by Barry Edelson


"Your Call Is Very Important To Us"


Really? That's a funny way of showing it.


There is almost nothing more irksome to those who toil in the public sector than the suggestion that the problem with government is that it isn't run more like a business. This widely held sentiment is perpetuated in the public mind through the twin forces of myth and anecdote. As a culture, we disdain authority and the taxation upon which it depends, and are reinforced in our distrust of the powers that be through any number of personal encounters with a faceless bureaucracy which we imagine to be destroying the very soul of the nation.

And yet, daily confrontations with equally faceless corporate behemoths do nothing to shake the nation from an unfounded faith in the capitalist marketplace. The following little tale will be depressingly familiar to every denizen of the modern world who enjoys the manifold luxuries of inexpensive communication, effortless shopping and paperless financial transactions:

Last week, my wife called the cable television company to have our seasonal service re-activated at our camp in the Adirondacks. ("Camp" is the traditional term by which summer residents of the Adirondacks refer to their homes in the mountains, be they sprawling lakeside mansions or broken-down cabins in the woods.) A year ago at this time, we switched our telephone and internet service from the telephone company, which has been bought and merged so many times that we could no longer trace its corporate heredity, to the cable company, which has had a similarly convoluted history of ownership, but which, by comparison, offered more reliable service and the simplicity of bundling phone, internet and cable television service into one monthly bill. We had learned through the years not to trust the phone company, as we had on several occasions arrived on Memorial Day for the first visit of the season to find that we had neither working telephones nor internet, and little prospect of resolving the problem over the holiday weekend. Several times, we had even taken the admittedly devious step of scheduling a prophylactic service appointment on Friday afternoon, figuring that we could cancel it when we arrived if everything was working as promised. It seldom was.

In an inauspicious sign of its capability, the cable company informed us that the telephone number that we had been using for more than 40 years had been given away during the off season. Someone inadvertently terminated our service instead of placing it in the customary state of suspended winter animation. To its credit, the company readily admitted the error, but this did little to reduce our dismay and anxiety when we realized how many relatives, friends, neighbors and colleagues had our old number etched in their diaries and memories, not to the mention the legions of contractors, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, tree trimmers, exterminators and others to whom our number had been disseminated over the course of four-plus decades. Even reprogramming our own scattering of electronic devices was no small task. This was not a minor inconvenience.

We could only get the number back, we were told, if we called our old phone company (whatever it's called now) to whom the number reverted by default for assignment to another customer. When we changed our service from one company to another last year, we had to make no such call, as the new company took care of the transfer of service as part of its normal courting of a new customer. Why they could not do the same again was unexplained because it was presumably inexplicable. My wife's next frustratingly lengthy call was to said telephone company, during which she eventually was told that our old number was in fact still available. A very friendly customer service representative said she would see what she could do to resolve the problem, but while the call was put on hold, the unthinkable happened: my wife was disconnected. Now, is there anything more dispiriting than spending ages on the telephone waiting to speak with a customer service representative, finally reaching a live human and taking pains to explain your situation, only to have the called snuffed out in the intangible ether and having to start all over again from scratch? It is reminiscent of that balancing toy in which you have to move a small stainless steel ball through a serpentine wooden maze, precariously steering it past a lengthy series of numbered holes, and making it all the way to the next to last one only to have the ball disappear into the abyss inches away from the goal. Who has the presence of mind to begin again without a toll being taken on one's patience and emotional stability?

Have you ever tried to call back a particular customer service representative at a large multinational corporation? Everyone who has ever used a telephone knows that the answer is emphatically "no". Even on those occasions when an agent gives you a phone extension, the odds of calling again and finding that person available is slim to none. So, a second call was initiated, and the vexing problem was explained to a second customer service agent who was not as accommodating as the first one. We could get our number back, the story now goes, if we opened a new account with the phone company. Let's see if we can keep this straight: we would have to create a new account, with all of the costs and paperwork and credit checks and delays and incompetencies associated with that transaction, and then, once the old number was reestablished in a new account, we could call the cable company and switch our service over again, with all of the delays and incompetencies associated with that transaction, at which time the old number would travel again with us to the cable company. Got all that?

