The Dyspeptic Consumer
(Sponsor: Lok Technology)
In my next life, which could begin minutes from now, or never, I ought to write a column called "The Dysfunctional, Dyspeptic Consumer." (Dyspepsia -- isn't there a pill for that now?) The column would mostly be an acknowledgment of a theme I see in my writings when it comes to what we might call the interface between companies and the people they're trying to sell to. Although I'm assured by many acquaintances and much reading that life as I know it would not be nearly as full, fruitful or satisfying without the efforts of the for-profit enterprises I do business with, I continue to suspect the companies, or the people who run them, have an agenda that puts my welfare as one of their customers pretty far down their list of objectives.
The latest small, real-life exhibit to feed my suspicion comes by way of one of my brothers. He and his wife took the plunge last year and had a new house built in a town south of Chicago for themselves and their three kids. They moved in in mid-January. Their new home had light, heat, water, and cable TV service (with broadband Net access) when they moved in. The only utility that wasn't hooked up at the time -- their phone. The local provider there is Ameritech (the successor to the Illinois Bell of my childhood). Ameritech is one of the RBOCs acquired over the last few years by wanna-be monopoly SBC; the same SBC that's in the process of buying what's left of AT&T -- a deal that will be just super for telecom customers everywhere as well as for the 7,000 or so employees of the merged concern who will be laid off as part of maximizing efficiency (or at least cutting operating costs).
When my brother was ready to move into his new home, he called Ameritech and set up an installation appointment (if I had been a better big brother and more plugged in to what was going on, I might have suggested he skip Ameritech altogether and sign up with CallVantage or Vonage over his cable broadband connection). He was told he'd have a two-week wait until a technician could show up to do the necessary work (and what the necessary work is I don't quite know; the place is wired inside and out). Two weeks! That seems excessive to me, but what the heck -- as part of maximizing efficiency and cutting operating costs, SBC-owned Ameritech probably doesn't have as many service crews as they used to.
So my brother made an appointment. The day came. No one from Ameritech showed up. No one called to explain whether there was a problem or to reschedule. When my brother finally called to ask what happened, he was told that the company technician couldn't locate a service box outside the home and therefore couldn't do the installation. The box is in plain sight, and my brother described precisely where it is to aid the apparently visually impaired phone techs.
Ameritech was so moved by my brother's plight -- he and his wife are getting by using their cellphones -- that they rescheduled his appointment. In another two or three weeks. So today, more than a month after moving in, still no landline service. If we were talking Moscow before Gorbachev, OK, sure, I understand. Or Kabul after the Taliban. But we're talking about the heartland of the wealthiest, most can-do nation on Earth. Aren't we?
If you look at Ameritech's service problems since SBC acquired it -- just Google "Ameritech service complaints" -- it appears that the company 1) has a long history of poor customer service and 2) things really got bad after SBC entered the picture. But this discussion shouldn't be about beating up on one company. It should be about how to fix things. As to that, I admit, I don't have the answers beyond suggesting that there's something seriously broken in an industry that treats customers this way. The situation also suggests the value of real competition and, perhaps, the window of opportunity that exists for VoIPs to win business through a better customer-service ethic.
Hmmm. We'll see how it pans out. In the meantime, I'm going to suggest my brother cancel his Ameritech appointment and sign up with someone else.