The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _June 1997

(next) (contents)

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Cynthia Handel]

Price, Tax, and Gratitude:
Doing Business with Telesensory

Every time one of my children uses my microwave, I receive an earful of teasing about its decrepit condition and my obvious and immediate need for a new one. I hang on loyally to my poor old microwave because it has given good service for a dozen years and because I dread trying to find one today that I can actually operate. I feel real hostility when I am forced to think about what appliance designers have done to blind people by installing flat touch pads and burgeoning menu options.

So, although I have never used an Optacon, I can understand in small part the anger and frustration of those who have depended for years on this portable, flexible method of reading print. Telesensory has decided to stop making, and in the foreseeable future to stop repairing, Optacons because too few people are buying them. Marketing decisions must be made based on sales figures, and consumers must live with those decisions or see producers go out of business altogether.

But Optacon users have not lain down and taken Telesensory's decision passively. Understandably they feel betrayed and abandoned. No other piece of technology provides the kind of print access the Optacon does, and those who need that particular ability face very real inconvenience and inefficiency.

So what happens when disgruntled users respond angrily to a notice that in six months their Optacon maintenance contracts will no longer be honored? As it happens, we have an answer to that question. Cindy and Gerry Handel, leaders of the NFB of Pennsylvania, are both longtime Optacon users. What follows is a transmittal letter from Cindy to Ted Young, President of the NFB of Pennsylvania, and the letters she received from Telesensory and her response. Telesensory Systems, Inc., has changed its name several times during the past twenty years. People are still apt to use any of them when referring to the company. Here are the letters:

March 15, 1997
Willow Street, Pennsylvania
Mr. Ted Young, President
NFB of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dear Ted,

I know that Telesensory is not one of your favorite companies. So I thought you might be interested in the information I've enclosed. Jerry and I received the enclosed letter from TSI this week. They are no longer going to offer service agreements for our Optacons. However, they will still repair them, at cost to us, which I'm sure will not be inexpensive. We have always been captive when it came to their prices and services. Now it's just getting worse. The most frustrating part is that we seem to have no power to do anything about it. The only option, which is coming much sooner than we thought, will be to use some other type of reading device. While they are good, they don't offer the same flexibility that we have with Optacons for some uses. Additionally, replacing this equipment will be costly for our own personal use at home. Then I'll have to figure out what to do about work.

Hope you will read the information and offer any suggestions you might have about how I can further deal with them. There is probably nothing more to be done because there never is. Just thought you should know.

Cynthia E. Handel
March 10, 1997
Mountain View, California
Gerald & Cynthia Handel
Willow Street, Pennsylvania

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Handel,

Thank you for your past purchases and continuing support of Telesensory.

Due to increasing cost and limited availability of service parts, we regret to inform you that we cannot offer an extension to service agreement contracts for some of our products that are out of production.

Therefore, when the current service agreement contract expires on your Optacon I, Model number RID-02 on September 30, 1997, any repair or service that you have Telesensory perform on this unit after that date will be billed to you.

Please be assured that we will continue servicing these units as long as replacement parts are available for them.

If you have any questions in regard to the above, please do not hesitate to contact me at the following: phone (415) 960-0920, extension 3327, Fax (415) 960-0277, Internet:

Jill E. Vickers
Lead, Order Administration
Blindness Products Division

That was the letter the Handels received from Telesensory, and its notification of increased repair costs and inevitable cessation of all Optacon repairs led to frustration and anger. After all, the Handels had hoped to keep their units going through maintenance contracts for a good while longer. This is what Cynthia wrote:

March 15, 1997
Willow Street, Pennsylvania
Ms. Jill E. Vickers
Lead, Order Administration
Blindness Products Division
Telesensory Systems, Inc.
Mountain View, California

Dear Ms. Vickers:

My husband Jerry and I are both Optacon users. I have had mine since February, 1974, and Jerry has used his since March, 1977. So you can see that we are not new to our relationship with Telesensory Systems. Over the years, however, the business relationship has always been provider oriented. We, as consumers, had no choice and very little say about how the services were provided and fees levied. If we were to continue to use our Optacons, we had to agree to the terms set by TSI.

