Fine Print Hide & Seek
Now that my county, Arlington, has given its approval to Verizon to offer its TV service as a rival to Comcast's cable system, Verizon promotions have been arriving almost daily at our house. The one that really caught my eye came in a big 8-by-11 envelope stamped "priority delivery" and "important information inside." It looked like an urgent, overnight delivery. Needless to say, that envelope didn't get automatically thrown into the trash. Inside, there was a letter about the TV service. It had all the promotional gobbledygook you would expect, including this bold sentence at the top: "Switch to the power of fiber optics for $39.95 a month." That sum caught my eye, since it's considerably less than we are paying for our cable TV service. I read the front page and was definitely interested. But it was only when I got to the bottom of the letter that I began to wonder about the deal's value. Because there -- in very, very, very, tiny print -- was this note: "See reverse side for important Consumer Information." And that usually means "Watch out; there are lots of strings attached."
I turned the page over, looking for the catch, but I couldn't find any information, at least initially. The top 10 inches of the back page were completely blank. I finally spotted the "important" information at the very bottom of the page in a print so small you needed a magnifying glass on top of reading glasses to read it (See the image below). And indeed there was a catch: "extra charges apply for Set Top Box..." Since you need a set top box to get the $39.95 premier package, that means it will cost $3.95 more per TV to get the service (and if you want high-definition, that charge grows to $9.95 per TV). Of course, none of those fees are listed in the fine print. For that information, you have to call Verizon or visit its Web site.
Now it turned out that the package, even with the added fees, was still a good deal. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit I signed up for it. (Installation is in a couple of weeks). But that made me even more curious about why Verizon was trying to hide those added fees? And was that obfuscation also causing the incredibly long hold times when you try to sign up via the phone? I presume everyone has to ask about the extra fees, so it probably takes agents longer to process each new account.
Chris McKay, Verizon's regional marketing director, said the point of the letter was not to tell consumers every detail about a service, but rather to "engage in a conversation" to prompt the consumer to call and make additional inquiries. The call center, he said, is where the trained customer-service reps "will make everything crystal clear."
McKay said the "important consumer information" was the standard legal disclaimer -- in the standard size font -- that's on all Verizon FiOS TV promotions. "I will take under consideration the size of the print" for that particular mailing, McKay said.
But even if he were to enlarge it, he said he isn't sure how many people would read it. "Everybody reads these pieces at different levels. ... Most just read the headlines and call. Even if I did put more specifics in the body of the letter ... or put it in bold text in the middle of the page," the vast majority of customers would still call in for a better explanation."
As for the long hold times, McKay said that as fast as Verizon can, it is training customer service reps to handle all the FiOS TV queries. The company doesn't want to put just any agent on the calls, he said, since there are, after all, lots of questions that need to be answered.
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