"All warfare is based on deception."
Image by Lia Kantrowitz for VICE.
At around $65 per month, my internet bill is too high. I've tried to get it reduced in the past, but Xfinity's army of customer service agents have outwitted and outmaneuvered me time and again. Admittedly, my tactics have been unsophisticated. My resolve, weak. And while my monthly fee is pricey, it isn't quite exorbitant enough to warrant drastic action (i.e. cancellation and/or self-immolation), which leaves me with little leverage or will to fight this fight. That is, until I picked up The Art of War.
Few texts have shaped human history as much as this fifth-century BCE military manual. The wisdom contained within its pages is attributed to the brilliant Chinese general Sun Tzu. Though his advice was issued centuries before the invention of gunpowder, modern military minds still swear by The Art of War, and Sun Tzu's quotes fill the pages of the US Marine Corps combat doctrine, Warfighting. (Lunkheaded weirdos have also embraced and fetishized it, but that shouldn't diminish the book's sage teachings.)
Despite this pedigree, The Art of War has never been used against a foe as fierce and terrifying as a basic internet-service provider. Sun Tzu commanded a 30,000-man army at the Battle of Boju to defeat rival Chu forces that were ten times greater in size, but could he help me wiggle out of a one-year contract? It was time to find out.
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." —Sun Tzu
By 2010, Comcast had become toxic enough to warrant the corporate equivalent of entering witness protection. The telecommunications company was synonymous with bad service, and the company's brass recognized this. "The core issue has been customers are not necessarily thrilled with the relationship and the Comcast brand," Comcast Cable's head of operations said at the time. Its solution was a total rebrand, and it created a new subsidiary to house its cable and internet services: Xfinity.
This may seem like typical behavior for a bloated corporation, but to a mind sharpened by the wisdom of Sun Tzu, it represents an opening. My enemy may wear the iron cloak of Xfinity, but his blood runs Comcast red, and his memory is haunted by defeats on the fields of customer service.
I called Xfinity, and the operator was able to automatically determine my account details and address from my phone number. Apparently she had been reading Sun Tzu herself, as she managed to take away the element of surprise. ("He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.")
Weakened and on the back foot, my first attack was a clumsy one. "Is there any way I can get a cheaper monthly deal?" I asked. The operator quickly parried away my request and suggested I sign a new contract that includes TV service. This would add around $6 to my monthly bill, but, given all the great movies and shows I would now have access to, this more expensive fee would actually be a "great deal," according to the operator.
"I don't really want TV," I said. She politely informed me there was nothing else she could do, so I thanked her and hung up.
You would think, given this outcome, that I felt humiliated. I didn't.
"The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace... is the jewel of the kingdom." —Sun Tzu
The Xfinity operator probably fancied herself victorious after she hung up. Little did she know, bolstered by Sun Tzu, I do not fear being disgraced. I am the jewel of the kingdom. I don't retreat; I ebb like the tide. And only a fool turns his back on the tide. (That's not a Sun Tzu quote; I think it might be from Moana.)
"All warfare is based on deception." — Sun Tzu
My original tactic—calling customer service, asking a direct question—had been naïve, too straightforward. I had approached my foe like a fawn prancing toward wolves. If I didn't have a clear advantage on the merits, I would need to manufacture one myself. I hate fibbing, but this was war. I called again.
"I saw something online that said your internet only costs like 39 bucks a month," I lied to a new operator. It was a risky maneuver so early in my attack, but in the words of Sun Tzu, "Let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns."
"Pretend to be weak, that [your enemy] may grow arrogant" — Sun Tzu
Throughout my call, I was careful not to raise my voice. In fact, I made it a point to be soft-spoken and kind. As a slow-witted rube, this was remarkably easy for me.
"Gosh, I'm currently paying over $60," I said. "Is there a way I could get this better deal you guys are offering, the one I saw on the internet?"
"Let me connect you to our loyalty department," she said. And with that, my battalion had breached Xfinity's outer defenses.
Deception can only take you so far, which is why Sun Tzu preaches preparation as one of his main tenets. While on hold, I googled "Xfinity internet deal" to bolster my knowledge of the enemy. Shockingly, my previous gambit was not as deceptive as I had originally believed—within the search results, I found an offer for an Xfinity internet plan that cost a mere $29.99 a month.
