Mark Twain and me

Every now and then it’s comforting to know that the more things change, the more they stay Telephone2 the same. Take customer service for example. Please!

This past Saturday, we suffered a lightning strike in our back yard and lost power for 15, count ‘em, 15 hours! Desperate to keep the refrigerated food fresh and be able to watch the new HBO series ‘Hung’, I feverishly dialed Jersey Central Power & Light (and, unwittingly entered the automated attendant Twilight Zone).

I never spoke to a live person. Instead, I interacted with a voice activated service representative from computerized hell. His voice began by asking me to either dial or speak my account number. I did so. But, he refused to recognize either for a good 25 minutes. (“I’m sorry. I didn’t quite understand what you said. Can you repeat it?”) When I finally got past that initial hurdle, I next had to orally describe my problem. ("Please answer by saying: ‘Payment,’ ‘Power outage,’ ‘Power outage with a downed power line’ or ‘Miscellaneous.’ Thank you.”)  I repeatedly screamed “Power outage, Dammit!” But, I kept being forwarded to the miscellaneous automated attendant, who wanted to know if I’d like to know about Jersey Central’s package of service value adds. I didn’t.

Long story short, I finally broke through the voice recognition system, reported my outage and, voila, a Jersey Central service van rolled up my driveway several hours later.

Customer service is always included alongside military intelligence as the ultimate oxymoron. That said, it’s nice to know that poor customer service isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, upon reading Emily Yellin’s excellent new book on the subject, entitled, “Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us,” I see that I have some rarified company. To wit, none other than Mark Twain who, in 1890, wrote the following letter to AT&T:

‘The Hartford telephone is the very worst on the face of the earth. No man can dictate a 20-word message intelligibly through it at any hour of the day without devoting a week’s worth of time to it, and there is no night service whatsoever since electric-lighting was introduced. Though mind you they charge for night-service in their cold, calm way, just the same as if they furnished it.’

Customer service. It stank in 1890 and it stinks in 2009. At least ‘Hung’ was good.

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