Utility bills, check cashing stores, modern tech and the poor


I guess it’s been maybe a year since Detroit Edison shuttered its downtown customer service center. That’s not exactly one of those kinda dates that you circle on your calendar as a date to remember. Not like your wedding anniversary or your birthday.

But the more I think about it? The more I’m wishing I had marked down that exact date on my calendar. Matter of fact, I wish I had gone out and bought up a buncha calendars and marked that date on all of them, and then handed them out around town. Believe me when I say this was a day that should have received significantly more attention as an indicator of trends to come – and to dread.

What got me to thinking about it is an article I read earlier today in an old Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal. The article, which was located on the front page of the Personal Journal section, was entitled “Alternative Way to Pay Utility Bills Draws Fire.” It talked about how utility companies across the country are essentially rolling up their customer service centers and forwarding their clients who insist on paying their bills in-person to places like check-cashing stores.

Up until that DTE customer service center closed, I was definitely one of those who insisted on paying my bill up close and personal. I wanted my receipt in my hand at the end of the transaction, and I wanted to see the person behind the window key in my ‘donation’. Sure, it could get nuts up in there sometimes, and I can’t begin to tell you how sick I’d get of 5 out of 10 folks in line having baby-momma/daddy-drama acted out over their cell phones in full public view. Like everybody in line was supposed to give a damn that Tyrone was cheating on the girl. But regardless of all that, I always felt more certain that there was less chance for bullshit when I dropped my payment off face-to-face. It just felt better. And if something went wrong, I could speak to somebody there and see if I could get it worked out. I still walk my water bill payment water down to the Water Board building over there on Randolph every month.

So when the DTE downtown center closed, I must admit I was rather ticked off. And judging by the WSJ article, I’m not the only one who took this kind of abandonment personally. Customers nationwide are complaining about being left in the cold. And anybody who has ever paid a bill in a check-cashing store will know why that’s not a preferable alternative. Although I did get a laugh for all times the day I saw a watch on sale for $9.99 behind the thick glass window at the downtown check cashing store on Woodward. If you couldn’t afford the $9.99? You could put it on layaway.  Only in Detroit, and only in a check cashing store. True story.

Moving back to serious business…

For a lot of folks, paying bills online is either not an option or it simply is too uncomfortable and impersonal. Especially for older folks, and for poorer folks whose financial situation frequently requires up-close-and-personal attention. Which, it’s easy to see, is exactly what the companies are trying to duck and hide from.

I realize the companies call themselves trying to save money, but isn’t part of the job to adequately service the customer? To actually assist customers in need of assistance when possible?I know that sounds antiquated and delusional, but damn. I mean, I have no problem with high technology, the internet, and all that, but is it really necessary to eliminate the human factor from the entire equation? Does less human contact really equal an increased level of efficiency? 

I think it would be nice if these utilities were kept mindful of the fact that we, the customers are  human. We may look like so many revenue sources, delinquencies, and bounced checks. But deep down? There is flesh.


~ by Keith A. Owens on October 2, 2007.

8 Responses to “Utility bills, check cashing stores, modern tech and the poor”

  1. Have you heard that Wal-mart is going to hide its customer help number, so people will be forced to use the help tool? Have you tried calling Dell’s customer service line, just to get some one from India wanting to sell you a service plan, and then they can help? I have nothing against a firm trying to find ways to cut payroll costs, but as pointed out in your post, they are not filling the need for service properly with their current plans. What will our service economy come to, if we are not providing service? Thank you for the post.

  2. Hey Frank!

    I really appreciate your comments, and I thank you for stopping by. And believe me, you can probably tell that I’m just as frustrated as you are about Dell’s customer service (I have had to intercede with them on my mother’s behalf several times). And as you are well aware, it’s not just Dell anymore. Nothing against globalization, but damn…

  3. Interesting, edison being a public utility,but closes a customer (public)office thats an illegal action whitout public consent,who gave it I didn’t

  4. Tootsie,

    Kinda makes you wonder, don’t it?

  5. The other option is to bridge the digital divide that impacts on our commuity and our poor people. That is the direction that I choose to run…

    peace, Villager
    BDPA Education & Technology Foundation

  6. […] R Lee Wrights wrote an interesting post today on Utility bills, check cashing stores, modern tech and the poorHere’s a quick excerptThe article, which was located on the front page of the Personal Journal section, was entitled “Alternative Way to Pay Utility Bills Draws Fire.” It talked about how utility companies across the country are essentially rolling up their … […]

  7. Villager,

    That digital divide is killing us, you’re absolutely right.

  8. Wow!

    nice work!

    please keep up the great work

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