After three months of accepting the boundless hospitality of lovely friends, I am moving into a new apartment, less than a mile along my beloved Bay walk from the house in Richmond where I wrote so many of the essays posted to my blog since 2004.
Most of my possessions won’t arrive for a couple of weeks. Although I’m looking forward to things like cooking in my own kitchen, which entails equipment, I’ve discovered how few possessions I really need. Admittedly, being addicted to my computer skews the whole calculation. My livelihood, my art, and many of my relationships depend on access to my hard disk, on my ability to go online. I can’t understand how anyone nowadays has to think more than a millisecond what to save from a hypothetical burning building—the computer! Then I remind myself that my obsession with words—as an old friend once described computing, “seeing my writing on television”—may not be universal.
Before the digital era, to achieve the same reassuringly secure purchase on my essential personal and cultural information, I would have needed to schlep around a few four-drawer filing cabinets, a small library, a typewriter, a turntable, speakers and several other superannuated appliances. For the last three months, I simply reclined on that night’s providential couch and went online, feeling embraced by my music, my writing, my messages from my friends, my digiverse—my, my, my!
So you can understand why I am vibrating with frustration that it took Comcast four installation appointments scheduled over three days (four separate appointment “windows,” three of them four hours in length) to figure out they couldn’t activate my cable modem.
It’s a long story, but the essentials will suffice to explore What It All Means.
In my new building, the cable box is in a locked utility room. Instead of using its own installers for some jobs, Comcast subcontracts to another company. When the first contract installer arrived, he couldn’t get into the utility room. Calls to various authorities ascertained that Comcast does have the key, but no one had shared that information with the hired-gun installer. Customer service assured me that in the following morning’s appointment window, an in-house installer would get the job done.
With slight variations, this happened on four successive occasions. By the third iteration, I had spoken with a whole raft of customer service representatives, supervisors, managers, dispatchers and contract installers. Indeed, near the end of my second four-hour appointment window on Day Two, the contract-installer dispatcher recognized my name from his work order list and phoned me, saying, “I can’t believe they sent us this order for the third time!” An in-house installer showed up on Day Three—an extremely nice and helpful man, just like almost everyone I interacted with—but no one told him he had to bring the key to the utility room, so he had to go back to his office and get it.
Are you with me?
With customer service people, I try to be clear, patient and grateful. If it can be said truthfully (i.e., almost always), I say that I know they are not personally responsible for my problem. I would not want their job, which seems to consist largely of what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “cooling out the mark,” borrowing grifters’ jargon to describe the task of making someone who has been burned feel better about it.
Recently, I consulted a wise friend about a challenging situation that had been making me very anxious. “I have to think through every possible way it could go,” I told my friend, “and figure out what I’m going to do.” It took about ninety seconds for me to appreciate (a) the futility of attempting to anticipate every scenario, (b) how hopelessly inadequate to the complexity of any human situation a collection of prepared scripts would be, and (c) how degrading it would be to everyone involved to substitute an imitation of life—an impersonation—for personhood. My wise friend stated the obvious truth my anxiety had obscured: show up, be present, do what feels right. What else is there?
What else is there? Corporate customer service! The first time someone at the call center told me, “I do apologize for your having to wait so long, thank you so much for your patience,” I appreciated the oddly formal courtesy. The second time someone said, “It is important to us to do the job right the first time, and if we didn’t do that, it is my personal responsibility to make it right,” I considered whether that could possibly be true and if so, exactly how this personal responsibility thing worked. Was she going to get into her car and come over here to wait for the installer so I could get my errands done?
The third time someone said, “I take this very seriously. You have my word that I will call you back within 30 minutes, and I don’t give my word without meaning it,” I was becoming a connoisseur of inflection, having heard so many different readings of the same lines. (The first giveaway was that always-stressed do in “I do apologize,” scripted by someone with a tin ear for dialogue.) “I know you’re repeating a customer service script,” I told the last person, “but you sound like you mean it, so I will trust you.” He thanked me, and this thanks came before the part where they say, “Thank you for choosing Comcast” as part of closing formula I should surely have committed to memory by now. One customer service rep sounded annoyed, one amused, but most, like this man, were very nice, seeming to read their lines with conviction. So I think he meant, but I’ve lost my standards.