During the mid-1970's, Telesensory Systems offered regional service centers. Optacon users could send their Optacons to a repair person, often within their own state. The turn-around time was short, and convenience was a priority. Then, apparently, this became too costly. So all services were moved to your headquarters in California. Indeed you paid to have the machine sent back to us, but we had to pay to ship the product to you for inspection or service. Having it insured for its value and shipped second day air, which you recommended, became costly--recently as much as $50.

Then we must consider the cost of service. I, unfortunately, had the bad experience of having to have an array replaced while my Optacon was not covered under a service agreement. This cost me approximately $1,700--nearly half the cost of the piece of equipment. Since then, in approximately 1981, Jerry and I have spent the money, apparently wisely, to purchase service agreements for our Optacons. We have probably paid you somewhere in the area of $8,700 over the past fifteen years for service on two Optacons.

I don't have a problem with paying for a service agreement and wish that you still offered them. We received your letter this week indicating that, because of the "difficulty in obtaining parts," you are no longer going to offer a service agreement on our Optacons. You did not say that you cannot repair our Optacons, but just that you will charge us for the service. I do have a problem with this position.

I work for the Better Business Bureau. We are constantly advising consumers to be wise shoppers and
compare prices and services--look for the best buy. If they are charged what they believe is too much for a product or service, in most cases they have only themselves to blame because they had the opportunity to compare ahead of time. We do not have that option. Telesensory Systems is the only company, and has always been the only company, in the country, and for that matter in the world, who sells and services Optacons. When we've needed service, we have had no idea whether all the parts and adjustments which have been performed were really necessary. We have to take your word for it. We cannot get a second opinion or tell you that we don't like the outrageous fees you choose to charge for your precious service.

When I was told that my array needed to be replaced, I was shocked. I had been using the Optacon and didn't notice a problem with it. I simply sent it for a check-up and got hit with that bill. How are we now to know, when we have to pay for service because you have eliminated your service policy, that we will really be getting the quality service we need and that we will be charged fairly? Are you going to publish a parts price list and labor schedule for us to examine before we ask for service? I think not.

So, finally, you have made the decision about what we will do for the privilege of using our Optacons. Admittedly, ours are older models. Perhaps the new models made in collaboration with Cannon, would cost less to repair, but then that's understandable because, although the retail price didn't come down much, they probably cost less to make. The quality certainly isn't there. But then you didn't want to hear that, either, when Optacon users told you about it.

So in your letter you said that we should feel free to contact you with any suggestions. My biggest question is, whatever happened to the supply-and-demand concept of service provision? Yes, the service will be provided on these machines for some limited period of time, but at what cost to the consumers? As I understand it, the Optacon was the first product TSI produced. Now that you believe it is less convenient for you to provide products and services to Optacon users, you're just going to drop it and move on to something else, until you tire of that one. Think of this: although Braille can now be produced with computers and many people use other means to read because they've been told that Braille is slow, Perkins Braillers are still being produced. They are sold and serviced through many companies across the country. While prices may not vary drastically,
we still have choice. Perhaps Telesensory should take a lesson from that and consider serving their consumers rather than dictating to us.

I am sending copies of this letter, along with your letter to us, to a few people who may be interested in what is happening with TSI and your services. They are listed below. I would appreciate hearing from you if it is not simply a public-relations-driven form letter. I've read them and am not interested.

Incidentally, I did read your letter to me with my Optacon.

