Abusing the customer

Farpoint Group –

I need to rant a bit this week, but I hope you'll bear with me on this. I'm eventually going to get to a very important point about cell phones. In fact, the original title of this piece was going to be "Who owns your cell phone number?" -- but, like I said, I need to rant a little first.

The great management theorist Peter Drucker once said something that I think is lost on too many businesses today: the only possible legitimate reason for the existence of any enterprise is to serve a customer. Sure, the purpose of any business is to make at least enough money to keep the doors open, but said doors should remain in said position only for the benefit of the customer. The reason for this is that our particular economic system allows a high degree of choice; we usually have more than one source for a particular product or service, and competition serves to increase choice, lower prices, and improve quality -- a good portion of the time, anyway. Like many of you, I have developed a real intolerance for bad service (bad products I really don't see all that often; bad service, I do on a stunningly regular basis). At times, I think the relentless pursuit of profit at any cost is the reason behind this, and (as I'll get to shortly) this is one of those times.

Let me give you an example. Have you noticed that commercial television is becoming more or less unwatchable in real time? Why, you ask? Because there are simply too many commercials! At least 30 percent of every hour is consumed by ads, on essentially every channel. And the reason for this is that there are now so many channels that viewers are simply spread too thin -- and, as a consequence, those producing TV shows must charge less for advertising, since they are delivering fewer eyeballs to the screen. More frequent commercial breaks are necessary in order to generate the necessary revenue, and often run four minutes or more! Some stations even show ads for their programming during another program! Everywhere we go, we're being bombarded by ads, so much so that I think many people are now just numb to them. Federal legislation was required to deal with telemarketers (and this seems to be working well) and spam (so far, no effect, as near as I can tell). As for TV commercials, there's always TiVo -- but is TiVo watching you as well, in the hope of targeting even more ads your way? The bottom line here is that we customers are being abused -- the products and services we buy are coming with an awful lot of baggage.

One of the last bastions of safety from advertising has been the cell phone. Getting someone's cell phone number can be very difficult, because there are so many carriers, and 411 services have not to this point had access to this information. Well, that's about to change. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CITA), the trade association representing the cellular operators, is going to publish a master cellular directory, opening the doors to all manner of unwanted calls. Sure, you can register your cell number of the federal do-not-call list. The whole cell-phone directory system is supposed to be opt-in (not an opt-out list where your number is include by default and you have to jump through hoops in order to escape), but we'll see. To its credit, Verizon Wireless has refused to cooperate with this hare-brained scheme -- but one wonders if the company is planning something else. Read the fine print in your cell-phone contract -- most allow your carrier to publish your directory info if it so wishes.

You may recall that local number portability is now the law across the nation, which in effect gives you at least some ownership of your phone number. You have for years (for a fee, anyway) been able to delist your land line phone number from the phone book. It's time to shift this policy a bit more, and institute legislation giving you unconditional ownership of your phone number, along with privacy rights for that number. In these somewhat jaded times, there's really no good reason to make anyone's phone number public. While we're at it, this privacy should also include where your phone happens to be at any given moment in time, but that's a topic for another day.

You might be wondering why the CTIA would be interested in publishing a directory at all. Well, they plan to charge callers to get information stored in it -- there will be no paper book. (Indeed, with over 150,000,000 cellular users in the US alone, there could never be such a book!) It would likely be cost-prohibitive for any single telemarketer to get access to the entire database, but let's assume they pool their resources. Abuse is almost a certainty. The carriers would certainly benefit from the increased airtime that such a directory would yield, but most cell phone owners would not.

The cellular carriers already rank pretty low in the minds of most consumers, according to "the leading consumer publication." It's time for this industry to develop some respect for those who pay the bills. It's also time for the highly-restrictive contracts most users need to sign to go the way of the dodo -- but again, that's a topic for another day. For now, don't opt in to the CTIA directory (and carefully read any notices your carrier sends you). Do opt out via the federal do-not-call list. And do stay tuned -- we've sadly not heard the last of this topic.

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