Monday, November 24, 2008

The End of Civilization

by Marcus Sakey


So I should tell you up front that this is a rant. Feel free to skip it and come back Wednesday.

For years, I've held out against the cellphone-as-umbilical-cord thing. I proudly had a piece-of-shit pay-per-minute phone that closely resembled a brick. But they've gotten so cool these days, what with ready access to the Internet and GPS and all kinds of Star Trek features, that I caved and bought a G1, the brand-new Google phone.

And it's really, really cool. When it works.

Thing is, for near two weeks, I couldn't get the thing to work dependably. It had been fine for a couple of days, just enough to give me a taste that left me hungry for more, and then it started getting twitchy. Which meant that I spent hours--lots of them--on the phone with T-Mobile's Tech Support.

The people that I spoke to on the help line were all unfailingly polite. Several went above and beyond, doing everything they could to escalate the problem to the mysterious folks who actually make things happen. You know the ones--the ones that can never, under any circumstances, come to the phone.

And now we reach the subject of my griping. The safety of polite bureaucracy.

Because no matter how many times I called, or what acronyms I bluffed with, or the detailed history in my files, I could never get through to someone who would admit the power to do anything. After three hours one Sunday morning I was finally escalated to a "Supervisor," the first rude one of the bunch, who informed me that despite the fact that the problem was clearly on their end, there was nothing she could do. It was in the system, I was informed. That was the extent of her power--putting it in the system.

This kind of argument makes my forehead explode.

Could I talk to an engineer, I asked?

No sir, I'm sorry.

Okay. Could she? Could she call over and tell them that there was a customer who had been through the whole rigmarole and really needed satisfaction?

No sir, I'm sorry.

Did she care at all that I was ten minutes from returning the fucking thing, dropping my contract, buying an iPhone, and blogging about the whole experience?

No sir, I'm sorry.

Fine. Was there someone above her?

No sir, I'm sorry.

No? Well, could I ask her last name?

No sir, I'm sorry.

You get the point.

Obviously, part of this post is me just blowing off steam. But I do really believe there is a larger social issue at work here, and it worries me. When did it become S.O.P. to never connect the person having a problem with the one who can fix it? When did, "that's the way the system works?" become an acceptable answer? When did some corporate bright-boy realize that as long as the service is polite, they don't need to be able to do a good goddamn?

Maybe I'm looking too small scale on this. Bush ran the country for eight years with about three press conferences, and never got around to answering a direct question. Because that's the system.

I think what troubles me most about the whole thing is the idea that there is no personal responsibility. The central principle of civilization is responsibility. From the tribal days, it made sense to live and work together because those that did fared better than those going it alone. The basic precept of that organization is that we are all responsible for our little portion, and those who fail are punished, or castigated, or at least don't generally excel.

But somewhere along the line, that's changed. It's no longer about efficiency. It's about courtesy. Because we now have a foolproof excuse: That's the way the system works.

Why is there a $50 "missed appointment" fee on my cable bill when I never had an appointment? Because that's the way the system works. Can it be reversed? No; they don't have that power. Because that's the way the system works. Can I speak to someone who does have that power? No. Because that's the way the system works.

Worse still, I don't know what to do about this. How can I, as an individual, really make any impact? Sure, I could have dumped T-Mobile and gone to AT&T with an iPhone. But I don't believe they operate any differently. And the people I'm talking to, they don't care. They're not bad people--they're just part of the system, and that's the way it works. So it becomes an empty gesture. A protest held in my living room.

Does this drive anybody else as crazy as it drives me? And is there anything we can do, besides blogging about it?

34 comments:

Neil said...

Yeah! You tell em!

Like when I tried to get my Minnesota driver's license, which took *weeks* of waiting by the mailbox. When it finally arrived, it wasn't a DL, but a regular old ID...and it had a picture of an 80 year old woman on it.

I'm a 30-something year old man. The name was right, the address was right, the *gender* was right...but no one noticed the picture?

After a a second bungled attempt over a month later, I started calling, kept getting put on hold. Finally called a switchboard operator at the State level and asked to be connected to Whomever Could Fix This. He said he couldn't connect me, that I had the wrong number.

"But, but, but...you guys messed it up!"

He said, "Don't blame me. Blame the governor!" and hung up on me.

Dana King said...

