An Abject Failure In Customer Service

The Toll Roads

The Toll Roads

At 3:30 p.m. last Friday, while driving back to Los Angeles from Foothill Ranch, California, I needed to take Route 241. Sadly for me, the blue Mustang 500GT I rented from Hertz did not come with a GPS system. And, wanting to keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the wheel, I decided not to use my iPhone 4S to do the job.

I came up with a brilliant plan … just remember the directions. Well, my devolution into a man/machine must be fully underway, because as I headed north, the signs didn’t look familiar, so I decided to get off the road and head south.

This is where the fun began. Route 241 is part of a toll road system in California that is eponymously named, “The Toll Roads.” As I exited, I came upon a tollbooth – not a surprise. Sadly, it was unmanned, which was surprising during rush hour. To make matters worse, the tollbooth only accepted exact change ($1.25) – which I did not have. Cars behind me started honking, so I just drove through and made a big left turn to get back on 241 heading south. To my amazement, there was another tollbooth right at the entrance. It was also unmanned and it also wanted $1.25 in exact change. Cars honking, no change … now I’ve been forced to skip my second tollbooth in under two minutes. Yikes!

Now, you and I both know that the tollbooth takes pictures of every car (and probably every driver) that goes through them, so I knew I was doomed. Busted by technology in a rental car. I was just waiting to be pulled over by a State Trooper and taken in to custody.

But there was some good news. When I finally figured out that I actually did need to head north, the entrance was unguarded and there was a manned tollbooth at my proper exit. I explained my situation to him, he smiled and very courteously gave me a card with a URL on it …

This was awesome! They knew about the problem and there was a super-simple, easy way to fix it. Just log-on and pay. Right? Wrong!

The website asked for my license plate number. Being well aware that the tollbooths took a picture of my car (specifically my license plate) I had it ready. To my utter dismay, the rental car had previous violations that were unresolved so the website would not extend the courtesy of taking my money.

In fact, the website made a point of telling me that I had only 48 hours to resolve my issue and that I would be fined $57.50 plus the toll for each violation if I did not comply immediately. I was trying to comply … but there was no way to interact with The Toll Roads.

$57.50 sounded pretty steep for missing a $1.25 toll, but, in an effort to do the right thing, I decided to click the “Contact Us” link and let customer service know what happened and ask them how to pay them.

You can imagine my surprise when the “Contact Us” link returned a 404 Page Not Found error. This was not at all what I expected.

I found a phone number and called it … of course the offices were closed until Monday. It was after 5pm on Friday evening. I was not going to make the 48-hour deadline. Ugh!

I found The Toll Roads Facebook page and wrote on their wall that the “contact us” link was broken; this got a response thanking me for telling them. I immediately posted my note to the wall, but alas … no response.

I routed around the website until I found that the “Contact Us” link on the homepage actually worked (as opposed to the link on the missedatoll page).

25 minutes into this ordeal, I sent a note to The Toll Roads a note describing the situation.

All this over $2.50.

Monday, I received a voicemail from a customer service agent telling me that they received my note and that I must call back immediately to avoid the fines and penalties. OK, threat understood – a call to the number she left me was answered by an announcement that the call center was too busy to take my call and that I should use website to resolve my issue.

At this point, I knew there was a blog post brewing about customer service and technology, so I just turned my anger and frustration into joy and diligence. I waited a half hour and tried the number again.

The call was legendary. The young lady who answered had over 15 minutes of questions to ask me before she could take my money. Then we spend another five minutes with my credit card info. All for $2.50.

Now as sure as I’m sitting here, I’m going to receive the notice from The Toll Roads via snail mail that I owe them $57.50 x 2, plus the tolls. The young women did not offer me a confirmation number, did not apologize for my inconvenience, nothing. She just kept asking me remarkably stupid questions and giving me a choice: Visa, MasterCard or American Express.

As a case study in technological ineptitude, this is about as good as it gets. How could this issue have been avoided?
1) Man the Tollbooths
2) Put a sign before the entrance ramp that you will need exact change if you don’t have a FastPass.
3) Put change machines at each unmanned tollbooth.
4) Take credit/debit cards at tollbooths.
5) Have a website that is properly designed and fully functional.
6) Have a phone system with IVR that can take a credit card.
7) Have operators on duty 24/7 to handle problems.

Of course, all of the above requires someone in power to care about consumer experience and, more importantly to improve ROI. The least expensive phone operator that The Toll Roads could employ costs them $20 per hour after benefits and taxes. It cost them at least $5 of her time to take my $2.50. No wonder California is broke.

