Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Utility Bills, A Survival Guide


  A notice came in the mail today. It told me that the city marshals could be coming by any day to cut off our gas and to take out our gas meter. My first objective was to buy time. The notice said that  $643.25 is due immediately. My prior experience is that they will give you more time if you ask.

Each utility has its own rules. I almost always have some kind of agreement running with Con Edison or Keyspan. (The gas company) You have to know what each notice means. When the electric company tells you that you have broken your agreement and need to pay the entire balance of $900.00 or whatever, don't panic. Call immediately. Usually, you have a couple of weeks to come up with enough money to pay only the overdue portion and reinstate the agreement. The general rule is that you try to get the agreement reinstated before they read the meter again. The gas company operates the same way. Usually, what they really want right away is less than what they are demanding in the notice.

With both gas and electric, you can often get agreements that will split a past balance over a number of months. They will probably ask you to pay the past due balance spread out over four months or so. Try to see how thinly they will spread out the balance. You can usually get a twelve installment plan. It's best to make an agreement you can keep. Any you have to keep track of your agreements with the gas and the electric company. For the duration of the agreement, you will be paying your current bill, plus a portion of the arrears.Keep track of that. And keep track of how many days you have after a broken agreement notice to reinstate the agreement. It takes a while to learn how to read between the lines.

With cell phone bills or cable bills, you have to keep track of the past due amount. If you let two months accumulate, you can end up with a big bill to pay. Always meet the deadline to pay an overdue bill a day or so before a new billing cycle begins. That can buy you enough time to pay the current portion a month later. If you have a big cell phone bill, try to analyse where the charges are coming from. Getting more anytime minutes can help you avoid overtime minutes. Also, look for mistakes. They might have put you on the wrong plan. If you are asking for a plan with higher minutes, you can ask for a break on the bill. You can ask for anything. Sometimes a reconnect fee can be waived. It adds up. But if you don't ask, you won't get. If you have family in Canada or overseas, ask about plans that give you a break on international service or calls to Canada. Crunch the numbers. It may be worth your while.

Keep up with your notices. Learn how strict each utility is about cutting off when the notice says. Keep track of what you promise and when you have to deliver.

Always be polite and friendly. I had a fifteen minute conversation with a tech support guy from India about the political situation in India. I guessed which party he supported. He was shocked. I once had a hospital clerk who wouldn't give me discharge papers to let my newborn come home from the hospital. We got into a conversation about Greek music. Her face lit up, and she typed out the release papers as we were speaking. Another guy at a hospital was a stickler for procedure. He was from Biafra. We talked about the Biafra Nigeria civil war. Afterward, he wasn't such a stickler for detail. But be careful with that one. If I had praised the wrong side in that conflict, things might have turened out differently.

Never get angry at anyone, over the phone or in person. Always shift the discussion so that you and the service representative, clerk or relationship specialist are both facing the same system. If they stand their ground, express sympathy. Say that you realise that certain exceptions probably have to be granted at the managerial level. Ask if you can speak with someone who has the authority to bend the rules. Do not phrase  it in a way that you want to complain to the person's supervisor. If you are mentioning the authority to bend rules, it might appeal to the ego of the service representative, who may want to prove that they have more authority.

I once got a ticket dismissed by saying to the judge, " I realise that the wording of this ticket could be interpreted to my detriment. I ask that your honour use whatever discretion might be used to my benefit."

Another time I was appealing a ticket for written for a 15 passenger van that was legally a station wagon. I was driving for my work. I pleaded "not guilty".

"As you can see from the registration, I was drivng a station wagon." I said as I  I presented the papers. As far as the city was concerned, I was driving a station wagon.Had the traffic agent copied the information from the dashboard, I would have been stuck.

The judge cross examined me.

"You were driving for your work. Is that correct?"

"Yes your honour." I replied.

So you drive a van for your work. Is that correct?"

I noticed that answering affirmatively would have undermined my position. So I answered very carefully.

"I drive whatever vehicle the agency assigns me." I replied.

The judge smiled. He seemed amused as he dismissed my ticket..

Beating tickets in New York City is a whole separate chapter. In general, although it is time consuming, you are better off fighting them in person. Appealing a ticket on line or by mail is a waste of time. Once you are denied on line or by mail, it is very difficult to appeal.

Some numbers are always busy. I once had to call a post office with a number that ended in three zeroes. Instead of dialing "3000" at the end, I dialed "3001, 3002,3003, etc. until I got a phone to ring. The person replied, "Yes this is the Post Office. But I don't know how you got my desk." They connected me to the right person without a long wait time. It doesn't work every time. But it's worth a try.

On more than one occasion I have gotten a service representative who was downright difficult. I knew that they were mistaken. So I just said. "Excuse me. I have to answer the door." and hung up. Immediately, I called back and got someone who was more reasonable. This has worked on numerous occasions. For it to work, you must be polite to a fault. If they note your computer records, the next service representative might not be working with a clean slate.

The most important things to remember in dealing with people in government, utilities and businesses are as follows.

1) They are part of a system, but they are individuals. If you can appeal to someone as an individual, you can then shift the discussion so that you both are trying to work your way through the system.

2) Each agency or company has its administrative rules. Get to know what they are. Because that is what you have to work with.

3) Keep track of what you promise, and deliver. Because there will be a data trail. I once told a reluctant clerk, "If you will look at my payment records, you will notice that I always pay at the last minute." But I have lived in this apartment for 15 years. I'm not running off to Brazil."

4) The whole world looks different if you speak kindly. Once I got a call from a telemarketer. "Mr. Stettner, today is your lucky day. You have just won $500.00 worth of gifts for only $9.95. I listened to what she had to say.

"Are you reading from a script?" I asked.

The line grew quiet, except for the hum of other telemarketers in the background. "Yes I am. She admitted."

"Is today your first day on the job?" I asked.

"Yes it is." she replied

"I've worked at telemarketing. I was miserable at it. I dreaded every call. It's very difficult work for me to adjust to." I answered. "I wish you success at whatever you do, but I'm not interested.. Have a good day."

But there are some situations that just seem to cry out for rudeness. A friend of mine got a call from a fraudulent charity. He asked the person. "Isn't  it against the law to call a person on the phone and use obscene and abusive language?"

"Yes it is." the telemarketer replied.

"But if you receive a call, then you are not bound in the same manner in the language you may use. Is that correct?"

"That is correct." replied the telemarketer.

"So sir, since you have called me...."

I leave the rest of the conversation to the imagination of my readers. But that was one call where the telemarketer hung up.

We are in tough times. Paying your bills and keeping services running takes tact,  knowledge and skill. If you handle it right, you may enjoy yourself along the way. Sphere: Related Content

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