Service Without a :-)
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net
June 1996

1996 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




I am becoming more and more like my father every day, which gives me just about 30 years before the sight of my legs in Bermuda shorts will also inspire panic in a mall.

The latest manifestation of this transformation is my frequent observation that the taste, durability or value of something appears to have declined in recent years. (Just in case this habit should get out of hand, my living will specifically authorizes euthanasia should I ever utter the phrase "In my day ...")

As I grow older, it seems to me that the general standards of good corporate customer service are inferior to what they were (mumble mumble mumble.) Every time I have to navigate the shoals and tributaries of a company's interactive voice response system, I feel as I'm working my way upstream looking for Marlon Brando.

Online services and local ISPs (Internet service providers) seem to go out of their way to avoid actually speaking to customers. The concept of direct, physical contact seems to be repellent to them, a trait they share, I might add, with many of the people I date.

America Online's 800-number support line, for example, will only let you talk to a human being if you are having trouble connecting or have forgotten your password. All other callers are told by a pleasant yet resolute recorded voice to go away and seek help online, which, if you're having difficulties online, is known in the binary world as Catch 00010110.

Helping users in some sort of personal way to actually learn how to use America Online seems to be frowned upon, although I notice that my jar of pasta sauce invites me, rather cheerily, to be sure and call them, toll free, if I have any questions. It occurs to me that I might have far more questions on how to use an online service than I would a jar of tomato sauce, but that is a hair I will leave others to split.

Pipeline, a national Internet service provider, forces users to pay long-distance to call their support number in Reston, Virginia. At peak hours, their switchboard resembles the George Washington Parkway at rush hour, with wait times exceeding 30 minutes. Many users who signed up for Pipeline's free-trial last December and canceled within the 14 days discovered that Pipeline continued to charge their credit card for months. (The Pipeline billing department, in a flash of linguistic whimsy, has been renamed "The ProActive Department," which suggests that billing canceled accounts is less an error than a mission.)

Panix, my local ISP, doesn't even answer their phone in the evenings. I have dialed their number at night on multiple occasions with one support crisis or another and each time I have gotten an answering machine. I then noticed they did not list their street address on their web site. Not that it really matters; it's not like I want to take them cookies or something, but the mystery began to gnaw at me. For all I know, they could be in the closet of somebody's apartment, the backroom of a dry cleaner or the men's room at Grand Central Station.

I finally got a helpful human on the phone one afternoon. She divulged their location, but said they did not invite the public to drop by for "insurance reasons." Like many ISPs, Panix is not even staffed 24-hours a day, despite a subscriber roll that tops 7,500. When the mail system collapsed one night, a frantic bulletin was issued, assuring users that "someone was on their way into the office" to fix the problem.

Local ISPs, many of them run on shoestrings, are discovering that they are suddenly a little too popular. Gone are the halcyon days when their users were modestly sophisticated, capable of installing and using the intricate software needed to connect into and navigate the Internet. Now everybody's Grandmother wants to get onto the Net. These are people who think the word "PPP" sounds distinctly naughty and whose patience wears to a wafer rather quickly. "Users from upper and middle-management are the worst," says Stacey Goldsmith at Panix. "They're used to having their secretaries do everything for them."

The flat-rate, unlimited usage fees that ISPs offer are an irresistible lure to novices who don't want to pay AOL's hourly rates, and so they descend upon the ISPs, who are not prepared to handle the resulting chaos. It is not financially feasible, say the ISPs, to provide unlimited usage and equally unlimited, serendipitous support for a few bucks a month.

Good customer service seems to have gone the way of Melmac, clip-on ties and the career of Connie Francis. All that those of us who are approaching our matron station in life can do is sigh and mourn the melancholy day that "customers" became "users."