I’d love to send The Toll Roads a bill for my time. But, as they say, you can’t fight City Hall nor, apparently, The Toll Roads in California.



Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director, Digital Media Group at Landmark Ventures/ShellyPalmer a technology focused Investment Banking & Advisory practice specializing in M&A, Financings, Strategic Partnerships and Innovation Access. He is Fox 5 New York's On-air Tech Expert and well known for his work on Fox Television's Shelly Palmer Digital Living as well as his daily radio report on United Stations Radio Networks. For more information, visit


  1. Peter J. Levy says:

    Lesson for Shelly: Keep your ass in New York. Also, travel with a Garmin to stick on your rental car.

  2. jack says:

    F****n Goofs. Pardon my French (or Canadian, as it may be)

  3. Paula Lynn says:

    Not going to get any better unfortunately. No money and the legacy of HR patronage idiots hiring idiots to do a job they are not qualified to do because the HR departments don’t know and don’t care. This is just about ineptitude. Garbage in – garbage out (in these cases, garbage still in). You have a book in the making. Getting past that…..back to the planning part. Last fall I drove through Ireland on the wrong side of the road for the first time with no GPS of any kind. I checked on line for different driving rules plus books, used maps and then checked with real live people for directions. I wrote them down in large print (to glasses proof them while driving). It made it easier. PS: Do you have AAA’s ?

  4. PatD says:

    I have a parallel story. I had pre-planned (I thought) and brought my FastPass with me from San Fran. It doesn’t tell you anywhere that you can only use a “registered” car with your NoCal FastPass in SoCal – i.e., no rental car. Go figure! After letters and arguing, I gave up and paid the fine.

  5. MarilynR says:

    One other solution – get out of California! LOL! It isn’t perfect other places, but it mostly beats this by a mile in Texas! California will become its own third world country eventually anyway! So sorry for your problem and, as I laughed, I did feel your pain!

  6. Paula Lynn says:

    PS: Chris Elliott should be able to straighten this out for you with as best explanations as possible. No doubt, you are not the only person in this situation including locals. Great system for tourism. Then the big question is, what are citizens’ responsibilities to have a government system working when most don’t even bother to vote in local elections ?

    • Dave says:

      Their website also needs to keep track of rental cars. I would imagine that every one of them has a long list of missed tolls.

  7. Rudy says:

    I feel your pain – sorry to hear that. I have a longer story with Frontier Communications, my provider of high speed internet access in the midwest. I had to renew my debit card and completely forgot the automatic payment that I had set up with them – well Verizon before they bail out. Their website is broken and the only way I’ve been able to pay them is via the old mail system. Even pay over the phone does not work! There is more than the toll roads that are broken as of now!

  8. You would think a “Tech Expert” would have a GPS app on his phone. You do know they have free ones right?

    • Aquaria says:

      Did you not see the part where he didn’t want to use the app on his phone BECAUSE HE WAS DRIVING? I mean, it was right there in the FIRST PARAGRAPH?

      DIdn’t bother to read that far into it, huh?

  9. Cherylac26 says:

    I too have experienced the wonderful world of the Ca toll road. In my case they owed ME money. Change of a $20 that I never did get back. Went through what u went through but without ever getting a live person on the phone. The $17 and change was no where nears worth the agravation and time I had put in and still had to come. Ihung up and just forgot about it. My opinion of the Toll Road’s customer service? Drivers beware the Toll Road customer service SUCKS!!

  10. PHZ says:

    I also got a $57 ticket in the mail for accidentally passing through a toll. You can go on the Toll Road Authority website and dispute it. That’s what I did – I wrote a statement telling them the truth and asked for leniency for a first time offender. An email reply came a day later with a reduction of the fine to $18 and a request to pay within 5 days. I happily paid that.

    There was no way around paying the $30 fee to Hertz, because I was in a rental…

  11. Michelle says:

    Yes, their website does suck ass!!

  12. $50 not good enough says:

    I have a Toll Evasion for $103.25. On Dec 11 I stopped to pay toll with $50 bill. Toll worker refused the only cash I had and instructed me to pay on line. This I did and have a confirmation number to prove it. I did not try to evade, but because my money was not good enough “The Toll Roads” have decided to slap me with over one hundred dollars in fines. Please tell me the logic and justice of a system that 1) refused to take your money (perhaps because making change is a challenge for the toll workers) and then 2) making you pay twenty times the original charge in penalties?

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