Cynthia E. Handel
cc: Marc Maurer, President
National Federation of the Blind
Ted Young, President
National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania
Barbara Pierce, Editor
Braille Monitor

There you have Cynthia Handel's letter. Understandably it was not well received at Telesensory--it is never pleasant to be on the receiving end of anger and criticism. It cannot have helped that accusations similar to those implicit in Cynthia's letter have been made against Telesensory by many over the years. In any case something seems to have snapped in Telesensory's corporate psyche. The Handel letter apparently made its way to the desk of Larry Israel (Chairman, President, and CEO of Telesensory). He undertook to write a response defending the company's decision to stop production of the Optacon, praising the ability of his employees, and criticizing Mrs. Handel for hurting their feelings. While not particularly professional or understanding of the strain the corporate decision had placed on those dependent on the disappearing Optacon technology, Mr. Israel's response is chiefly astonishing for its condescending lecture on the Handels' ingratitude for all the years of faithful service the Optacon technology and Telesensory employees have given them. While generally accepted conventions of civility require that our dealings with one another be courteous, the concept that those buying products and services from producers have an obligation to feel and express gratitude for the privilege of enjoying what they have bought is at the very least novel. Here is Larry Israel's letter:

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Larry Israel, Chairman, President, and CEO of Telesensory Systems, Inc.]

March 25, 1997
Mountain View, California
Cynthia E. Handel
Willow Street, Pennsylvania

Dear Ms. Handel,

Thank you for your letter of March 15 to Jill Vickers. Because of the importance of the subject you've raised, I felt it important that I respond to you on behalf of Telesensory and its employees.

For more than twenty-five years our company has worked diligently to provide useful products and services to its blind customers around the world. For the most part I think we have succeeded, although I can acknowledge that we make mistakes, as does any company (or any human being, for that matter). If we had not served our customers well, for the most part, we might well have disappeared by now.

For twenty-two years, you and your husband received substantially uninterrupted use of your devices, and they are still going strong. How many times did you write to thank the people supporting you for all these years? Have you ever heard of a consumer product operating and supported by the manufacturer for that long a period of time? (You should ask your colleagues at the BBB for examples of such companies.) Others have expressed their appreciation to people like Teresa Lee at Telesensory for more than twenty years, and who personally and lovingly assembled the last one to be built. If you have any thanks or appreciation for the contributions Telesensory has made to your quality of life, your letter is strangely silent about that.

Your letter is unfair to the 200 plus employees of Telesensory, many of whom have dedicated ten to twenty years of their lives to serve you, the customer. Telesensory is not one evil person. It is a group of hard-working people who do the best they can.

I am offended by your letter, as are others of our employees who have seen it, because it indicates a flawed attitude about our company and our employees which is wholly unwarranted, to the extent it is based on the facts and circumstances you offer. Your letter also seems to suggest that you believe Telesensory should meet your needs without regard to whether it is profitable to do so.

We are a for-profit company and are not at all ashamed or embarrassed about that. Without profits companies do not survive nor prosper, and grow and develop new products to benefit their customers, nor offer their employees a fair living, nor reward their shareholders for their investments which made it all possible, unless someone subsidizes them (whether it be government or by charitable donations).

Your contention that our business has always been provider-oriented, and that you (as consumers) have had little to say about it, is flatly untrue, except in the very limited sense which is true with respect to any unique product. The fact is that many, many blind people are unwilling to purchase Optacons today, whether because they do not highly value its functions, do not want to undertake the extensive training required, or think that it is too high-priced. Those people have made consumer choices and have strongly influenced what we do. The number of people who wish to buy Optacons is very small and continues to diminish each year. That represents the voices of consumers delivering a message to Telesensory, and the message is: "Do not produce Optacons any more."

Yes, I understand that you and your husband, among many others, have expressed an opposite opinion. But you are in a distinct minority, and there are simply not enough interested customers to justify continuing product development or production of Optacons, regrettable as that might be. The consumer has spoken!

Regarding service agreements versus charging for that service on a case-by-case basis: if we offer you a service agreement, we have a legal and a moral obligation to maintain a reasonable supply of parts to meet our service obligations. If we cannot be assured of a reasonable supply of parts, it would be duplicitous and deceitful of us to offer service agreements, and we might well be subject to legal action from consumers.

