IN THE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER, CUSTOMER SERVICE TAKES VACATION

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Summer is not a good time to get fast and efficient service. Listen to my stories.

Last year at this time I wrote about my difficulties trying to track down the telephone number of the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New York from our summer home on Cape Cod. When I called information, the operator told me there was no such listing. I asked her where she was located and she said Arizona.

Last year was still the Nynex era, but surely now that Nynex has been bought out by Bell Atlantic service has improved. Yeah, right. Just last week, as I was writing this ode to summertime, I tried the process again, with the exact same results -- no such number, the operator was in Arizona. Nynex farmed out its information service to outside contractors, located far from the markets it serves, and Bell Atlantic apparently has continued the practice.

When we first got up to the Cape this summer, we arranged to have several newspapers delivered: the Cape Cod Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. What came were the above papers, plus the Boston Globe (this was before the Mike Barnicle flap). We called to say we didn't want the Globe, message duly noted, but the next day we received the Globe but no New York Times. The delivery service must have gotten a bigger commission to deliver the Globe (which is owned by the Times) because we had a difficult time convincing them that we didn't want the Globe. We started receiving the Times but it took four calls to finally stop the Globe.

My latest travail is almost a Catch 22 story.

I lost my wallet on a trip to L.A. last month, so I had to go through the extremely unpleasant process of canceling my credit cards and getting replacements. American Express, Visa and Diner's Club sent me my new cards quickly and smoothly, and I had no problem activating them.

The same can't be said for my bank debit card. No. 1, it took about three weeks to receive another card, but the fun really started when I tried to activate it.

When I called an 800 number, I punched in my card number, then gave the last four digits of my Social Security number, and then an automated voice told me that all service agents were busy and to wait for assistance. After giving me the same message three times, the disembodied voice advised me to try again. Dial tone.

I repeated the entire process several more times with the same results -- I was put on hold for a while and then abruptly given the bum's rush with a dial tone. Finally, after a half-dozen tries, the recorded voice announced coldly and ominously: "You have exceeded the maximum number of attempts to activate your card. Please contact your financial institution." The dial tone then came on with a sense of very definite finality. Get lost, bub.

Was I being penalized for being too persistent? If the service agents were always busy was it therefore impossible to activate my card? Is this what Yossarian went through when he tried to get discharged from World War II?

Feeling like a fugitive from justice, I called my financial institution. I was told the automated confirmation system only recognizes your home phone number in its system, and it assumes if you are not calling from your home phone you are placing a fraudulent call. Therefore, it wants nothing to do with you.

So my personal banker interceded for me and somehow convinced the card activation people that it was really me trying to take possession of my card, even if I had the audacity to stray from my home phone.

One last thing: I now have a more rational reason for not wanting to read the Boston Globe. I read where Staples put the arm on Globe management to reinstate Mr. Barnicle's column. The head of Staples wrote that if Mr. Barnicle had been fired the absence of his column "would render the Globe a less attractive advertising vehicle."

Did the Globe publisher make his decision to reinstate Mr. Barnicle -- who, in the end, resigned after new charges he fabricated a column -- partly because of advertiser pressure? For my money, that's just as bad as a newspaper pulling a story for the same reason.

Do you keep a columnist just because advertisers like him, anymore than you'd fire a columnist because advertisers don't like him?

Either way, it's going to be construed as allowing your editorial product to be bought and sold, and that's not good for publishers, advertisers or columnists.

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