Marcus and Neil, I sympathize, but you are both exposing your touth. By the time you're 52, you'll have made peace with the whole, "no one is responsible" thing.

Side note: I am an IT consultant, someone who actually interfaces with the engineers you were trying to reach. Trust me, you DON'T want to talk to them, no matter how much you think you do.

bookwitch said...

Marcus, change your name to Neil Gaiman and then blog about it. Preferably on Neil Gaiman's blog. Then they'll be falling over themselves to help.

the Bag Lady said...

At least you managed to speak to a person! When calling almost any company anymore, it's a test of your intestinal fortitude and determination to wend your way through the automated voice service to get connected to an actual person, who can then..... do nothing for you!

And God forbid you lose your temper even the tiniest bit, because they then say they don't have to put up with any verbal abuse and hang up on you! (This actually happened to me when I said "For Pete's sake!" in exasperation once!)

This is just the modern-day version of "I'm sorry, that's not my department." No-one wants to take responsibility for anything anymore.

Goodness, you touched a nerve with this little lurker, didn't you?

Bill Cameron said...

Well, T-Mobile is particularly bad operator in this regard, though in general every company on earth deeply sucks when it comes to owning their bullshit.

When I had my problems with T-Mobile a few years ago, I took the step of recording all the phone calls. At one point, I got to the point where a "supervisor" was telling me the exact opposite of what a customer service representative hold told me a month before, and when I called her out on it she was emphatic that this other CSR would never had told me what I claimed. It was simply impossible.

So then I explained that in the state of Oregon, any phone call may be recorded with the permission of at least one of the parties, and I'd given myself permission to record my calls to T-Mobile. And among my recordings I had a voice refuting what Ms. Supervisor was now telling me. And the best part was the CSR who told me the original line of hooey WAS NOW the supervisor who was trying to shine me on. She'd been promoted in the intervening month. I started to play the recording of HER VOICE through the phone and she freaked out. How dare I?! Who the hell did I think I was?! (Actually, I think she used more pungent phrasing than that.)

Then she hung up.

I still got screwed over by T-Mobile. When I cancelled my service they picked my pocket for $200. But it was kinda worth it for the reaction I got when I clicked the play button on my recorder that day.

Corey Wilde said...

Ah, you've touched on one of my personal favorite rant topics.
I had almost the same experience with the folks at TracFone except they were not polite. At all. When phone calls got me nowhere I began sending emails. Sent one to the president of TracFone. No response. And I've had similar experiences with Geico and amazon.com, none of which I do business with any more, and all of which know why, if they bothered to read their mail.

Thanks to email, voicemail, and voice-automated attendants, there is now a wall between buyer and seller that will probably never be breached until consumers rise up en masse and start tearing down the towers.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marcus, You might want to switch to the iPhone. The Google phone is pretty new. There's also been some interesting bits on "Is Google Evil?" (violating its own motto, which is to not be evil, or do no evil) over at the NY Times. Google is, I think, on its way to becoming SkyNet.

Good luck with the smart phone.

guyot said...

I never buy the first generation of any technology - always a recipe for disaster.

Also, T-Mobile consistently ranks at the bottom of all customer satisfaction surveys. Also, they own none of their own towers. Zero. They lease unused ones from Sprint and Verizon. Yes, I said the ones NOT being used. That is all fact, you can look it up.

None if this makes you feel better, I know. But I do think if you change providers and don't buy the very first gen of anything, you will have more peace.

Lastly, is it just me or have the "cell" technology folks duped us all? We gladly go along with their random quality of service because they say that's just how it is.

Think about this - would any of us buy a car that might just stop working at any time, depending on a variety of reasons? And then just start working again at any moment? Would we buy a TV that did that? A computer? But we line up for cell phones.

Libby Hellmann said...

I have the super secret phone number that gets you through to a real person at Dell.

I think.

I'm opening it up to the highest bidder...

Doug Riddle said...

LOL....Marcus you made mistake number one when dealing with a cell phone company....you spoke to someone on the phone....someone who receives a salary.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone at the company receives a salary, but only some receive COMMISSON!!!

Recently I had an ongoing issue with Sprint. After endless hours of trying to deal with the problem over the phone with no results I was ready to throttle someone. Then I remember something my father had told me....that in retail the customer is always right...especially if they are about to walk out the door with their money.