For putting up with the aggregate twelve hours of appointment windows and perhaps eight interactions with customer service it took me to get online in my new apartment, Comcast employees doled out consolation prizes on four separate occasions. Proffered discounts added up to about half the installation fee plus three months of free HBO (which they promised will disappear and not be automatically billed when the three months are up). Each time, they said they knew it wouldn’t make up for the inconvenience, but this is what they could do, that perhaps it would help a little. That was nice, but I’d rather have the twelve hours back.
I’d rather have cable, too. It turns out there is something wrong with the cable coming into my apartment, and to get that fixed, I have to deal with the management company, which is brand-new as of today, and undoubtedly handling a backlog of issues from the several days’ hiatus between management companies. My landlady consulted the former tenant, learning that his cable service failed, and that his many interactions with Comcast produced the conviction that the wiring was simply too old to work. (Now, there’s some useful information that was never captured; it would have saved me twelve hours of hopeful loitering in installation windows when I ordered service for the exact same apartment.) The former tenant got a satellite dish, but then the way its signal came into the apartment was deemed problematic, and…. Well, I am on a plane right now, but when I get home, I’m guessing I’ll be ordering a DSL line from the phone company.
Still, I find myself still worrying about the cultural impact of the current style of corporate customer service. It suggests a repellent form of management-labor relations: the corporation doesn’t trust its employees to exercise actual caring or demonstrate actual integrity, so they are instructed to impersonate both by repeating scripts. Contract installation is a form of piecework or sharecropping: Each time the contract installers are sent on a job that fails to materialize, they have invested working time for which they are not paid, constantly multiplying resentment. For customers, it’s demoralizing to interact with a system that can’t handle exceptions to the rule. Interactions are so thoroughly standardized—everyone kept explaining to me that all they could do was fill out a certain form and submit it—that when a situation doesn’t fit the standard, the system stutters to a halt, like one of those self-destructing computers on the old Star Trek.
Everyone I know is already justifiably cynical about the cultural impact of mega-corporations. Perhaps people lack faith in government, as pollsters tell us, but I know no one who has faith in the ability of any major national corporation to shape humane, civil social relations. We have learned by now to apply the rule of “press one times two.” If a mechanical voice presents you with more than two sets of instructions to press one, it’s time to abandon hope.
Each time you call Comcast, you get the same welcome message from Shaquille O’Neal and Ben Stein (I’m guessing it substantially reduces the volume of repeat phone calls, as customers unable to listen to that message for the third—or eighth—time sigh and hang up). Then you get a promo for some upcoming cable extravaganza, followed by a cheery exhortation to handle your business online instead of by phone, which I would certainly do if only they had installed my cable modem. (I don’t think they actually say, “Are you still there?” It just feels like it). Then there are four or five opportunities to press one (cable or internet? installation or repair? listen to a message or keep going?).
More and more, the meta-choice seems downright holographic. No matter how you slice it—and as minutiae goes, you can’t get much smaller than my personal drama of accessing the internet—every little slice of life does indeed offer two choices. We are offered the old-paradigm path, in which humans are expected to accept being treated like numbers, agreeing to pretend that it makes perfect sense to sacrifice their own time and morale for shareholder profits. And we are offered the alternative, where a corporation like Comcast would invest less in cooling out the mark and more on capturing and learning from experience. Where the corporation would permit its helpful customer service employees—who are now so helplessly hedged about by scripts—to speak their own words, rather than forcing them to declare personal responsibility for corporate corner-cutting, and giving them human-scale discretion to problem-solve.
The choice seems obvious, but if you don’t see it that way, please press one until you change your mind.