearing away at the fabric of our market and the psychology and philosophy behind the norms regulating business practices. Earlier that day I was doing some grocery shopping when these two employees stopped me trying to get me to sign up for some in-store sponsored credit card. They reeled off all the facts and all the benefits to me, presenting the offer as if it was established and produced with my best interests in mind by some guy in a darkened room pouring over the intimate details of my life constructing a plan to make my personal experience shopping at Sobeys ‘the best one everrr’- never mind the benefit for the grocery chain, or the bank – or the partnerships. The guy trying to sell me this credit card was being trained by his supervisor. I looked him in the eye once he had finished and politely told him I would absolutely not be signing anything today. But I said it kindly, and with a tone suggesting a bias in favor of his performance. As I walked away I looked back and watched them compare notes, and watched his supervisor pat him on the back, and watched his eyes glow and a smile spread across his face.
These business practices, problems while entirely unique and different from one another, share some common causes. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system. Like any complex thing, which enjoys popularity and has endured for quite some time, it has grown beyond its original function. Like the weapons market, established originally just to provide weapons in times of war, Capitalism has its own culture. It has its own norms, and values, and indexes. In capitalism the means justify the ends if the ends are fruitful and rewarding. Moral values constrain the means, but as you increase in the reward of the ends, the more moral values the means are able to violate (think sweat-shops). A study published in 2011 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that power reduces the capacity to experience empathy for others – specifically in response to others. Capitalism promotes competition. In a capitalist society the more money you earn the more respect you have, and the more benefits you enjoy in life (a recent study (2012) published in the journal ‘Leadership Quarterly’ suggests that narcissistic executives earn higher compensations than their non-narcissistic counterparts). Large companies enjoy large variations among employees, but large companies also attract a certain type of personality – the narcissistic, sociopath. Because this person performs the best in a capitalistic society, their personality traits are glorified. Thus, variations of their traits can be seen in most employees – with the intensity gradually decreasing the lower you move down the totem pole. These are traits like ‘competitive, charismatic, assertive, rude, coarse, masculine, pompous, self-centered, dominant and ‘low-empathy‘. The occurrence of these traits differ from job to job, position to position. And the correlation between job-performance and these personality traits differs if you hold a service position (like the two who ‘helped’ me at the Bell store) or if you’re in a leadership position (like those who justify the practice of adding surcharges and service charges without alerting the customer). A study published July 24th, 2014 suggests that with companies led by narcissistic CEOs outperforming those helmed by non-narcissistic executives.
What this research shows us is that people in positions of power have reduced empathy, that people in positions of power with narcissistic personality traits (who already have a reduced capacity to experience empathy for others) tend to excel and are rewarded and exemplified for their performance, and that companies led by people with narcissistic personality traits (and sociopathic traits – although there’s more research associated with those traits, it conforms with my point) tend to do better than those who are not. We know that capitalism rewards ends, and produces for the sake of production, not just for consumption (production drives production, consumption does not drive production – one of the more important aspects of Marx’ economic theories). And we know that capitalism has its own culture, its own mores and its own constraints on ethical behavior – in practice (ethical boards and laws are a different matter entirely). The moment a hole in a market opens up, ten different people are already there trying to fill it. For your company to stay afloat, and to remain competitive, to appease share-holders and to pay salaries and bonuses and dividends, you have to act and react according to fluctuations in the market and changes in competitors business practices. So I can understand why Bell wants to charge me a 15 dollar service fee for handing me a sim card. If I had come in those doors looking to sign onto a contract, then they would have set up the phone, and although the figure is already inflated, a service fee would have been appropriate. But I didn’t, and because they know they can claim oversight whenever a chance customer recognizes a 15 dollar service charge from a run of the mill sim card purchase that shouldn’t be there, they add it on whenever they can. Maybe these are tricks employees in the store use to increase commission, or maybe it is just standard procedure. In either case, the cause is the same: competition, glorification of certain negative personality traits which, among other things, reduce empathy, the culture of capitalism etc…
I will probably have the 15 dollars refunded. But I’m willing to bet that fifteen dollars that more often than not most people don’t realize when they’re being cheated. And it doesn’t just happen when you buy your phone, or in a market monopolized by three big companies. It happens when you go to the grocery store, when you go to the bank, when you go to the mall, when you go to a kiosk, when you go to a hardware store, and when you go to any large chain store. It happens everywhere. It happens because businesses look for every opportunity to stay afloat, because the diversity of employee personality traits ensures many are motivated by greed. Because positions of power reduce empathy and pro-social behavior and because not everyone knows why it matters to be good. But this kind of stuff erodes trust and reinforces itself. Good people often have to do ‘bad things’ because everyone else is doing it and they need to get by – or maybe they are insecure, and social status matters tremendously, or maybe they have other expenses, or a public image …
I don’t think capitalism is evil. I don’t think it brings out the ‘evil’ in people either. A lot of the offenses I’ve described are pretty minor – compared to some of the tragic things happening all around the world. I don’t, like Russel Brand, profess to know the solution (and I know that the solution isn’t abandoning capitalism and returning to an agrarian lifestyle). All I know is that all this unethical stuff is superfluous. Adding a 15 dollar charge where there should be no charge may satisfy immediate needs, but not long term needs. People don’t want to be screwed over, and these companies know that. But they’ve already gone too far, and the whole market has already gone to far, so to secure customers they have to be even shittier and do even more shitty stuff. And it’s this viscous cycle. Like, take the state of the internet services in Canada. Netflix stated that Canada had one of the worst internet service markets in the first world. We have friggen data caps for Christs sake. No one has data caps. Here in Canada our service providers limit how much internet we are allowed to access per month. Unlimited internet (unconstrained data caps) is egregiously expensive. But they can do it, and they get away with it. Once a company does implements some crummy policy or practice they can’t really just undo it – unless legal action is taken. And because customers see and react to the crummy stuff they do, they have to do even crummier stuff to ensure that they keep their customers. And some probably feel badly about this, some probably recognize that it’s not a long-term solution, but the most important people really don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves. Like looting, immediate satisfaction drives behavior.
I honestly believe that if one of these big companies decided to just say ‘fuck it’ and started acting righteously, and started listening to their consumers and customers, and did what was right (even though what’s right might require delayed gratification and delayed financial improvement) they would have a monopoly on their respective market. Such a thing would require CEOS taking reasonable salaries and denying bonuses, but it would have a huge pay-off. Maybe that’s all it would take. One big company in each sector to just turn things around and make the market competitive in a moral direction. I never understand why these big companies (like Huffington Post, who regularly polls their viewers for feedback) who achieve success sell out when they’re on top. They are negatively straining their own profits. If they did what was right, what people wanted, and what is morally logical and practical, everyone aware would choose to use their service, or buy their products. The immoral and unethical business practices that are so common today do not go unnoticed, are self-defeating. They ensure short-term dominance but long-term failure (decreased customer retention etc…). And when profits dip problem solving occurs between a bad choice and an even more unethical one. When will people learn that morality is practically beneficial? That morality is a science, not just a collection of pithy truisms that require duty and sacrifice and offer no rewards. Teach morality to CEOs and put good people in charge of your company, and, if your company is competitive enough, and large enough, you will dominate – and do so well, and ethically.