Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
How do you shut off an electronic bill?
Like a lot of people, I've been trying to trim expenses lately as I settle into leaner financial times. One thing I'm finding, though, is that in this era of electronic billing and auto-renewal, discontinuing monthly payments is a lot more difficult than it used to be. In removing the friction involved in paying bills, electronic billing has substantially increased the friction involved in not paying them. Back when I paid for everything by writing a check and licking a stamp, canceling a payment was a simple matter of looking up a number on your paper bill; phoning a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week call center; and telling the person at the other end of the line that all good things must come to an end. A letter confirming the breakup arrived in your mailbox a few days later. Now every biller is a clinging vine, unwilling or unable to accept rejection.
Case in point: eFax. Logging onto my MasterCard account and scanning recent bills for expenses I could eliminate, I realized that I no longer use eFax, which allows you to retrieve faxes via e-mail. I once found this service invaluable, but in our more purely digital age, I almost never have any faxes that need retrieving. No problem, I thought. I'll just log on to the eFax Web site and cancel. I entered my eFax number and PIN and checked out my options. These included various ways to alter the type of service I received, to change the credit card that paid for the service, or to change the frequency of billing. But I couldn't find any option for canceling service.
No problem, I thought. We'll do it the old-fashioned way. My MasterCard bill listed, underneath the $16.95 monthly charge, a phone number. I called it and was put into an electronic menu that included various options, none of which included "cancel service." I guessed, correctly, that cancellation was a billing matter and pushed the appropriate button on my phone. That eventually yielded a recording informing me that I could not cancel by phone; I'd have to do it … online. Two URLs were recited, somewhat hastily. I had to call back a second time and navigate through the menus again in order to scribble down one of these.
Logging on to the special eFax cancellation site, I once again entered my eFax number and PIN. Then I clicked on a live-chat option per my telephone instructions and entered my name and e-mail address. It didn't seem to go through the first time, so I entered these a second time. That's when Steve S. entered my life.
Steve S.: Hello, Tim. Welcome to j2 Global online support. I am Steve, your online Live Support Representative. How may I assist you today?
Well, duh. I thought. I'd just logged on to "eFax.com/cancel." Maybe he wasn't playing dumb, though. Maybe I'd been redirected somewhere else.
Me: I would like to cancel my eFax account.
Steve S.: I am sorry to hear that you wish to cancel. May I have your fax number as well as your PIN number for verification?
Fourth time, not that anyone's counting. Then there was a long pause.
Steve S.: Thank you for providing your information. Please give me a moment while I go through your records. In the meantime, please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation:
1) Moving to another provider
2) Bought a fax machine
3) Business or role changed
4) Short term project completed
5) Financial reasons
6) Problems with faxing or billing
7) Dissatisfied with quality of service
8) Too costly
I puzzled for a minute or two over what the difference might be between "financial reasons" and "too costly." Wasn't "too costly" a "financial reason"? But I didn't want to give eFax the idea that if they lowered their prices they might win me back. Finally I entered
5) Financial reasons.
May I also suggest
9) Nobody sends faxes anymore.
I didn't kid myself that Steve S. would care that I was recommending a change in eFax's business model, but perhaps this communication would be sent on to somebody who might. All of us need a wake up call now and then.
Steve S.: Thank you for waiting. I have just located and verified your account.
Steve S.: Tim, we can understand that currently you are finding it expensive to pay the monthly fee. We will waive the monthly fee for the next two-month[s] and you can use the fax service without the monthly fee for the next two billing cycles. Usage charges are applicable for sending faxes if any. We are suggesting this so that you can give it a second thought, as you will not be paying $16.95 for the next 2 billing cycles.
Steve S.: Your eFax account will be credited with $33.90 so that you may utilize our services without being billed a monthly fee for the next two billing cycles.
Steve S.: If however, you still feel that you do not have any use for our services by the end of the two months [his typo] credit period, then you need to get back to us any time. Will this be fine with you?
My previous suggestion to Steve S. (or rather, to the company that had subcontracted out this unpleasant transaction to Steve S.) that he was selling a product that I didn't need, and its logical implication that no pricecut would suffice, had fallen on deaf ears.
Me: No. I want to cancel NOW.
Does this statement sound ambiguous to you? It did to Steve S., for whom English, I suspected, was a second language seldom used outside the office in whatever foreign nation he happened to live. (I doubted his real name was "Steve.")
Steve S.: I completely understand your wish to discontinue, since you have already paid for the billing cycle, we do not want you to lose out on the money. I suggest you to retain this number at least till the end of two months credit offer as you will not be charged any monthly fee for the two months. As a goodwill gesture to continue our association we will offer you an additional gift balance of $10 along with the monthly credit which will enable to send up to 100 additional fax pages free of cost (per page per minute within U.S. & Canada).
Steve S.: Tim, you can use this usage balance for sending faxes during this waiver period and then you can get back to us at the end of your waiver period and we will process your request immediately.
Steve S.: You can at least keep the service till this waiver period and just get back to us any time during this 2-month credit period. Since we are available here 24 x 7, we will process your request immediately without any further delay.
By now I was starting to feel like James Lyngk, befuddled mark to alpha bucket-shop con man Ricky Roma in David Mamet's brilliant play Glengarry Glen Ross. (Jonathan Pryce played him in the movie.) The only significant difference was that Roma employed his own cunning in subverting the client's wish to back out of the deal, whereas Steve S., I felt sure, was working off a company script. I'd told Steve S. that I wanted to cancel. I'd told Steve S. why I wanted to cancel. When Steve S. had tried to talk me out of it, I'd told him I wanted to cancel NOW. It seemed like he was now saying OK, you can cancel, and here's our goodwill gesture as you head out the door. But that "you can just get back to us at any time" haunted me.
Me: I don't understand. Are you canceling my service or aren't you? I do not wish to have to make contact with eFax again. It was hard enough figuring out how to cancel the first time.
Steve S.: All right, as per your wish, I will close your account right now
Steve S.: We are sorry that you have decided to leave eFax, we are continuously improving our products and services but if your faxing needs do change in the future, we would be more than happy to have you back. Please do consider us if your faxing needs change in the future. Thank you for being with us and for using our service.
Steve S.: Is there anything else you would like to have assistance with?
This sounded like goodbye, but I wanted to be sure.
Me: No, thank you. Just to confirm: I will not be billed anymore for eFax, period?
Steve S.: As per your request, I have cancelled your account right now. So, please be assured that you will not be billed for this account.
Me: OK. Thank you.
Only after I logged off did I realize I'd forgotten to ask Steve S. to mail or e-mail me written confirmation that I was canceling my eFax account. Had I really canceled this account? Happily, the following message promptly appeared in my inbox:
Per your request, your account has been deactivated. Billing for your eFax number will cease immediately.
Should you wish to reactivate your account, please contact Customer Support, by calling [phone number here], 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or by replying to this e-mail. Please be advised, that we cannot guarantee you will be assigned the same number as before, since all inactive numbers are eventually returned to our system for reassignment.
eFax Customer Support
Hallelujah! I'd finally removed $16.95 from my monthly nut. Many more trims would be necessary, but this was a start. And it only took … an hour.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of a man on the phone on Slate's home page by Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images.