John Holmes jumped at the chance to switch recently when Verizon came calling with an offer to wire his Crofton home with fiber-optic Internet, television and telephone service for $150 a month. Feeling shackled to the only cable player in town for too long, the 33-year-old real estate agent eagerly dumped Comcast for fiber-optic service (FiOS) Internet and television from Verizon, which is slowly snaking its fiber-optic lines into parts of Maryland.
An added bonus: Holmes would save $20 to $35 a month by signing up for all three services with Verizon.
"If you were unhappy with Comcast, their attitude was, 'So what? It's us or nothing,'" Holmes said. "With that price, I'd get an upgrade in service and save money. I'd get the digital video recorder package, high-def and several movie channels. I didn't have all that with Comcast.
"Some of my friends were really envious because FiOS isn't offered in their neighborhoods yet," Holmes said. "I told them, 'Sure, I'll switch.' It sounded like a sweet deal."
And it might have been - had everything worked according to plan.
Holmes said he was very understanding when the service operator told him it would take a couple of weeks to get to his house, since Verizon had to physically pull the FiOS cable down to his street to begin installation.
Holmes was slightly peeved, but still patient, when he came home and discovered Verizon workers had pulled up large swatches of grass and left trash and wires in his yard. Verizon subsequently cleaned up the mess.
Then, on Dec. 18, a technician drilled a hole through the drywall in Holmes' home office, didn't patch it and then plopped a shoebox-size backup battery contraption smack dab in the middle of the wall. The technician disappeared for a couple of hours, came back, told Holmes everything was done, gave him a quick lesson on how to work the TV, and left.
Imagine Holmes' surprise when he went to record a show on the DVR and discovered it didn't work.
And that was just the beginning.
Over the course of 3 1/2 weeks, several more technicians trampled in and out of the Holmes residence. One got the DVR to work, but then the picture disappeared on one of Holmes' three televisions. A second technician got the picture to work, but the DVR stopped working. A third got the DVR and picture to function, but then disabled a router that incapacitated Holmes' ability to play online games. In an effort to patch the drywall, one of those technicians left a wet putty knife sitting on Holmes' exercise equipment, leaving behind a rust stain, which infuriated his wife.
As of last week, Holmes' movie channels weren't coming in properly.
"In the first three weeks of this nightmare, I took five days off from work and spent 15 1/2 hours on the phone with their customer service line," Holmes said. "I kept threatening them that I was going to go back to Comcast."
This unfortunate sequence of events might have you thinking Verizon's quest to make FiOS a viable challenger to Comcast is a bust, but Verizon officials assured me that Holmes' bumpy ride was a fluke.
"We regret the situation with Mr. Holmes and apologize for the inconvenience," Verizon spokesman Sandra Arnette said. "An overwhelming majority of our customers are very satisfied with FiOS TV, the installation and the quality service our employees provide."
Verizon won't say how many customers have signed up for FiOS locally, but Arnette said Verizon expected to have about 725,000 FiOS Internet customers and 175,000 FiOS TV customers overall by the end of last year.
Verizon also expects to attract up to 7 million Internet customers and between 3 million and 4 million TV customers by 2010, Arnette said.
FiOS is not available yet to Baltimore City residents (unlike in such places as Bowie, Laurel, and Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Howard counties) so we're not familiar with its abilities. But the fiber-optic service has won rave reviews from Consumer Reports readers in an annual Internet survey, and Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walter Mossberg called it "a good service and a good bargain."
Over the past week, Arnette said, a technician has tried three times to visit the Holmes abode to resolve any remaining problems. Holmes was not home at the time. They have another appointment for this week.
Regrettably, it took slightly more than a month to get FiOS installed and sorta, kinda working - sorely testing a brand new customer's patience with a service that he was very eager to receive.
This could be a solitary mishap (although I find it rare that there's ever just one incident). But in a competitive world, there's not much room for sloppy mistakes when doing something as bold as luring customers away from a behemoth like Comcast.
It might not take much to convince a customer who wants, demands and has been waiting for a choice to switch, but it takes more than cost savings to keep that customer.
Luckily for Verizon, Holmes is an incredibly patient and forgiving man. Lucky for Verizon, too, that Holmes is also a wise consumer who realizes that there are potential pitfalls in signing up for any fancy service or product during its infancy.
So Holmes said last week that while he was frustrated, he appreciated Verizon's many efforts to get it right. Even though his movie channels still weren't working properly, he said the aggravating hiccups he encountered have not made him regret the move to FiOS.
"Initially, yes, I regretted the decision because of the ongoing problems," Holmes said. "But they are taking care of everything. As long as everything works out and they bill me correctly, in the long run, I still think it's ideal."
Arnette said Verizon will issue a credit to Holmes' account to cover any down time he has experienced since getting the service.
That's good news, and a good effort on Verizon's part.
It should be noted, however, that the next potential FiOS customer might not be quite so Holmes-like.
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