Push “#” for Another Headache

The customer is always right, right? Not anymore.
I want to kill someone. Perhaps with my bare hands. Or a tree chipper.

Or maybe a high-pressure power washer. These homicidal thoughts have crossed my mind many times in the past few years. In each instance, the target of my rage has been someone in “customer service.” That’s a misnomer, for sure. Nowadays, customers are not so apt to be the recipient of service so much as the shaft. Often I feel like I’m just one automated voice telling me to “please listen to the following 16 choices” away from being in police custody. Or the nut house. If I seem a little edgy it’s because I just received a check for $184 from Time Warner Cable. What could possibly be wrong with receiving money from the cable company? Let me tell you.

About a year and a half ago, I moved from a townhouse in Blue Ash to a home on Liberty Hill. I sent change of address notices to various magazines, cancelled my gas, electric, and cable services, and returned my cable box to one of Time Warner’s service centers. A couple of months later, I received a letter from a collection agency demanding $184 for a cable box, ostensibly the one I had already returned. I blame Time Warner Cable, in part, for my addiction to several mindless shows, including I Love The 70s and Flight of the Conchords, so I wasn’t about to give them money that wasn’t theirs.

Assuming it was a simple mistake, I called customer service and asked what was up. Their records indicated that I had indeed turned in a box, but that I had two, so there was still one outstanding. This made no sense to me because I only had one TV! I didn’t need a useless piece of entertainment hardware just taking up space—that was my job. The fact that I’d hung on to a copy of the technician’s report, which noted he had installed only one box, did not seem to matter.

A customer service rep (CSR) told me that the company would look into the situation and get back to me. I didn’t hear a thing. But I did get another notice from the collection agency—a notice that also contained a business reply card inviting me to answer a few questions about my potential need for “pay day advance” services. I found it rather interesting, and a bit sad, that a company trying to collect funds from the cash-strapped crowd would, in essence, promote predatory lending services. (I know we can’t pay our bills, honey, but we can get a loan on next month’s pay at a friendly interest rate of 35 percent!)

I called Time Warner again. Maybe twice. To be fair, this whole experience, spanning nearly a year, has been blurred by my rage. The calls got me nowhere and the little warning letters kept coming. During the holidays, I called the cable company yet again. This time, my call was picked up by a CSR who seemed particularly attentive and empathetic. I’ll call her Diane; she sounded like a Diane. We had a long chat. I heard the clickity-clack of her tapping at the keyboard, no doubt capturing every word of my story. Diane apologized—genuinely, it seemed—for all the difficulty I had faced. I started feeling better. She said that I wouldn’t hear anything for a few weeks. I told her that I understood things moved a little slower during the holidays. (“See, I’m a reasonable customer,” I thought to myself while still on the phone.) Before wishing me a good day, Diane informed me that she had asked the computer system to remind her to call me back in a few weeks, just to make sure that someone in the right department had reached out to me, and that the problem was solved. It looked like 2008 was going to be the Year of Customer Service. I was wrong.

PREPARING TO BUY a new home, I applied for a pre-approved loan from a local bank. We went through the usual gyrations of that dance, including a credit report analysis. The report came back with a so-so rating, largely because of the outstanding dispute with the cable company. This upsetting news reminded me of Diane, and that wonderful customer service moment we’d shared. Oh, Diane, Diane, I thought, why have you forsaken me? But I decided not to blame Diane. I decided instead to blame the computer. I’ll call him Hal. Hal, who forgot—or as I like to think, willfully refused, like the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey—to remind Diane that she was supposed to call me back to be sure that someone else had called me back. Steam was coming out of my ears. And some other orifices, too.

From my desk at work, I called Time Warner again and talked to yet another CSR. This guy told me that there was nothing he could do, that the matter had been investigated, and I just had to pony up the money. When I asked if there was anyone I could talk to, he suggested human resources.

“Human resources?” I shouted, startling my office mates. “I’m looking for some customer service here, not a frickin’ job. I want to talk to your manager!”

The CSR said that his manager would tell me the same thing. In other words, talking to him would be a waste of time on everyone’s part, his in particular.

“I don’t give a damn! I want to talk to your boss. Now!

