Barry Gross, founder and president of BillCutterz, which negotiates monthly bills on behalf of consumers. BillCutterz.com
Even if you don’t keep a close eye on your cell-phone bill, you’ve still probably gotten the sinking feeling that it has increased over time. That’s not your imagination but rather a known phenomenon prevalent with just about every cell-service provider—it is known as “bill creep.” You signed on for a plan that sounded great at $29.99 per month and somehow, a year or two later, you’re paying $73. If your bill had jumped from $30 to $73 overnight, you would surely have noticed—but it has happened gradually…bit by bit.
One of the ways companies get away with this is by inserting—and slowly increasing—small fees on your bill. Your base rate of $29.99 may not change, but those fees climb ever upward. And you are not alone—virtually everybody is overpaying their service providers.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many fees are negotiable, and you can almost certainly lower your bill by making a single phone call (yes, you might spend 20 or 40 minutes on hold, but the savings will be worth it). From now on, if your usage habits haven’t changed but your bill has increased at all (even by just $2 or $3), don’t pay it until you’ve haggled with your service provider. Bottom Line Personal asked Barry Gross of BillCutterz what you need to know before you make that call…
You have leverage. These days, you can’t watch an entire TV show without seeing at least one ad for a cell-phone provider. These companies spend millions upon millions of dollars each year trying to bring in new customers. Take that as a sign that your cell-service provider is desperate to keep you on as an existing customer. When you call and say you’re dissatisfied with how much you’re paying, it’s in the provider’s interest to lower your bill to keep you as a customer.
Take stock. Before you pick up the phone, look carefully at your last several bills. If you still get paper statements, that’s fine, but you may see more detail if you go online to view your bills there. Here’s what to look for…
Right plan. Before worrying about fees, make sure your plan is a good fit. See how much data and which services you have signed up for, and compare them to what you actually use. If there’s a significant mismatch, your biggest money-saver is going to be adjusting the plan you’re on. Your goal should be the best plan for the money that will allow you to regularly come close to but not exceed the data cap.
Any increase. If a fee or other line item has gone up inexplicably from one month to the next, make note of it.
Anything vague. Mysterious items sometimes pop up on people’s cell-phone bills (“Membership,” “Subscription,” “Services,” etc.), and folks pay them because they think they have to. Until the federal government stepped in in 2015, there was a serious problem with third-party entities “cramming” fees onto people’s cell-phone bills for services that those customers may never have used or been aware of. These days, cell-phone carriers must group such charges in a section of the bill clearly labeled as third-party charges. Scrutinize this section carefully to zap any fees you don’t recognize. It’s good practice to tell your provider not to allow any third-party charges onto your bill, period.
Voice mail. You should not have to pay an extra fee for something so basic. The same goes for “directory assistance,” which nobody needs in this day and age.
Make the call. After you’ve dialed the main customer-service number, don’t ask to “speak to a representative.” Those employees are authorized to lower your bill but not by much. Better: Use the prompts to indicate that you’re calling to “cancel your service.” You may be asked if you’re moving to a new location…say no. You’ll be transferred to the company’s retention/loyalty department, and those representatives can do a lot more for you.
Rather than framing this as a conversation about fees, simply ask the open-ended question, “What can you do to lower my monthly bill?” Say nothing more. Just wait. The representative will review your tenure with the provider, usage, payment history and plan, and will come back with a proposition. He/she will describe the offer and then say, “How does that sound to you?” No matter what he proposes for keeping you on—even if it sounds great—always wait five beats and then follow up with the second open-ended question, “What else can you do to lower my bill?” This strategy alone can reliably get you a significant discount. It’s very common to see a reduction of $30 to $80 per month with just these two questions.
Depending on how satisfied you are with the offer, you may not want to bother haggling over individual fees. But if you think it’s worth squeezing a little harder and there are fees that fall into the categories discussed above, now is the time to dispute them. Go line by line through your bill, asking for fees to be removed or at least explained to your satisfaction.
Are all fees negotiable? In a word, no. Even the retention/loyalty representatives can’t make government taxes and fees go away. Your bill may have federal, state and local charges on it. Within that category, you’ll see a “Universal Service” fee as well as a 911 fee. Don’t try to negotiate those.
It’s also not a good idea to try to get out of paying fees that you’ve already agreed to. Example: If you’ve upgraded your phone, you may have been subject to a monthly upgrade fee. The time to negotiate that away would have been when you signed up for the upgrade, not now. Most providers will not negotiate this.
What about onetime fees? Always try to negotiate these. Example: When you switch to a new carrier, you will often be charged an “activation” or “setup” fee (usually around $35). Say that you won’t sign on if you have to pay it. Remember—the provider wants you as a customer. It has invested all that advertising money to get you through the door—it will not reject the prospect of having you as a years-long source of revenue just because of a onetime $35 fee.
Stay interested in your bills. Once you’ve had the conversation with the retention department, don’t consider the matter settled for all eternity. Keep a vigilant eye on your monthly statements to guard against bill creep. Unless the company has made an across-the-board rate increase for all of its American customers, any bill that is inexplicably higher than last month’s bill should prompt a call.
Even better: Call every six months to see if you can get your bill lowered. Maybe subsequent reductions won’t be quite as glorious, but it’s worthwhile to make the effort.
Reminder: The beginning of your relationship with a company is your absolute best opportunity to get your rate as low as you’re going to get it. An introductory rate such as $39.99 per month might sound good enough to lure you in—but will you actually end up paying $39.99…or does that exclude a bunch of taxes and fees? Does the introductory rate expire in a few months? Any time you sign on with a new carrier, ask for a complete list of all taxes and fees you’ll be expected to pay. Ask for a dollar figure for your first monthly bill…and for your second and third. Ask if the rate is temporary or conditional. If you don’t like what you’re hearing, say that you’re walking away. Another carrier will be happy to have you.