June 14, 2013 at 1:34 PM ET
When consumers call companies asking for a break, they don't always get the right answer the first time. That's why persistence can pay off.
A DirecTV customer service representative gave out the wrong information to a Colorado wildfire victim this week, telling Jeremy Beach that he would have to pay $400 to the firm after a fire that destroyed his home, including his TV equipment. The fires have raged for days, claiming 379 homes, killing two people.
Beach was told he'd have to pay an early termination fee, and he should try to recover the payment through his own insurance.
Soon, DirecTV had its own fire to put out.
On Friday, DirecTV told NBC News that its operator had made a mistake and it is working to set things right.
"The agent who spoke with Mr. Beach was wrong, and we are contacting the customer to apologize and assure him and his family that we will do everything we can to help them through this difficult time," said DirecTV spokeswoman Jade Ekstedt said.
She added that the firm often helps customers who suffer through natural disasters by suspending their accounts or waiving cancelation fees.
Happy ending, one hopes, for the Beach family's DirecTV fees.
But the firm has a well-earned reputation for drawing a hard line on its cancelation fees, which work much like those charged by cell phone companies. In exchange for deeply discounted equipment -- in this case, a satellite dish, receiver boxes, and installation -- the firm makes consumers commit to one or two year contracts. Breaking those contracts can cost consumers up to $480 in fees.
Consumers have alleged repeatedly in the past that the fees come as an unwelcome surprise, and are levied even when the service doesn't work correctly at their homes because of signal interference. A lawsuit filed by all 50 state attorneys generals, which included complaints about the fees, was settled in 2010. A private class-action civil case filed in California is ongoing.
Like many cell phone firms, DirecTV now pro-rates early termination fees, charging $20 for every month a consumer cancels service prior to the end of their contract.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
The message to consumers here: Don’t take that first no for an answer, particularly if your request for relief includes special circumstances. It’s also important to know that many front-line customer service representatives aren’t empowered to help you. Like a cashier at a grocery store who needs a manager’s key to open the cash register after an error, many operators can’t waive $400 fees. When making your request, make sure the other person has the power to say yes. Ask for a manager, and then another manager. And if that doesn’t work, telling a journalist often does.