“OK,” he said. “I’ll transfer you.” I heard a click. Then the phone went silent, as in dead. I laughed in a maniacal way, like Herbert Lom used to in the Pink Panther movies, which only made my colleagues more curious. I wanted to punch someone. I couldn’t believe this CSR had hung up on me, intentionally or not. By that point, I had spent a combined total of what seemed like a thousand hours on the phone with the cable company trying to resolve a $184 dispute. The whole thing was going to lead to a bill a hundred times that when I keeled over with a stress-induced heart attack. It was time to call off the dogs, to accept my fate, to embrace that sage advice of Kenny Rogers: “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…”

I opened my wallet, pulled out a credit card and called the collection agency to pay off my alleged debt. The whole payment process was automated. I didn’t have to talk to anyone. Actually, I couldn’t talk to anyone. There was no way to reach a live humanoid through their phone system. In my case, that was probably a blessing.

About a month later, I came home from work and examined my mail. Inside one envelope was a $184 check from Time Warner Cable. There was no note or explanation of any sort. I guess they finally figured out that I was telling the truth. While I was glad to get my money back, I still felt angry, like I was owed something more. An explanation, if one even exists, would have been nice. A year of free HBO, even nicer.

WHEN MOST OF us think of customer service, the last group to come to mind is the home repair and handyman crowd. I once had some roofers leave the job for two weeks, their ladders and scaffolding scattered around my yard, killing the grass underneath. Though always at the bottom of my list, recent experiences with handymen have been so poor, they’re now off the list altogether. One head-scratching encounter I had earlier this year sums it all up.

To prepare our house for sale, my wife and I hired a guy to do a host of little “touch-ups”—paint a few walls, replace some hardware on a host of doors, and repair a couple of windows. Well, this apparently meticulous chap, let’s call him Handyman Hank, came not once, not twice, but three times to take measurements and review the simple list of to-dos that we had carefully gone over on his first visit. NASA would be lucky to have a shuttle engineer with such an eye for detail. Still, it wasn’t as if we were rehabbing the house or putting on an addition. Anxious to get the place on the market, each day that passed without any progress was maddening.

A short while after that third measuring visit, Handyman Hank showed up, tools in hand, ready to work. But what do you know? Despite all the painstaking measurements, he hadn’t bought the right hardware. He would have to go back to Home Depot. And, since he had other commitments, he wouldn’t return that day. “But don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll be back soon.” I came to appreciate that “soon” in Hank’s vernacular meant a week.

Back “soon,” Handyman Hank made some progress, fixing a few items over the course of about one hour. He left again, saying he would be back tomorrow. In my mind, “tomorrow” means the day after today. In his mind, “tomorrow” means three days from today. I can only blame myself for thinking otherwise, I suppose.

When he did return “tomorrow,” Handyman Hank was particularly peppy and energetic. Finally, he’s ready to wrap all this up, I thought. No, he wasn’t. The source of his enthusiasm? He had a great idea for us: He could build us a roof deck! This had never come up in any of our many discussions with Hank. In fact, we’d made it clear our aim was simply to get the house “market ready,” and not to make any major investments. So taken was he by his idea, though, that Handyman Hank penciled some rather detailed drawings—to scale—on graph paper. Here was a guy who was having trouble replacing some doorknobs, and now he was proposing a major renovation of our house, one that meant removing part of our roof? It was as if a candy striper was asking if she could perform an appendectomy on me.

Sarcastically, I asked Handyman Hank how long he thought the project would take. He confidently announced: “30 days from start to finish.” I ran “one month” through the Handyman Hank Time Logarithm that I had constructed in my head. I concluded that his “30 days” meant about two and half years.

I thanked Hank for his idea, and said he could pitch it to whoever bought my house, assuming anyone ever bought my house despite the host of cosmetic issues that still needed fixing. In the meantime, I told him that he could move on to his next customer, as I didn’t need him to finish the work. I would find someone else. “But don’t worry,” I said. “Your check will be in the mail if not ‘tomorrow,’ then ‘soon,’ real ‘soon.’ ”

Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki / Redux
Originally published in the June 2008 issue.

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