A marriage of convenience can be richly rewarding, and a bit risky.
In the case of Verizon Communications and DirecTV, the benefit of the smart union between two seeming rivals was clear. Verizon got to aggressively compete against Comcast's Triple Play phone, Internet and TV service offer even as the telecom continued to build its fiber-optic TV network. DirecTV got instant access to however many of Verizon's 40 million land-line customers were fed up with cable and don't have fiber installed in their neighborhoods yet.
Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? Not for Fawn Hartline, who jumped at Verizon's $104-a-month triple play offer in December.
"They didn't have FiOS TV available in our neighborhood yet," the Parkville resident said. "If we wanted phone and DSL service at a good price we had to go with DirecTV, so we signed up."
Hartline said a DirecTV subcontractor showed up on Dec. 9 to install the dish and multiple receivers.
But when the technician left, Hartline said, she discovered that the dish was hanging haphazardly off her roof and wires were dangling from the side of her home and inside her basement.
"I called that same day to complain," Hartline said. "They sent another technician out on the 17th. It was a snowy day. He went around the house and told me the wiring wasn't grounded. Then he gave me his number and a number to call tech support and have it installed properly. I don't know why he didn't fix the problem, but he left.
"So I called tech support that same day," Hartline said. "They asked me why [the tech] didn't fix it. I told them I had called him after he left and he said he couldn't come back because he had too many emergency calls. I told them the picture was still not working. They told me to wait for him to file his report."
Hartline called DirecTV the next day and they made another appointment to send techs to her house on Dec. 19. No one showed, she said. Two more appointments were made, Hartline said, and both were no-shows.
By Dec. 28, she had had it. She called DirecTV to cancel "a service I never properly received." Once DirecTV picked up their equipment, she thought her problems were over.
But in February, Hartline opened her mail to find a DirecTV statement billing her $366.96 for an early cancellation fee, minus credits for returned equipment, premium channels and such.
"My husband went mad," Hartline said. "He told them he would sooner pay a lawyer than pay a bill after they endangered us with a bad installation and after the no-shows and after we had no service to show for it from day one. I called Verizon, but they said I had to call DirecTV."
DirecTV responded by sending the Hartline bill to collection.
"The calls started at the end of March," Hartline said. "They called me five times a day and threatened to destroy our credit report. I was sick over it. My husband was sick over it." Feeling cornered and bullied, Hartline said she called the collection agency on May 1 to arrange payment, even though she felt she did not owe the debt.
"I didn't know what else to do," Hartline said.
First, let's note that as someone who works as a finance manager for a living, Hartline should know better.
When you agree to pay a collection agency for a debt that is not yours, you're taking ownership of that debt. Once you do that, you've boxed yourself in. Instead of knuckling under, Hartline should have reported the company to the Federal Trade Commission or the attorney general's office.
Hartline's side of the story was also made difficult by the fact that she had no paperwork or work order from the technician to document that he had, in fact, shown up at her home.
Luckily, we still had time to reverse her errors.
The thing about partnerships is that when your partner does good work, you benefit from that good. The risky part is that when your partner does bad work, your rep gets sullied as well.
DirecTV may be the source of Hartline's complaint, but Verizon introduced her to her woes.
"I wish I had never called Verizon," said Hartline, who felt like she was bulldozed by two companies acting like monopolies.
That assessment turned out to be true for just one entity in this case, since we found that the vagaries of alliances can also mean that partners don't always agree on how to conduct business.
After looking into the complaint, DirecTV blamed Hartline. "The customer called 30 days after the installation and had not reported any problems prior to that call," said Robert Mercer, DirecTV director of public relations. She "refused to allow us to come out and attempt to fix the problem."
When asked about the tech's visit and the multiple calls Hartline said she made, Mercer said in an e-mail, "We have nothing in the tech comments or the customer services notes to indicate the customer called prior to 1/28. We cannot validate the claim of a tech rolling on 1/17."
When asked whether DirecTV employs or employed the tech whose name and number Hartline jotted down, Mercer did not respond to the question. I also called the tech number that Hartline provided me, but no one answered the line and there was no voice mail available.
Mercer explained that Hartline had three days to cancel without penalty. "Sorry we can't solve this one for you, but if the customer is unwilling to work with us on the problem, there's not much we can do," he said on Wednesday at 3:47 p.m. At 7:31 p.m., Verizon called to say Hartline's problem was resolved.
Using the same details that I provided to DirecTV, Verizon escalated the complaint with DirecTV's executive team to waive the cancellation fee, said Verizon spokesman Sandy Arnette.
"DirecTV said they will call the credit agencies to clear Mrs. Hartline's credit report," Arnette said. "We apologize for any inconvenience to this customer."
When I contacted Mercer again to ask why DirecTV had a change of heart, he said the "One of our agents mistakenly credited the cancellation fee and took her out of collections." But as a gesture of goodwill, he said DirecTV would let the move stand.
Goodwill or a hard nudge from Verizon, I can't say for sure. I also can't say who is on the side of truth. Hartline says she complained - and took notes on the tech that showed. DirecTV says it has no record of that visit or her calls.
Verizon says there's something more important to think about.
"I can't speak for DirecTV, but when you partner with us, like when we have contractors doing work for us, and they're causing problems," Arnette said. "We're going to get involved because we have to guard our reputation. People don't look at it as the contractor's problem; they look at it as a Verizon problem.
"We also know that service quality isn't always what it should be," Arnette said. "But whenever we can try to fix it, we want the customer to walk away saying, 'There was a problem, but they were able to work it out for me.' We know customers have options and we know they can take their business to other places."
Hm. Can you guess which partner in this relationship isn't stomping on customers like a monopoly?
Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests @baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151.
Find Dan Thanh Dang's column archive at baltimoresun.com/consuming