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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Weekend Fun

Posted by a4g @ 4/30/2005 04:36:00 PM

For weekend fun, there is really very little that can compete with a call to a customer service center. Feeling a little lonely and bored, I decided today was the day to stop avoiding calling the customer service line of a certain major cell-phone provider whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned (Cingular), and have them provide me with a replacement for one of the phones on my company plan that has a non-functioning screen.The thing about the screen on a cell phone, as I was soon to discover, is that it is not properly called a 'screen': it is a 'display'. Evidently, this is a distinction of some importance in the cellular community. I don't know if that was the source of my problems, but it is certainly the leading candidate.

Perhaps calling from my (functioning) cell while I was driving could be described as a 'lapse in judgment', but coming from a guy who confidently predicted "Bush will win 50 states, because no one could possibly vote for traitor Kerry," 'lapse in judgment' is pretty much standard operating procedure.

I must admit I was feeling pretty confident at the start of the call, after all, I guessed the customer service number correctly: 611. And certainly any company that made it so unbelievably easy to reach them with a number that even I could remember, would be able to solve my problem with ease. Of course, it was hubris that damned every Greek tragic hero, and my hubris was bordering on outright arrogance as I heard the words "Cingular Customer Service" chirp over the speaker on my LG phone.

Scientists tell us that there is really no scientific way to determine the race of an individual, that examining the DNA within a racial group, there is more variation than across racial groups. These scientists have never tried to use a flip phone designed in the ergonomics labs of a Chinese electronics firm with a white guy's ear. As I certainly don't think of the Asians as having ears fundamentally different than the western, this will be a subject of much future contemplation (and even some rude staring) the next time I go to Pick-Up-Stix or Panda Express. Suffice to say, out of all the possible places the speaker can be parked against your ear, it is only the really painful one that you can a)hear and b)not go deaf from the volume.
Unfortunately, at the moment that the customer service computer cheerfully answered my call, I was shirking the hair-shirt position that my phone should have been parked in, and the resulting blast of volume was roughly equivalent to the experience that the aforementioned Greek tragic hero must have felt when he gouged out his own eyes upon learning that his wife was actually his mother (which, coincidentally, is ranked just two notches higher on the weekend fun scale than the call I was embarking upon).

Anyway, the thrill of having made it through the first wall of defense of the citadel of customer service was enough to make me forget the throbbing pain in my ear and ignore the blood dripping onto my neck. I switched ears and resolved to challenge the next labor that Cingular had layed out before me. I would meet the beast of the labyrinth--the automated menu.

It's not that its difficult to fumble with your phone in one hand, alternately listening and then punching-in your wireless phone number and account number, zip code, and pin number with a thumb turned purple from the arthritic effects of the syndrome called Blueberry-Thumb, while simultaneously negotiating through the 'El Toro Y' interchange on the 405 freeway north. Its that its difficult to do and still maintain a safe speed and direction. In my defense, however, I should think that the concept of "lanes" breaks down significantly when you are talking about an interchange that is 22 lanes wide, vs. a two-lane highway, where "lane" has a really serious, in-your-face sort of meaning. Besides, here I am multi-tasking, surely a wise and prudential use of my limited time on this globe, and I'm being vilified by other motorists, who certainly are merely only "driving" and nothing more, and as such, certainly should have the mental energy available to both drive and avoid me as I swerve and careen over, through and around the Bott's Dots that demarcate the narrow boundaries that we allow ourselves to be pidgeonholed into called "lanes". I suppose I could have pulled over, but I was running late to an appointment--and as I just stated, the fact that I was trying to do two things at once is a pretty good indicator that my time is more valuable than that of the people driving next to me, who I might add, I don't even know. And hanging up and trying again later was out of the question. That was just what Cingular wanted me to do. Besides, I really didn't think I was putting anyone in danger, as I have always considered it common courtesy to let other drivers know exactly where I am at any moment by making sure my truck has a sizable cloud of smoke pouring from the exhaust as an unequivocal signal of my presence.

I have no small amount of admiration for those who design automated customer service menus. It takes a special kind of genius to analyze what must be a nearly unlimited number of different questions and distill them down in such a way as to offer options so nearly close to each and every one of them that it could be the right option, but never really is. It truly boggles the mind, as it would seem that at least one caller would find something in the menu that sparks that neuron that says, "Yes! This is the right option." But the logic and analysis of the customer service menu designer is far greater than the abilities of we mere mortals who call in. We are thwarted while Zeus chuckles. So between option "4", 'trouble with your existing service', or option "5", 'experiencing problems connecting with your phone' (and you can catch a glimpse of the truly superlative genius involved here, and that it has something to do with the careful crafting of adjectives), I braved forth into option "4". I was met with the following four options:

1. You are experience error 432.
2. Your phone is having trouble getting a signal.
3. You want to change the ring tone on your phone.
4. You want to add additional services to your plan.

