Why did the Verizon guy resist giving a bottom-line price?

Many of us have been right where Mark Caplan landed a few days ago: smack in the middle of a maddening exchange over something that should be fairly simple.

A Comcast "Triple Play" customer, the Merion resident was thinking of switching to Verizon FiOS - if he could get comparable service and a better deal. Now, what would Caplan need to make that comparison? Right - an actual, bottom-line price, or at least a reasonable estimate of what Verizon would extract from his bank account each month.

Caplan finally got what he asked for - a final estimate that was, coincidentally, somewhat higher than the total he'd have arrived at by factoring in Agent Donovan's advice that "total taxes and surcharges typically average 10-15% of your total services in most locations." His extra costs appeared to total about 17 percent.

But his point wasn't to complain about the taxes and surcharges. He just wanted an all-in price to compare, which should be a reasonable request. (You may remember, for instance, that airlines are now required to advertise prices that include "all mandatory taxes and fees.")

Caplan shared a transcript of his chat. Sound familiar?

A Verizon Service Representative will be with you shortly. Thank you.

Agent Donovan has joined. (10:58:59)

Donovan : Chat ID for this session is 03121350079. (10:58:59)

Donovan(10:59:09): Hello. Thank you for choosing Verizon and visiting our Verizon chat service. I am happy to help you set up your new service and save with a Verizon bundle.

For quality and security purposes, your session is recorded and may be monitored or reviewed. Please do not provide sensitive information such as social security, bank account or credit card numbers to the chat agent. May we view your account information, including the services you subscribe to, to assist you during this chat with respect to available Verizon products and services? You may deny us permission, which will have no effect on your current services. Under federal law, it is your right and our duty to protect your account information. May I have permission to review your account?

You(10:59:23): I'd like to see what the taxes are before adding all my personal information on this page.

Donovan(11:00:03): I will be more than happy to address your concerns today.

Donovan(11:00:18): May I ask what services you are getting today?

You(11:01:01): triple play $89.99 showtime $13.99 less 50% (1) basic digital adaptor [$5.99] + (2) DVR's [$16.99 each].

You(11:01:25): my zip is 19066

Donovan(11:02:21): Great! Once you have selected and customized your plan, you will see the total of your bill which will not include taxes and surcharges. Since taxes and surcharges vary by location, we are not able to provide an exact amount; however, total taxes and surcharges typically average 10-15% of your total services in most locations.

Donovan(11:04:51): May I ask if you are able to continue with your ordering process?

You(11:05:05): I'm stumped. Verizon is able to bill with the taxes, which means you take into account all the different areas. How is it the magic disappears when a customer wants to know before signing up?

Donovan(11:06:20): I understand completely, one moment while I look this up for you.

You(11:09:06): You have my zip code in Merion, PA as I mentioned at the beginning of this chat. If every retailer in the U.S. can calculate taxes (& shipping) prior to ordering, hard to believe Verizon can't.

You(11:10:05): BTW..please include not only taxes, but other "fees" if applicable.

Donovan(11:12:06): Thank you for your patience, an estimate of what your monthly bill will be is 160.87

You(11:12:50): Why an estimate? Why is it so hard to give an honest answer what the exact total is?

Donovan(11:14:40): I do apologize, however I am not able to give you an accurate amount on how much your bill will be due to the fact on when your services will be installed and on what date they will be activated.

You(11:15:31): Do you realize how ridiculous that comment is?

You(11:16:14): Let's assume I buy today.

Donovan(11:21:04): I understand completely, however once you have completed your order you will be able to call Customer Care and they will be able to give you your billing cycle date and also will be able to tell you how much your prorated fees will be. Also I will be giving you a 30 day worry free trial period for signing up today.

You(11:22:44): Are you a politician? Just a straight answer would be terrific.

Donovan(11:25:39): I do apologize for any inconveniences that this has caused you, however I am unable to give you an accurate amount for your bill at this time due to the fact that I have no access to see your billing cycle which in turn will include your prorated fees for your billing cycle. Once you have completed your order you will need to call Customer Care and they will be able to give you your billing cycle date and in turn will be able to access what your Prorated fees will be.

Donovan(11:26:59): Do you have any further questions I can assist you with today?

So what did Caplan decide? He says he's sticking with Comcast, for $12 more a month that also gets him a couple extra premium channels. A key factor in the decision was the hassle of switching, he says. On the other hand, he hadn't yet noticed that his monthly bill from Comcast had just risen $20 because of the end of one "promotional" discount - replaced with others, when he threatened to leave.

Caplan's initial objection was to "bait and switch" pricing, which many telecommunication customers complain of. But he's also frustrated by the "total lack of transparency."

"Unless you’re a Mensa member, the carriers really make you fight to understand their pricing," he says.

Why can't pricing be more transparent? I suspect that for all these companies, the answer is the same: They're banking that most customers aren't paying close enough attention to notice.