Thursday, December 17, 2015

Have It Your Way, Part 3: Your Call Is Important to Us

A short parable about customer service in the era of optimization:

Since I live in a fairly rural area of Northern California (although I can literally see Interstate 5 from my property, the area is sparsely populated), we've always had substandard internets speed. For the last four or five years I've had what AT&T calls (presumably tongue-in-cheek) DSL service, which means a "guaranteed window" between 250-750kbps. Yes, that's right, in a country and state where the majority of folks would sneer at a megabyte per second, we've had to put up with this bullshit download rate. There simply weren't any other options for the area.

Finally, at the beginning of October, I took a week of "vacation" from work, ostensibly to work on an ever-growing pile of side projects and honey-dos. After a couple days of watching my downloads slow to a fucking crawl, I ran hourly speed tests, averaged them out at under 100kbps (barely more than dial-up, fer chrissake), and called their tech line. They sent out a tech who helpfully told me I was shit out of luck.

So we went out of town for a few days, came back, found the rate worse than ever, and I called them up again to ask their customer service what the fuck I was paying them forty bucks a month for. The CSR told me that if I wasn't happy, maybe I should shop around. The next day I had a HughesNet satellite dish installed on my roof, and a 10Mbps rate, for about $20 more per month. Not having time right then to forward all my emails away from the AT&T address, I decided to let that run an extra month.

I called them on November 16th to cancel, was told it might take up to 48 hours, was assured that any charges would be pro-rated, and figured everything was good. Of course, I should have known better.

Last week I see a couple of charges from AT&T in my online banking, and the online account page tells me nothing about what the charges are for. So I call them a couple days ago, make it through the maze-like phone tree, and finally get connected with someone I can barely understand. I am pretty sure I had pressed "1" for English, yet the polite but heavily-accented voice on the other end seemed to indicate otherwise.

Over the next twenty minutes, this dingbat put me on hold at least six times, and couldn't give me a straight answer for what the charges were for. Finally she decided that the larger charge was invalid, and I didn't have to worry about it, but they needed me to pay the other one, which was for the billing period of November 11 to December 11.

By this time I'd had enough of the bullshit -- the futility of the phone maze, the changing stories, the arrogant implication of it all that my time was worth absolutely nothing, that I had fuck-all else to do with my life than sit there and wait for them to bullshit me some more and take my money for nothing. And the CSR wanted to put me on hold yet another time, 33 minutes into this dog-and-pony show.

At that point, I essentially lost my patience, told her that they could send me a bill for the pro-rated week (Nov. 11-Nov. 18), but since they hadn't been providing me with the agreed-upon download rate for months anyway, if I saw any other amount I would be sending them a bill for all of my time they had wasted, which is considerable; since October 1st, between six calls for tech support and cancellation, and two tech visits to my house -- not even counting the standard wait time for the techs, just the time they spent here dicking around -- I had at least 6-7 hours sunk into this bullshit.

Health insurance companies are even worse about this sort of thing. We all know that time is money, but many companies don't seem to respect the fact that their customers' time is money as well. More to the point, they don't give a shit.

For services, as opposed to material goods, the above true story is standard for just about every major service company anymore. It's just the way it works, and we can't do jack shit about it. And they know it. Again, health insurance companies present the model for the rest of these sorts of service industries. This revenue model is unique, in that it is predicated on not providing the service for which the customer has already paid them.

It's also true of the political system, obviously, and explains at least partly why things have gone so far off the rails. Forget about any specific office-holder or candidate, it's the system itself, and they are all just players within the play, assuming their assigned roles. The Republicans make a fine bunch of noise about protecting the proles from the elites, but what was the last Republican administration to not skull-fuck the working class by giving the wealthy more money and running up the debt -- Nixon, Eisenhower?

Then the morlocks get their panties in a wad, push in a Democrat to unfuck what their Republican predecessor wrought. Which still means the rich get richer, but maybe a percentage point or two gets smeared around the bottom-feeders. Which leaves the middle class well and truly fucked, which is why they've gone batshit. They are absolutely correct that the game is rigged against them, but are incoherent in figuring out how to rectify the situation.

Picking the rich asshole who spouts all their bigoted fever dreams unapologetically is fun and entertaining enough, but obviously won't fix anything. And like their hero, they're a bunch of mouthy chickenshits anyway, the kind of people who'll sucker-punch a hippie and quickly duck back into the safety of the mob, secure that they done right.

This is what thirty years of MBA triple-bottom-line optimization strategies have wrought for us -- a cheap fa├žade of meaningless customer-service platitudes with no intention of follow-through or even follow-up. The customer gets gulled into signing up and subscribing, because they need Something, but when that Something turns out to be Nothing, cancelling turns out to be a lot more difficult than signing up was. It's almost as if the system was deliberately set up to actively discourage leaving, simply by making it frustrating to do so.

We've presented the argument that the Trump campaign, as silly and obnoxious as it and its followers are, has at least poked a hole in the paradigm that only candidates backed by rich assholes need bother to run. (Bernie Sanders has done this as well, but let's stick with Dumb Old Chump for now.) In this instance, Trump has cut out the middleman -- he is the rich asshole, and ironically hasn't needed to spend much money in the first place, since the media line up to take turns sucking his cock. But the bottom line is, the candidates that are making the most noise -- Trump and Sanders -- are the ones who are explicitly not backed by the establishments of their respective parties, who in fact are essentially repudiated by them.

There is an opportunity to be had here. Let's take this a step further, and assume for the sake of argument that the Trump juggernaut goes away, one way or the other -- either he fails to come in first in a few early key primaries, gets butt-hurt that we're not giving him the appropriate amount of worship, takes his ball and goes home; or he actually becomes the nominee and gets his ass kicked by Hillary Clinton. Can the electorate repeat the circumventing of the money tree, the disintermediation of skeevy cocksuckers such as the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson?

Of course, the answer is technically yes; realistically no. Just as we're conditioned to buy things we don't really need with money we don't really have, so too are we conditioned to trudge to the polls and cast our lots for people we don't really like, to do things we don't really want done, or to do things that actively work against our own rational self-interest.

And the flip side to all that is to wonder, again given the above scenario of Trump either bailing or failing, where his newly empowered base will toddle off to, what sort of next-level asshole will capture their admiration for 2020. This is a scary thought indeed -- the progression just since the turn of the century has quickly degraded from Dubya to Palin to Cruz to Trump. It's only a matter of time before some Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho type gets pushed into view by these desperate maroons.

It's a pipe dream, but it would truly be something if this became a watershed moment where we realized -- at all levels:  commercial, financial, political -- that they need us more than we need them, especially when they're not actually doing anything for us in the first place. Right now all the systems of the world are predicated on a simple premise:  what are ya gonna do, where else ya gonna go?

And you're damned if you do, damned if you don't, when it comes to engaging and participating.

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