It’s 2010, and the cable and satellite companies that provide our in-home television, internet and phone service are fast becoming indispensable. We’re at the point where nearly everyone, regardless of their financial situation or demographic profile, needs internet access in their home, right? Right. Cable and satellite companies know this, and it’s up to consumers to understand that they’ll do everything in their power to maintain the upper hand over the people they know can’t live without them—you, me, everyone. Today we’re focusing on DirecTV specifically, but we should keep in mind that they’re just one example of a disturbing industry trend.
DirecTV’s website is slick, easy to navigate, and to the point. There’s the usual “why choose DirecTV” stuff, an explanation of package types, detailed descriptions of the nature of services provides (channels offered, bandwidth speed on internet service, etc.) and so on. There’s even a spot off to the side where you can watch DirecTV’s “Jump In It” commercial featuring the Goofy Russian Oligarch, as we’ll call him, which is a clever little viral touch.
But when you start looking for the “dirty details,” the local availability and pricing stats, the bundle packages and all the other things you need to know to make an informed decision about to whom you wish to turn for cable/satellite service, you run into a wall. There’s some basic teaser-rate promotions on DirecTV’s flavor-of-the-week packages, but that’s about it—nothing concrete enough to solidify any decision-making.
Indeed, the biggest insult, or the cleverest marketing gimmick depending on what side of the coin you’re on, of all is the hoops they make you jump through just to find pricing information on their bundles. Seems like they figure, rightly, that most customers these days want one of those triple-play phone-TV-internet bundles, or at least the TV-internet part, and that most of the traffic coming to their website is going to be heading towards their “bundle” pages. So they give away the easy stuff, making the a la carte TV package pricing (which is so 1998) visible for all to see one click away from their homepage. Thanks, DirecTV, we think. It’s great to know that you’re whoring out 200 channels, 180 of which are niche-audience garbage, for $29.99 a month. What we want to know about is the premium stuff, the bundles with all those sweet discounts and efficiencies and things people actually need.
To which DirecTV replies, politely but firmly: Well, that’s going to cost you. Know what happens when you click on the “Get pricing info for our bundle deals” (or whatever it says)? Hint: you’re not redirected to a spreadsheet with pricing info for DirecTV’s bundle deals. No, you’re redirected about six inches down the page to DirectTV’s very own 800 number and a flashing “Call Now!” box. Try mousing over the number or the box: it doesn’t work. Why not? Oh, right, they want you to call now to learn more about their great bundle deals. How could we forget.
So you call now! And why not. You’re not a busy person with a job and kids and money problems. You’re a nice guy with infinite patience who has all day to spend on the phone talking about DirecTV”s awesome new offers! In any event, you call. And someone answers pretty quick. Their name is Pete, or Sandra, or Andre, or Chantal. It doesn’t matter-they’re a nice person with a name and a good phone voice and they welcome you to DirecTV today and how may they be of assistance? You tell them you just want to learn more about DirecTV’s bundle pricing, maybe that 5 months free bundle they’ve plastered all over their homepage. No problem, they can understand that, sir, and they’ll just need some information from you to get you the items you’ve requested. See, they’re not sure if you realize this, but you qualify for FIVE MONTHS FREE on DirecTV’s new triple play bundle package! That’s right, the one with NFL Season Ticket!
But wait, you just want to know how much that costs. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out-it’s the same service for everyone, right?
Well, maybe, but it’s just not that simple. (Silly, you’re so old fashioned!) First we’re going to need some information to see which deals you qualify for. Nothing important-just your social security number, your address, home phone, and so on.
But nothing, sir! Let me just input this information here…oh my! Are you aware you qualify for a no-money-down installation?! That’s right, we’ll bill you LATER, a whole 30 days on, for all the charges you incur during your installation! What’s more, are you aware you’re getting FIVE MONTHS FREE? And sir, what would be the best time to come out to your place of residence to provide you with these great services?
That’s great news, sir, and welcome to the DirecTV family! We’ll see you on the 8th. Just be sure to have a copy of your driver’s license and a permission slip from your landlord if you live in a rental property. By the way, your bill will be $59.99 for the first five months and you’ll be receiving the very best service from DirecTV for the next TWO YEARS! Don’t you dare cancel early, either, or you’ll be paying $20 for every month left on your contract. Congratulations!
A word of advice: don’t let cable or satellite salespeople boss you around when you call up to get information about their products. They’re paid by the sale and it’s in their interest to pressure, cajole, and borderline trick (within the bounds of law) you into purchasing their services and locking into a potentially lengthy and costly contract. Cell phone providers have been doing it for years-think of a satellite TV call center as the equivalent of the Verizon or AT&T store you hate going into because you don’t want to get pushed into buying a plan or a phone you don’t really need. You’re entitled to information about pricing WITHOUT any obligation to purchase anything. And please don’t give out your social security number. They use it to run a legitimate credit check, but it’s still not a good idea to be giving that stuff out over the phone unless you’ve signed a contract.
It’s also helpful to remember that while DirecTV and other big-name cable/satellite providers base their business models on the assumption that their customers can’t live without the services they provide, it’s equally true that they can’t live without the business their customers provide. When enough consumers making enough similar decisions in tandem, even big companies like DirecTV feel it—it’s the law of the market. With that in mind, the single most important thing you can do to reduce your DirecTV bill is to realize that you have far more pricing power than you realize. Sure, there are list prices for all the products and services the company provides, but anyone who’s bought a car or other big-ticket item knows that there are list prices and then there are list prices.
If you have 20 minutes or so this week, give the following a try. Get out your last DirecTV bill. Pick up the phone. Dial DirecTV toll-free. After politely declining whatever upgrade or enhancement the man or woman who answers tries to sell you, tell them you’re going to cancel your service. When asked why, go into the specifics of your bill, highlighting which parts of it you find particularly unreasonable (if you’re like most DirecTV customers, chances are you won’t have to embellish too much). Then sit back and see what happens next. Nine times out of ten you’ll find yourself thrust into a spirited negotiation in which you’re inexplicably given the upper hand.
Remember, you—we, everyone—have the power. It’s time to get serious about using it. Good luck!