Qwest misses a connection
By Al Lewis
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Qwest customer Joe Halpern has a problem.
"I have a Ph.D. with an emphasis in applied statistics and I
can't understand my bill," he told me.
Halpern, 67, worked in information technology at Qwest for nine
years. He's now president of the Colorado
and Wyoming chapter of the
phone company's retiree association. And he just wants a
little help understanding his bill.
He took the microphone at Qwest's annual shareholders' meeting
Thursday, taking his problem to Qwest CEO Ed Mueller.
"I am one of your best customers," Halpern told Mueller.
"I have a real interest in seeing Qwest succeed. I take
. . . all of the services in your bundle."
Halpern said his monthly bill recently increased by $20, and he
called Qwest to ask why.
"The customer service representatives who respond to billing
questions are very cordial," Halpern told Mueller, "but they
aren't very knowledgeable. I called and spoke to three
different people . . . to ask about the cost increase. I
was on the phone for 45 minutes each time. Each of the
representatives gave me different answers."
Mueller, standing on stage in a dark, pinstriped suit, hands
clasped at his waist, kept eye contact as Halpern continued with
a story about his doctor.
"He (his doctor) knew that I had some affiliation with Qwest,"
Halpern said. "He asked me what it would take to get out
of this contract with Qwest. . . . He said, 'I just can't
understand those damn bills.' "
This was Mueller's first annual shareholders' meeting since
taking the CEO job in August. He did a masterful job of
managing the perennially disgruntled masses, particularly
considering Qwest stock has lost half its value since he took
At $4.59 a share, Qwest stock is pennies away from where it was
in 2002 when Joe Nacchio was fired as CEO. Worse, nearly
100 million shares of Qwest are now held by short-sellers who
are betting the stock will fall even lower.
Naturally, investor advocates and retirees pelted Mueller with
comments and questions about his pay and his perks.
They also demanded answers of Qwest's entrenched board members
who've led the company to one disaster after the next.
Mueller affably indicated he was concerned about Qwest's billing
problem, too. Before the crowd, he then asked Halpern if
he would come to the front of the auditorium at the end of the
meeting and discuss his problem with Paula Kruger, executive
vice president of the mass markets group.
"I apologize for the inconvenience, but I think you are going to
find a willing and able executive who will help you get to the
root of the problem," Mueller promised. "And by the way,
if you give us your doctor, we'll follow up on that and make
sure we can keep him in our family."
Roughly 20 minutes after the meeting adjourned, Halpern found me
talking to some Qwest retirees in the auditorium and introduced
"You know the woman they told me to talk to about the billing
issues?" he said. "She's gone. She's not here."
Halpern told me that once the meeting ended he was immediately
approached by a Qwest sales and service consultant who asked all
about his problems.
"He just went on and on and on, and I couldn't get away from
him," Halpern said. "Finally, when I did get away from
him, Paula was gone. . . . He kept telling me, 'This is
something Paula should hear. This is something Paula
should hear.' And I kept saying, 'Let me go tell her.' "
Halpern said he isn't all that concerned about the $20 hiccup in
his monthly bill. He said he's more concerned about how
much more Qwest shareholders will lose if the company can't even
get its act together on billing.
Qwest spokesman Nick Sweers told me Kruger waited for Halpern
and Halpern didn't show.
"Apparently Joe did not get close to her, or did not find her,
but she actually stuck around and waited for him. . . . She was
there. She was waiting for him, and she was one of the
last people to leave the room."
When I told Sweers I wanted to speak with Kruger, he said she
So I'm not sure what happened since Halpern and I were among the
last people to leave the room.
All I know is that if my boss publicly suggested that I talk to
someone immediately, I wouldn't stand around a stage. I
would hunt that person down. But that's me.
I guess I am unusually dedicated to what Qwest likes to call
"the spirit of service."
Another Qwest spokesman, Jon Lentz, explained it all this way:
"It was a misconnection."
Al Lewis' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays.
Respond to him at
blogs.denverpost.com/lewis, 303-954-1967 or alewis@