Friday, December 14, 2007

Customer service woes...

What is it about interacting with customer service that seems to drive us over the edge? Is it the incessant lack of logic and rationality that we have to face from time to time? No matter which industry (telecom, credit cards, insurance, you name it) the same problems keep creeping up all the time.

The standard answer of "the system says so, hence, it must be true" must be intentionally designed to bring out the maximum frustration among the customers. I have often been tempted to reply, "you know I am fairly competent in Computer Science and I know that the system is only what you put into it. It does not have a life of its own," but held off from doing so, if only to avoid the metaphysical discussion that would inevitably follow about "the system" having a life of its own!

Then it seems like the first person you speak to about your problem cannot help you, because the rules don't allow them to do anything about your situation. "But for a low fee of $14.95 we can ensure that you do not receive additional penalties!"

Most people will probably hang up, pay the additional fees, seethe about how they got screwed over and then forget about it -- until their next tryst with a customer service rep, when the horror starts all over again. Some resourceful people will actually record their experiences and force the company to pay them back. Interestingly, the companies still do not learn!

I had a recent experience with AT&T customer service. Here's the history:

  • I was supposed to get a certain discount, every month, since July of this year
  • as of last month (November) they hadn't credited me with this discount
  • my bill was over $100

I complained. They said they would look into it but with complete skepticism, as if I was lying about it. They called the actual store I got the plan from and then came back, in an apologetic tone, stating that the credits would be applied and my bill would be reduced to what it should be. I then get a call this month stating that my cell phone service would be disconnected for not paying the $100+ bill. I called them back and asked what about my credits and guess what I heard?

"What credits?"

Imagine that. Long explanations all over again, part of which included the following statement from their rep,

"sir do you use your phone for voice service?"

My incredulous response: "can you please repeat?"

Them: "do you make or receive calls from your phone?"

Somehow I felt that this might be a parallel universe where the meaning of a cellular phone was somehow different! Anyways, after much plodding I was assured there was a mistake and that they would credit my account, etc. etc.

I ask: "should I just go ahead and pay the balance to ensure that my account will be valid?"

Response: "not required. We will fix this matter. Call us back in a couple of days and we'll see." End of call.

10 minutes later, my cellphone service has guessed it -- disconnected! I call back from another phone and try to explain the situation

Response: "Sir, your phone has been disconnected due to non-payment. Unless you pay the amount in full we cannot restore the service. Of course, there is an additional charge of $36 to restore your service!"

I tried to reason with her and then got this response: "as a one time courtesy to you we will remove the $36 connection charge, but you must pay the balance in full!"

I ask to speak to manager/supervisor, who tells me more of the same but then I'm forced to pay half of the balance to get my service back. Apparently they will apply the credits in due course and everything will be adjusted.

Then comes the best part of the whole incident. As I'm waiting for the half payment to go through, the supervisor tells me,

"Sir we are not charging you the $36 fee as a one-time courtesy only! In the future, if you are disconnected, you must pay that fee"

Me: "you do realise that this happened because your people made a mistake?"

Her: "Sir, I do realise, but I am warning you that in the future this should not reoccur from your side."

Me: "but you still do realise that it wasn't my fault and that your people messed up?"

Her: "Sir I understand, but I'm just laying the ground rules and expectations for future dealings!" (who speaks like this in real life???)

Me (mixed exasperation with attempt to not laugh into the phone while trying hard and somewhat succeeding to keep my voice at an even tone): "Ok, now I am laying the groundwork hoping that your people will not screw up my bill and then charge me for it, cancel my service and attempt to charge me for reconnecting it -- while it was the fault of your personnel, all the time!"

30 seconds of silence on the phone and then,

Her: "thank you sir. your payment has been approved. Would you like to take down the confirmation number?"

Still no admission of guilt.

 While it was exasperating that they had made a mistake and were continuing to do it even after I thought I had cleared it with their reps a month ago, the really annoying part is where they're condescending to me. The supervisor and the rep before acted as though they were doing me a favour! They did not really admit to something being wrong from their side, and yet were insisting that they were fixing the errors only as a "one-time courtesy." This is the whole attitude that annoys me. That and coupled with the fact that the first person you speak to is typically of no help. I think their job is to just stall and see if you go away. If you don't, then they put you on hold for a long time and then come back asking, "sir, are you still there?"

I have realized that the best way to get something worthwhile done after a couple of minutes of explaining it to the first rep, is to ask to speak to the supervisor. And failing that, ask to speak to their supervisor. Finally you do get to someone who can help and finally will. There was that one time though that one person said that I can't talk to anyone else simply because there is no one above him. I expressed surprise that I was speaking to the CEO of the company and that how nice it was that he was actually responding to customer calls! Well, sarcasm worked in that case and he transferred me to his boss who finally solved the problem.

So after many years of frustration in dealing with customer service, I finally believe that it is a cleverly designed system - a system to keep people out, where only the persistent ones get their problems resolved. So the next time, perhaps ask to speak to the supervisor directly and spare yourself the task of reducing your lifespan trying to explain the problem multiple times.

Oh and definitely record the conversations. Absolutely. You never know when it might come in handy.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Book Review | Graphic Novel version of Richard Matheson's "I am Legend"

So who decides if you are human? Is if enough that each person holds on to the unshakeable belief that he or she is human? What if everyone else thought that you were not one of them? Does that shake your beliefs or do you hold onto them with a vice-like grip -- afraid that your last attempts to stave off insanity must mean that you must hold these beliefs closer than ever?

Richard Matheson's "I am Legend" forces us to ask the question - if everyone else on the planet is alike and you are the only one who is "different," then who is really human - you or them? What if all of them were bloodthirsty vampires out to kill you? Every single one of them! Since you are obviously in an abject minority, does it really matter that you believe that they are "freaks"? Does it give you the right to decide that their lives are not worth it and your is more important?

These questions hit home; uncomfortably so in fact in this book. When it is in the stark black and white that is the graphic novel adaptation from IDW by Steve Niles and Elman Brown, there is no question that this is not just any other "cool" vampire book.

This book will dispel any preconceived notions about graphic novels or vampire stories. The protagonist is not a muscle-bound super-smart guy who uses cool technology and martial arts moves to bring down vampires. Robert Neville is just another small town guy who has suffered the loss of his wife and daughter to the vampire manifestation (or is it a "virus"?) and has to survive being hunted down every night. He's neither good looking, nor does he have a technology expert helping him hunt vampires. He does so the old-fashioned way -- shaping wooden stakes from planks and putting up garlic cloves everywhere.

He has to constantly fight his all too human urges -- fires within his loins for instance. This is a facet that keeps him tottering on the edge. Whether he will give up all attempts at humanity and rape a female in sleep or if he can control himself -- are positions that he must constantly evaluate and painfully so. He does try to attack the problem analytically to understand the "scientific" issue of vampirism even while facing failure from time to time.

Is he right in trying to preserve his ideas of right and wrong? Does he have the right to kill vampires in their sleep? Are they now the "humans" on the planet and he an aberration? How does one man fight an entire planet?

The movie adaptation with Will Smith will have a tough time keeping up -- not just with the original book, but more so with this "visual" adaptation. They already seem to have started on a wrong note by making the protagonist "Dr." Robert Neville - trying to infuse some sort of intelligence to tackle the problem. Well, I won't prejudge the movie until I see it, but the graphic novel adaptation sure does look like a tough act to follow.

If you haven't read this book, then well, you should! And it is also a good book to show those people who believe that graphic novels are for prepubescent teenagers to salivate over hot babes/superheroes in tight costumes. This book shows that quality graphic novels can achieve a level of storytelling that is often hard to beat.