Having decided that this was just not going to happen, we decided to call the cable company again a few days later on the theory that, if the first two customer service agents didn't agree on what to do, a third might very well give us a different and more satisfactory response. This did not in fact turn out to be the case, so we ended up speaking to a supervisor who assured us that if we did in fact open another account with the phone company, the cable company would reimburse us for all associated costs, and even throw in three months of free service to compensate us for the inconvenience. How exactly were we supposed to take that reassurance seriously, when we would probably never be able to speak to this supervisor again? Moreover, how could we have faith in any promises that this would never happen again? The supervisor did give us his direct extension, but after two days in the matrix of corporate customer service, this was not very reassuring, either.

And thus the strengths and weaknesses of the modern corporate service provider are exposed: Offers are easy, fixes are hard.

Not surprisingly, the next customer service agent we spoke to at the phone company confirmed neither the cable company's nor even the previous phone company agents' version of likely outcomes. He could give us no information about the availability of the phone number, nor even confirm that our old number had reverted to the phone company in the first place. In fact, he was thoroughly incredulous about the cable company's insistence that the number "belonged" to the phone company, as the law for quite some time has given customers the right to retain their existing numbers. Without such assurances, going through the process of starting a new account seemed utterly pointless, and we returned our focus to the cable company. After several more calls to the amiable supervisor we had spoken to earlier — who was in fact reachable, miracle of miracles — it emerged that the cable company had erred when they told us the number had been reverted to the phone company, and that they would in fact be able to restore our service under the old number. You can well imagine that our relief was somewhat tempered by the waste of time and emotion of the previous two days, and by the realization that had we not randomly gotten our grip, so to speak, on one particular person who was able to help us, the outcome could have been entirely different.

Modern Times

In Terry Gilliam's dystopian movie "Brazil", the subjects of a futuristic state experience the paradox of advanced civilization and totalitarian dysfunction, a world in which sophisticated technology co-exists with unimaginable levels of incompetence. In one memorable scene, commandos conduct a raid in an apartment building, leaving a large circular hole in the ceiling of the innocent party downstairs. A team of repairmen arrives shortly thereafter (one of them played by Bob Hoskins, if memory serves), only to discover that the invasive apparatus used by the commandos is unexpectedly incompatible with their own measurements ("They must have gone metric"). The hole remains unfilled forever.

We face an analogous, if less dire, predicament. Many of the companies that we deal with on a regular basis — telecoms, banks, high-techs, credit cards, airlines — invest an enormous amount of capital and effort into sales, going to great lengths to ensure a continuing stream of customers and revenue, but spend as little as possible on supporting those services once sold. It is no accident that we almost never experience a delay in reaching a sales representative but almost always have to endure the wait-music of the customer service line. Bureaucracy is not unique to government, but endemic in all large organizations. Preventing bureaucracy from overwhelming an organization's usefulness — for example, making sure that all the service reps give out the same information — is difficult to achieve without far larger commitments in personnel, training and internal communications than most companies are willing to make.

This is the one area where government is inherently superior to business: in deploying armies of plodders who will take the time to dig deep into the organization to find the right answer. It's an expensive and, yes, often inefficient system. But consider how you would react if you called your child's elementary school and heard this recorded message: "Because of unexpectedly high caller volume, the average waiting time to speak to someone in the principal's office is 13 minutes." Or if you called 911 and got this: "If you are being violently assaulted, press 1. If your house is on fire, press 2." If that actually happened, there would be hell to pay, and rightly so. Efficiency and cost effectiveness are essential, and public agencies risk their credibility, even their very existence, by ignoring their dependence on the taxpayer dime. But they do not exist to ratchet up sales figures or bolster stock prices, and need spend none of their resources on anything but those services they were created to provide. It takes bodies, and lots of them, to do the job right, something that companies often have a hard time owning up to.

The next time you find yourself with a phone to your ear, listening to insipid music or an endless promotional loop for a product or service you already bought, ask yourself whether the customer service model is really one you want your local government to emulate.

May 6, 2012


We did in fact get our number back, but not without several additional rounds of telephone calls to both the cable and telephone companies. The intervention of a corporate vice president at the cable company and a counterpart at the telephone company was ultimately required to unravel this tangle of wires.


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