Politics & Policy

Customer Disservice

When did government become the efficient one?

As a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy I’d certainly like to believe that private enterprise is more efficient and ultimately cheaper than government-provided services. Yet lately it seems that pretty much every big corporation I’ve dealt with — Verizon, Symantec, CVS, AT&T, and, most recently, Time/Warner Cable — is far worse. They seem to subscribe now to the enrage-the-customer theory of customer service.

The last time I went to the post office, for instance, my heart sank at the line snaking nearly out the door. Yet I was in and out in just ten minutes. When I renewed my license at the DMV a couple of years ago, things looked even worse. But they called my number to the window even before I finished filling out the form, and the whole expedition took less than less than half-an-hour.

Not only that, but the DMV has chairs. The only way you can get a chair at a Verizon store is to explain pitifully, like I did to the “greeter” when I was forced to visit recently, that I can’t stand for 20 minutes without getting dizzy. That made them bring out a chair from the mysterious locked area in back, I assume because they don’t want to deal with the fuss and bother of actual fainting spells.

Everyone else had to sit on the floor, as usual. So a typical Verizon store quickly resembles a third-world airport once there are more than three or four people in line.

The infuriating thing was that I shouldn’t have had to go the store at all. When my cell phone began reading “Car Kit” instead of working, I called Verizon three times begging them to just mail me a replacement. Three times the customer-service rep said “Car Kit” meant water damage and I’d have to take it into the store to be repaired or replaced. But the store technician said that was wrong and he couldn’t fix or replace it: “Car Kit” meant the thing was dead, but he could offer “a free upgrade” from the sales rep at the other counter.

So, another line and another wait, with the “free upgrade” costing $139.76 — even higher than I expected, because I was too exhausted to realize until I got home that the sales rep had sold me an accessory pack (leather case, assorted other junk) that I’d neither asked for nor wanted. She just threw it in the bag and added it to the bill.

I also had to insist the sales rep put all my old contacts into my new phone. They can easily do this for you at Verizon, by the way, but they’ll never offer, you always have to ask. I didn’t even know it was a possibility until I went in once with my teenage daughter and she knew to make them do it.

“No…they don’t tell us never to offer,” the sales rep said slowly when I asked if this unhelpfulness is something they learn in special Verizon training seminars. “But we never do. I guess we should.”

At least when I called and explained how very much I did not want to trek to that store again, the manager said she’d send someone to pick up the accessory pack and give me a refund, which she did.

Then there’s Symantec and its Norton Anti-Virus product. Like Charlie Brown with Lucy and that football, every year I optimistically renew, hoping that maybe this time it won’t be pure hell. This time it played out like so:

Step 1: Naively fall for the prompt to renew online, give Symantec my credit-card number and other info.

Step 2. Am incorrectly charged the Canadian rate, after noticing that the “please wait while we process your request” on the site as I try to renew is for some reason in Italian.

Step 3: Go through the same process, renewing at the U.S. rate, hoping that once I install new upgrade I will easily get the refund for Canadian rate. (As it turns out, no refund is possible unless I download a complicated form, but that’s a whole other corner of Symantec hell.)

Step 4. Receive no promised e-mail instructions on how to download the upgrade. Try to track my order by entering e-mail address on Symantec site, to no avail.

Step 5: Cannot find phone number for support online at Symantec. Call phone number I saved from last year’s hellish process.

Step 6. Am transferred to India.

Step 7: Indian customer rep explains that because of technical problems, he cannot help me now, but that I can try calling back in a few hours. Explains, after I say I would like to avoid more hours wasted on phone, that no, he cannot give me an e-mail contact to take care of this.

Step 8: Ask to speak to a supervisor.

Step 9: Am put on hold for a few minutes, then hear dial tone.

Step 10: Receive an e-mail from Symantec on how to uninstall Norton Anti-Virus, with instructions not to reply to that e-mail, although I wanted instructions on how to download not how to uninstall.

Step 11: Eventually e-mails on how to download Canadian and U.S. updated 2006 versions arrive.

Step 12: Try instructions in the U.S. version.

Step 13. Computer freezes before process seems to be completed. Vaguely new Nortony icons appear on desktop, but I have no idea if they contain the actual 2006 updated Anti-Virus.

Step 14: Wonder if this procedure is purposely designed to drive Symantec customers insane. Could this be some sort of “Springtime for Hitler” situation, in which Symantec makes money by enraging customers?

And so on. Eventually, a very nice Symantec technician in the United States, who really did seem to know what he was doing, tried to help me get the thing installed by walking me through the steps over the phone. But the process took over an hour, with no eventual success. I finally gave up and hired a private technician to come over to the house, uninstall the remaining Norton Anti-Virus software (which had been slowing down the computer) and install something different and better. Since then, it’s been working fine.

I’ve given up on my neighborhood CVS pharmacy, despite the convenience of its being open round-the-clock, because they never keep the drugs I need in stock and the clerks can’t be bothered to order them for me or even tell me when they might arrive. To CVS’s credit, the corporate executives there called repeatedly to apologize and promise better service once I sent them letters of complaint. But by then I’d discovered that my local independent drugstore is much better stocked, despite being so much smaller and without the resources of a big chain. The little store also offers much friendlier and more efficient service.

My worst experience lately though was with Time/Warner Cable. Even though all my friends have suggested I switch to satellite TV, largely out of habit I made an appointment for the cable guy to come and “upgrade” my cable TV service to digital. The appointment was from 5 to 7 P.M., and I was careful not to leave the house during that time for even a minute. But at 6 P.M. I picked up a 5:55 P.M. voice mail message from the cable technician saying that he was sorry I wasn’t home and to call and reschedule.

Not only had I been home, I hadn’t even stepped more than a few yards away from my front door! What happened was the same situation when I had to make four appointments for the phone company to come and fix the static on my phone line recently: Time/Warner now has what they term a “pre-call” policy, which means the technician is no longer expected to peel the seat of his pants from his truck upholstery and actually walk to the door and ring the bell. Not even when lights are clearly on in the house, and cars are in the driveway, indicating that indeed someone is home.

Instead he now can just lazily call from his cell phone. If you’re on the phone with someone else just then, or you don’t hear the ring and the call goes to voice mail, too bad. He’s allowed to just assume you’re not home and drive merrily away.

So that’s why, even though I’ve been a loyal cable TV customer for years, I plan to try satellite TV rather than reschedule with Time/Warner cable.

One thing’s for sure: All this has actually made me look forward to my next trip to the post office.

— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.

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