I was faced with a choice: Adopt this newly discovered deal as my point of attack or stick with my original lie.
"When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, do not advance to meet it in mid-stream." — Sun Tzu
I was patched through to the customer loyalty department and welcomed by a new operator, S— (her name is obfuscated for reasons that will become clear in a moment). S— asked me about the deal I had found, and I quickly reconfigured my attack.
"Uh, it was $30 bucks a month for internet."
"Where did you see this offer?" she asked.
"I forget. I think it was on, like, uh, Facebook."
"Was it our $29.99 per month yearlong promotion?"
S— told me she couldn't give me that specific deal, as it was for a slower internet connection than the one I currently had. However, she said she could knock $15 off my bill without changing my connection speed.
I accepted her offer. I would now be paying $50 a month.
"Having local spies means employing the services of the inhabitants of a district. Having inward spies [means] making use of officials of the enemy." —Sun Tzu
S— kept me on the line and offered what she promised would be an even better deal, one that included cable television service and premium channels. While I had no interest in this, I wanted to see if I could turn her into what Sun Tzu considers a most valuable asset: a spy. "Do you ever watch Game of Thrones?" she asked, pulling HBO from the quiver and into her bow.
"I don't," I said. "I used to watch Arli$$, though. Have you ever seen Arli$$?"
"What's that?" she asked, stumbling into my trap.
"It's an old HBO show about a sports agent, played by Robert Wuhl. They sometimes had famous athletes come on and play themselves."
"That sounds cool."
I had built an effortless repartee with S—, and I would use this to my advantage. We talked a little more about Arli$$, and, with her guard safely down, I asked for her advice on the best way to get cheap contract deals in the future.
"Just call us here at the loyalty department," she said. "At the automated phone menu say you want to disconnect your service, and it will come straight to us."
And with that, I had turned a member of the House of Xfinity to my cause.
"If a secret piece of news is divulged by a spy before the time is ripe, he must be put to death together with the man to whom the secret was told." —Sun Tzu
I did not follow this advice. Moving on…
"The general who… is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven." —Sun Tzu
I had chopped a full $15 from my bill and felt, in the words of the great general, as if I were "flash[ing] forth from the topmost heights of heaven." My skills on the battlefield were elegant, my attack robust and effective. I was in no mood to halt my progress. While $50 a month is better than $65, I knew I could do better, so I returned to The Art of War for more guidance.
"It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy's one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two." —Sun Tzu
I logged onto Xfinity's website and submitted a request on its in-browser customer service text chat. While this was being processed, I called Xfinity on the phone and used the key that had been given to me by S— to bypass the high walls protecting the customer loyalty department's fortress.
I told the text chat operator that I wanted the $29 deal I had seen online (not mentioning anything about connection speeds, of course). As I was typing, a human operator came on the phone (not S—, sadly), and I lodged with her the same exact request.
While the gentleman assisting me via computer chat checked my account information, the phone operator asked me a few questions. I quickly realized I had accidentally given them the numerical advantage. This resulted in me having two conversations at once, which took its toll. I was missing key details, and in a panic almost started talking about Arli$$ again. This would have been a grave error because, in the words of Sun Tzu, "Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances." Before I could make that mistake, the customer loyalty representative said she had good news: She could get my bill down to $39.99. I snapped up the offer.
It was an astounding victory. I stared down Xfinity's vast, well-armed forces and managed to get a full $25 knocked off my monthly bill. It was like the Battle of Boju all over again.
I wasn't done.
"Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight" — Sun Tzu
My local brick-and-mortar Comcast customer service center opens at 9 AM, and I was standing outside its doors by 8:50 AM. I pounced as soon as they swung open and marched straight to the counter.
As the representative pulled up my account, surprise flashed across his face. "Wow," he said. "Looks like you got a good deal here already." I pressed him a little, but it was clear this was one beachhead I could not breach. I had already plumbed the well of victory to unimaginable depths. "It says here you renewed your contract yesterday. I mean, that's as good as you can get, really. How'd you do that?" he asked.
"I dunno," I shrugged. "I just called."
I thanked him as I headed out the door and into the morning light.
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