I was zapped!

My basic telephone service carrier was switched from AT&T to a company called Telec Inc. without my permission or knowledge. They just did it.

For me, it started one day when I got a call from AT&T asking me to come back. I replied, "I never left."

They said that I had. Then we started a process of phone calls to get back my AT&T service and the True Value incentive points they said I forfeited when I became disloyal.

Now, why did I fight to get back to AT&T?

I had seen how small carriers can charge you. Many of us have made a long-distance call from a pay phone of some unknown carrier and received a bill for several times what AT&T, Sprint, or MCI would have charged.

I have been in hotels that use one of these carriers for their pay phones and room phones, for a split of the revenue. This is a shortsighted decision. The hotel may gain revenue, but after seeing the bill the customer may swear never to stay there again.

But my story had a happy ending. For agreeing to "come home" AT&T gave me $20, $100 in phone cards, and 180 minutes of free phone time for calls from home. I have been promised I may get my True Value points back too! That's an awful lot of thanks.

But think of the moral. Had I not left-voluntarily or involuntarily-I never would have been offered these bonuses. In other words, the loyal customer gets little. Like so many other businesses, the phone company courts the new customer and takes the old one for granted.

Airlines certainly do this. Frequent-flier miles make most of us mad, not happy. They are difficult to use without a year's advance notice, unless you want to go to Buffalo on a red-eye in January. And when you do use them, you are often treated like a second-class citizen. (When my wife used frequent-flier miles to fly in the front cabin, she was told she was not a real first-class passenger.)

But the people using these free trips are the loyal, regular passengers who have traveled many miles at regular rates to earn rewards. They should be honored, not sneered at.

Do banks do the same thing-ignore their regular customers to woo the new ones? You bet!

How do you think customers you've been charging 18% in credit card interest feel when you announce by mail that newcomers can have a temporary rate of 6.6%? No wonder people switch from card to card.

IBM used to have a two-way policy on commissions: In addition to rewarding salespeople for moving IBM products, it would dock those whose customers removed them.

Maybe banks should consider something similar. If they don't, they may find themselves zapped-not by ambitious telemarketers pushing for commissions or to impress the boss, but by customers.

And once zapped, you may have to provide special benefits to get these customers back.

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