How often do we really haggle with someone? Maybe when we buy a car. Or a house. Maybe once every couple years. We’re always told not to settle for the first offer, but man do we do a lot of settling. But this week I decided to start asking. Asking if I could have things for less. Here’s what happened.
The Cable Company
When my roommates and I started with Comcast, we paid 113 a month for cable and internet. Unfortunately cable bills increase along a sort of exponential curve. If you ever took a math class where your teacher asked if you’d rather have a hundred thousand dollars every day for a month, or double whatever you had the first day for a month, starting at one dollar, then you are familiar with the pricing model cable companies employ. 113 became 140, then 160. Starting next month, we will be mailing them blank checks so they can fill in whatever amount they choose.
“We’ve had Comcast for about a year.” I explained to the person who I reached after twenty minutes on hold because, you’re not gonna believe this, they were experiencing a larger than normal call volume at the time. “I’m wondering if there’s any way that our bill can be less?”
“Umm, you just want to pay less?” She asked as though I had called her up and asked something absurd like “Can I have lower prices for no reason?”
“I mean, what you have is already a lot cheaper than if you got it retail.”
I was ready for my request to be met with semantics, but these were semantics I didn’t even comprehend. What the hell is a retail cable bill? Does that mean it’s cheaper than if I got my monthly cable service at Sears? “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand.”
“If you got those two services separately, then the total package would cost more.” So you’re offering a discount over what I would find if I bought these items separately but both from…. you?
It was time to change tactics. “So, we’re considering switching to another cable company. Are you saying that if we find a lower price you won’t be able to match it and we should go with them?”
Suddenly her tone got frantic. I imagined her scrambling and shuffling papers uncertainly. “Well I didn’t say that,” she said. “Let me transfer you to someone in customer solutions.”
This time, I wasn’t on hold long. An agent named Rob picked up the phone, and I again asked if I could pay less.
“Well…. let’s see.” I could hear Rob typing in the background. People you haggle with over prices always start typing. I’m not even sure their keyboards are hooked up to anything. I think it’s just the go-to sound effect for “Let me see if I can get a special deal, just for you.” “So,” He explained, “If you signed up for our triple play, which is basically the cable and internet you have now plus a phone line, it would be about 40 less per month.”
My brain started misfiring as I tried to figure out the math behind this. “So if I add additional services, I will pay less?”
“That’s right.” He said in a voice so nonchelant I assume he didn’t realize that my brain had just exploded across my desk. “And then in a month, because you’re a triple play customer, you’ll be eligible for the X1 box to replace your DVR for free. It’s a nicer interface, you can record four shows at once instead of two, and it hooks up to Pandora and Facebook.”
“So we’ll get a nicer DVR box for free in addition to our lower prices and added phone service?” I felt like Rob was splitting the atom right before my eyes.
“So is there any sort of catch?”
“You’ll lose a few of the higher channels that most people don’t watch anyway. Channels like Oxygen, Encore and the Oprah network. Maybe a couple of sports networks. Are you a sports fan?”
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll throw in a free package that’ll give you a bunch of sports channels and also NFL Red Zone for the next six months.” If this had been a TV show, my mouth would have been comically full of some drink which I would then have spit all over the person standing next to me. For those of you who don’t know, NFL Red Zone is to football fans what blue crystal was to the meth community of Albaquerque, New Mexico. It constantly cuts to the most exciting/important play happening at any moment in any football game with no lag in between. It is football on crack.
“So I’m going to get a phone line, NFL Red Zone, and a better cable box added to my current package and only pay 120?” I asked him as I used my free hands to work out sketches for the Rob statue I planned to erect in downtown Boston.
“Actually, I may have made a mistake.” Don’t toy with me Rob. “It’s showing up here as 110 a month.”
“What?!” I asked as I looked up the rules for submitting Rob’s name for consideration for a national holiday.
“Yeah. Guess it was cheaper than I realized.”
Excitedly, I pulled up my list of monthly bills. I was going to call everyone.
Car insurance came in at 103 before the calls, but Christine was happy to inform me that yes, I could pay less. She knocked off 3% for switching to a paperless statement and then explained that having AAA would improve my driver rating and save me another $100 a year. The moral, as always, AAA membership grants benefits only a step below what you get when you become Pope.