Please refer to Ms. Vickers's letter to our customers, in which she states: "Please be assured that we will continue servicing these units as long as replacement parts are available for them." On a chargeable service basis, which is the current situation, you may request service, and we may unfortunately be unable to provide it due to unavailability of parts. After the product has been out of production for ten years, I find nothing about such a policy to be reprehensible, immoral, or poor business practice.
There is a reality here related to what is humanly possible for us to do, which cannot be overcome by wishful thinking.

I also deeply resent the implication that we have in any way cheated you because you cannot get a second opinion regarding the costs of service. You never were presented with a bill you had to pay. Your approval was always solicited, after our technicians advised you of what, in their professional opinion, was necessary to permit the product to function properly. Since we are the only manufacturer of the Optacon, there is no rational way in which we could make it possible for you to get a second opinion, but that is hardly a sound basis on which to impugn our integrity as a company or the integrity of our individual employees.

You say that your biggest question is, "Whatever happened to the supply-and-demand concept of service provision?" The answer is that it is still alive and well, and we do our best to respond to the demand for service and will do so as long as that is reasonably possible for us. In fact, we go well beyond that, because we accept a certain level of moral obligation to continue to provide service for this very important product. If we were to make our decisions based solely on economic considerations, we would have given up servicing older Optacons many years ago, since it is not profitable for us and does not yield significant revenue.

In most of our product lines we do have very strong competition, and our customers do make choices about what products they will buy. We are very sensitive to what our customers feel and believe and try to pay much attention to that. That is the primary reason why I have written this quite lengthy letter to you, because I believe that I have as much obligation to honor and respect the contributions of our employees (and prevent their integrity from being unfairly impugned) as I have an obligation to give very careful consideration to the interests and needs of our customers, such as yourself.

While we clearly disagree on some important issues, I do respect your opinion. If you have other thoughts on this matter which you would like to share, I would welcome hearing further from you.

Please feel free to forward copies of this letter to Mr. Maurer, Mr. Young, and Ms. Pierce, if you wish to do so.

Larry Israel, Chairman/President/CEO
Telesensory Systems, Inc.
cc: Soloveychik

That was Mr. Israel's letter, and it speaks for itself. We close this exchange of letters with Cynthia Handel's cover letter to the Braille Monitor when she forwarded the correspondence. Here it is:

March 30, 1997
Willow Street, Pennsylvania
Mrs. Barbara Pierce, Editor
Braille Monitor
Baltimore, Maryland

Dear Mrs. Pierce,

I've enclosed a copy of the letter I received on Saturday, March 29, 1997, from Larry Israel, President of Telesensory Systems, Inc. This is in response to my letter of March 15, 1997, to Jill Vickers. Mr. Israel has taken my letter very personally and has obviously read a lot into it that wasn't there. For example, he believes that I have had the same Optacon, working well, for the past twenty-two years. In fact, I have had it replaced once, and the array, which is a major part of the equipment, replaced on the first Optacon I had. He also appears to think that, if I believe that his staff has gone out of their way to perform a service, they deserve thanks and praise for doing their jobs in addition to payment. However, I have never been in that position with TSI. Although they generally do an adequate job repairing Optacons, you wouldn't know what they actually did, since their handwritten service slips are difficult to read and written in code so that an average person who does not work for TSI does not know what the abbreviations mean. Finally, despite what Mr. Israel believes, I have never had a real choice about whether or not to pay one of their bills. My only choice has been whether or not I wanted my Optacon to be repaired so I could use it again. If I ask that they repair it, I am expected to pay my bill, and rightly so.

So, although I don't intend to respond to Mr. Israel's protestations, I believe you should have his letter and these few thoughts. His letter does make me wonder, however, if I will receive their high standard of service on my Optacon when I send it for a check-up for the final time before my service agreement runs out.

Cynthia E. Handel