So I went to my local Sprint store...it is important to go to a company store and not a franchise. I explained my problem, and they took a mild interest, but no one was looking very concerned. Now in retail there is always a manager of somekind in the store so I asked to speak to him. He introduced himself and I played my trump card.....I could either cancel the 4 phones on my account and buy everyone an iPhone for Christmas....killing two birds with one stone.....Christmas presents and phone problem both taken care of.....or they could take care of my problem and I would consider signing a new 2 year contract. $$$$, new contract....$$$$ commisson.

Well, they took care of my problem and I am still considering that new contract.

To the guy on the phone, that is what you are...a guy on the phone. But to the guy in the store, you're a customer.

Sara Paretsky said...

One strategy I find helpful is to offer three possible courses of action to the person at the other end of the phone, e.g.
"Tell me what I need to do and I'll do it. Should I place an ad in the New York Times describing your customer service? Should I call Lisa Madigan (the Illinois Attorney General) to report our problem? Or should I file a formal complaint with the Better Business Bureau. Just tell which of these three you want me to do and I'll get started."
Not always, but often enough, I then am offered a fourth option--the service I was hoping for when I started the call.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you've got material here for a short story. Never piss off a mystery author.

Jamie

alison said...

Marcus, that completely sucks. Years ago, I had a really unpleasant Verizon experience, which is what originally led me to Cingular. And that was an in-store, face-to-face interaction. Verizon is totally dead to me.

I know that google phone is appealing, but I think you know where I stand, and what my advice would be. Considering that I'm posting this from my iPhone. :)

Janet Reid said...

There's always a url like comcastmustdie.com which has now declared victory of sorts: comcastmustdie

jnantz said...

As a teacher, I can say that anyone blaming this on the government (Bush or Clinton before him) is looking to the wrong "top of the heap." It has become so widespread because it is taught widespread, and it happens every day, and ther's nothing we can do about it. Because this country has decided that every child must be personally responsible and accountable for what they do and don't do, EXCEPT MY CHILD.

See what happened there? I see students EVERY DAY who do their work when they choose to, and when they CHOOSE not to, the parents immediately tell me, "I know, this world is full of parents who make excuses for their kids, but MY kid actually DOES have [insert random bullshit excuse why it's someone or something else's fault that the kid was too lazy to do what they should]."

You know what happens when these kids grow up? The still have no sense of personal responsibility, and so they set their businesses up to run that way. I can't help you because I don't want to deal with the problem, so I'll transfer you to someone else who doesn't want to deal with it either, and they'll keep sending you around until you give up or get sent back to me. Then I'll tell you to piss off. But I'll be REALLY polite about it.

Tony said...

Honestly, Marcus, I am disappointed. I am sure you were taught better than to rant like that in a public forum when in truth, a ticket to California and a few sticks of dynamite might have been a far better way to solve your problem.

Then you really would have a plot for your next novel and I am certain that Guido, your cell mate, would be happy to help you draft it.

Marcus Sakey said...

I guess I touched a nerve with this one. Nice to see, actually--if this many people are annoyed, maybe, possibly, companies might start to notice.

Bill, your story killed me--awesome. Worth the money.

Guyot, you raise a fine point, one that I've thrown most commonly at the airlines. In what other field can you be told that the ticket you bought turned out to be meaningless because they sold too many?

Doug, I thought the same way, and actually tried that for the first week. Then I realized that even the manager was calling the same help line I was. After that, it was easier to do on my couch.

Sara, I like your solution, and I think I'll try it. Though the thing is, these people can still hide easily enough. Hell, they even refuse to give you their last name. Very politely, but still.

Maryann Mercer said...

Wow and here I was going to go get my 'free' upgrade for a new phone...I think I'll stick with the one I have until I die or it does :o) I feel that way about my laptop too, especially since my new Dell desk top constantly triple spaces in Word (and yes I have read everything :o) to no avail)and my laptop works just fine (Libby, what's the high bid so far?)
ps. jnantz is right.

jnantz said...

Thank you Ms. Mercer.

The real irony is, when these kids finally do get out from under mommy and daddy, and the real world smacks them in the mouth, guess who's fault it is....

Yep, it's the teachers and school systems, for not preparing them for college or the workforce. You know, because the teachers didn't teach them accountability and personal responsibility (like those same parents were undermining by enabling their kids in the first damn place).

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