Gas and Electric
Liz at National Grid told me that while she couldn’t magically lower my bill like Rob and Christine, she could offer a free service where someone comes to my house and assesses ways to improve energy efficiency and save me money.
“Let’s do it!” I told her.
“Okay, I just need to get some information first about your home. What year was it built?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you have a guess? I can’t go to the next page of the form without an answer.”
“Let’s say 1950.”
“Great. And how many square feet is your apartment?”
“I’ll put you down for 1000.”
“Sure.” I was feeling very good about National Grid’s rigorous home evaluation system already.
“And what are your energy concerns?”
“I don’t have any specific concerns, I’m just trying to cut back on bills. I’ve been calling everyone, asking if I could have lower prices.”
“I’ll put insulation.”
Clearly, this was a very worthwhile form we were filling out.
By the time we were done putting wrong answers to every question on the form, I had an appointment scheduled for December 12th.
While I didn’t have the same success with my phone bill, credit cards or health insurance that I did with my other phone calls, I was still feeling pretty emboldened. It was probably this feeling of hubris that led me to call the entity perhaps least likely out of any in the world to lower my bill. Perhaps the most evil, unforgiving force in the universe.
The Department of Traffic and Parking.
I had a number of back, unpaid parking tickets to my name that, for argument’s sake, we will call five. I long ago lost the tickets. Figuring out what I owed became a daunting challenge that involved calling an organization I knew would put me on hold for hours, and then giving the government money, two things I hate more than almost anything else. So every week for the past few months, I had chosen to put off calling them until the next week.
At this point, it had been three years.
“Hi, I have a couple of unpaid parking tickets.” I explained to the woman on the phone.
“Okay.” She spoke fast and dismissively.
“I was wondering if there’s any way the amount on those can be lowered.”
“No, once you get the ticket, you have 21 days to pay otherwise they become late tickets and a fee is assessed.” In her mind, she was already moving on to the next call in her busy day.
“Yeah, I understand, I was just wondering if there’s anything we can do to lower the total amount.”
She didn’t even pretend to type on her keyboard. “Sir, I’ve already told you the answer to that question is no.” It was a hard argument to counter.
“Well, that’s true,” I stipulated. This wasn’t the same as talking to Rob or Christine.
“Okay, I’ll connect you to the billing department and you can pay your fine.” She dispatched me and I reluctantly paid my fines. I suppose those tickets were something I was going to have to pay at some point or another and I guess it was good to get them taken care of. But this certainly wasn’t a victory.
So it was that I completed my day of asking for discounts, defeated by the most immovable of forces: the government. Still, all in all I had knocked over $60 off my monthly bills. That’s $720 a year. And even my disastrous call to the government reinforced they key lesson of the day: It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Odd Job: Asking to pay less
Pay: Savings of over $60 a month
1. Whenever I call one of these companies, I am always struck by that phrase. If every time I call, you are experiencing a larger-than-normal call volume, then doesn’t that mean that you’re actually experiencing a normal call volume? Shouldn’t the message say, “We’re sorry, but we’re experiencing a totally normal call volume right now, so this could be awhile?”
2. If you had told me five years ago that Oprah, the closest a celebrity has come to King Midas in the last few centuries, was going to launch her own network, and that network would eventually be used in the same sentence as something called the Oxygen Network and Encore I would have said you were crazy. Every book she endorsed became a New York Times bestseller. Her TV show was worth billions. She was so powerful that she even convinced us Dr. Phil was likable. And I forget exactly how 2008 went, but I’m pretty sure textbooks will recognize her decades from now as the reason Obama was elected. Now her TV network is the go-to example for channels you won’t miss if you change your cable service. It’s a weird world we live in. ↩
3. It would be a lie to say I know anything about drugs. But I sure have watched a lot of Breaking Bad. I assume that all crystal meth is shitty because it’s not 99% pure or blue like the stuff Heisenberg makes, but that’s probably because those dumb chefs are doing sudo cooks instead of using methylamine, eschewing tube furnaces or phenal acetone and putting in dumb stuff like chili powder. Also, I should say that I know what none of the words in the last sentence mean other than chili and powder. ↩
4. Or so I imagine.