Should You Use a Third Party to Negotiate Your Cable Bill?
Despite many consumers' interest in streaming content online, TV subscription prices continue to rise. In fact, consumer research from Leichtman Research Group Inc. found in a survey of 1,222 American households earlier this year that the mean reported monthly spending on TV cable, satellite or other TV subscriptions is nearly $100, an increase of 39 percent since 2010.
If you notice your bills creeping up, then maybe it's time to call your provider and ask for a better rate. But if you hate sitting on hold or negotiating, a few new services will do the dirty work for you.
BillCutterz and BillFixers
Companies like BillCutterz and BillFixers will call to negotiate on your behalf in exchange for half of whatever discount they negotiate for the first year.
BillCutterz has been in business since 2009, and customers most often request help negotiating cellphone, cable, satellite TV and Internet bills, according to vice president Sydney Alcala. The company can also negotiate gym memberships, landscaping, pest control and alarm and security bills. Overall, the average savings is around 35 percent, and customers can save 10 percent off BillCutterz's cut by giving the savings amount for a year upfront rather than splitting the costs monthly. (If the savings last longer than a year, you keep all the of savings beyond those first 12 months.)
A more recent entrant to the market, brothers and recent graduates Julian and Ben Kurland launched BillFixers in July 2014 as a side gig. Now Ben works on it full time and Julian is part time, along with five employees. The brothers say they attract a variety of customers, and they're able to negotiate a discount around 95 percent of the time.
"You get folks who are really savvy about dealing with money, and that's why they come to us," Ben Kurland says. "You get folks who are just busy and don't want to deal with the hassle and figure they'll throw it to someone else." Senior citizens are another key market, Julian Kurland adds.
Both companies ask that you send a copy of your bill so your negotiator has your account number and knows what you're currently paying and for what plan. One way he or she can help, according to Alcala, is by identifying premium channels, cellphone insurance or other add-ons you don't use. "We'll ask, 'Do you know you're paying for that, and is that something that you want?'" she says. "We want to make sure you're not paying for something you're not going to use."
The amount of additional information you must share with BillCutterz or BillFixers depends on what the provider requires. For instance, some providers require the last four digits of your Social Security number or a passcode to verify your identity. If customers balk at giving out their personal information, they can join the call to verify their identity and authorize the negotiator to speak on their behalf.
If you're ready to cut the cord entirely, a San Francisco-based company called AirPaper will help you minimize hassles by sending a letter to Comcast, Time Warner Cable or Verizon at a cost of $5 (in some cities, you can have someone else return your equipment for an additional fee).
AirPaper launched its Comcast cancellation letter service earlier this year and has since added Time Warner and Verizon. You'll need to provide the minimum amount of information required by that service provider, which is typically name, address and account number. "When a customer signs up to cancel with our service, we generate a letter and mail it on their behalf to their local Comcast branch," explains co-founder Eli Pollak. "It's a fully automated process."
However, it's not automated on Comcast's side, Pollak explains, so it can take five to 10 business days for them to process. And if you're still under contract, then AirPaper's process won't help you avoid early termination fees.
Should You Enlist One of These Company's Help?
That depends on whether you have the time and motivation to do it yourself. While many people dread negotiating, Stuart Diamond, author of the best-selling book on negotiation "Getting More," says it's easier than we think. "[For] small things like phone company discounts, it's probably better to do it yourself," he says. "Sit down, figure out your arguments and try to make a human connection."
Instead of threatening to switch providers (which may not even be an option in some markets), Diamond recommends asking if they've ever given a discount to other customers and under what circumstances. "If you can find a precedent, a big company will usually say OK," he says.
Another strategy is to reference the language on the company's website. "These companies all have website that promise good customer service, and people hate to contradict themselves," says Diamond, who also teaches a popular course on negotiation at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "Just reference their own standards."
If all else fails and you're not getting anywhere with one representative, "you can always call back and get somebody else," Diamond points out.
Some customers first try negotiating themselves and then enlist BillCutterz to see if they can increase their savings, Alcala says. "Since we do this every day, our savings experts have been trained and they know what to say, who to say it to," she says. "Some people are good negotiators so they can get similar to what we get. Or we can call back and get $20 or $30 off [a month], which is a pretty big difference for most people."
Ben Kurland says they've boiled it down to a science with each provider. "We've figured out the right people to talk to and when to talk to them," he says. (Pro tip: Representatives tend to field fewer calls between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., according to Ben Kurland, so that's a good time to call when they're less frazzled.)
Negotiating yourself means you'll get to pocket the entire discount without sharing anything with an outside company. But if you put it off or never enlist the help of a third party, then you're likely leaving money on the table every month – and that won't do your wallet any favors.
Susan Johnston Taylor contributes to the money section of USNews.com. Her articles on business and personal finance have also appeared in or on The Boston Globe, Learnvest.com, Entrepreneur.com and FastCompany.com. You can find her on Twitter @UrbanMuseWriter.