Well, clearly only option one had the gravitas to match a broken screen. Error 432.

Cingular: Is this the first time you have experienced error 432? 1. Yes 2. No

Me: 1.

Cingular: Is the indicator blinking, or steady? 1. Blinking. 2. Steady.

It was here that I realized I had made a tactical mistake of the first order. Like a wailing Lear wandering blind, my foolish choice built on arrogance and self-importance had led me to this place. Blinking or steady? Indicator? Where was I? On what Stygian plane of existence had I found my self cast?

And like a child I cried out of the darkness to the one thing that might possibly save me.


If this tale were the figment of fantastic imagination, perhaps the deux ex machina of the operator would be sufficient to extricate me from the nightmare into which I had entangled myself. Suffice to say that cruel reality had a somewhat more trying experience in store for me. Unlike Theseus, I had no woven string to guide me back, but somehow, through a dark place to which I do not wish to return, and which is too horrible to commit to the written word, I managed to negotiate my way to a feminine human voice.

"Hello, may I have your Cingular wireless number."

Yes, this was the same number I had already punched in, that had almost cost the lives of a family of seven in a minivan on the overpass onto the 405 north. I told her the number.

"And what is your Cingular account number."

Again, hadn't I already done this?

"And your billing zip code--"

"And your pin number--"

I often wonder if the customer service representatives of any given company do this for sport. Are they chuckling, hidden within the small cubicles that house them, hearing the chuckles of a thousand other customer service representatives bubbling over the soft fabric walls that contain them, while the scent of curry and the cool breeze blowing over the mighty river Ganges breaks the still air of the lockless prison of their daily labor?

No matter, the thing had been done, the words said. I had hurdled the wall of the initial connection, negotiated the maze of the automated answering system. This human voice was beautiful, exotic, extremely hard to understand. But she was my customer service representative now, even if only for the length of the call. She had a kind of transcendent beauty that only artists can ever experience.

"Please hold."

And she was gone, like the subtle delicate perfection of a snowflake touching your finger, and in making contact, being destroyed.

There was only music, horrible music.

I will not describe the two other voices I spoke to, who again confirmed my wireless number, my account number, my billing zip code, my pin number. They were ogres, villains, grotesque creatures of fevered nightmare. But I held fast through the terror of the Scylla and Charybdis, though they bore in on me hard, and my connection strength went to a single bar through the 405/55 interchange. Still, I emerged into the afternoon light streaming at my face under the hulking menace and skeletal support structure of the new construction of the HOV lane overpass onto the 405 north.

I had passed under without dropping the call. And I had reached another voice.

"Thank you for calling Cingular. How may I help you."

"One of the phones on my plan has a screen that isn't working."

"Display not working. I can help you with that. Your name?"

I told her.

"And your wireless phone number."

I told her, accidentally transposing two of the digits.

"Hmmm. That's not the number I show here on the screen."

"Then why are you asking?" I asked.

She didn't dare answer. I had struck a real nerve. She changed the subject quickly.

"I need you call back from another phone, so that I can test the phone you are on."

"This phone is fine," I said. "Its another number that is messed up."

"The number isn't working?"

"No, the screen."

"The display?" she asked.

"Right. The display."

"So the display isn't working. Open the phone with the problem. Describe what you see on the display."

"The screen is completely blank," I said.

"The display?"

"Yes. The display is completely blank."

"Take the battery off the phone. Read me the ID number."

Now I had a real challenge. Holding my phone in one hand, the other phone in the other, and steering with my knee, I removed the battery.

There was probably three inches available on the back of the phone in which to write the ID number. LG chose to use .1 of those inches.

The choice was either to watch the road, or read the number. I had come this far. I could face the challenge or back down. I chose to face the challenge. I read off the number, peering close to the miniscule numbers to read them. In Buddhism, they say there is a place one can reach after years of meditation and contemplation, a place of fundamental harmony with all the universe. For a few brief moments, I touched that place. With the jostling of the truck, the size of the ID, the gradual failing of my eyes, there was no way humanly possible I could have read that ID number. I could not distinguish numbers from letters, 0 from 8. In short, I don't believe I did read those numbers. I was the numbers.

But in the rush and euphoria of the moment, I must have transposed the last two numbers.

"That doesn't agree with the ID number here in the computer," she said. "I'll use the one I have."

I heard keystrokes from the other side of the line. I felt my face flush. Things were happening. Mysterious things. Customer service things. Things that mere mortals who drive and talk and wonder could not possibly comprehend. Switches were talking to hubs were talking to transmitters. I could palpably feel my problem being solved.

"Sir, you're not the primary party on this account."

Her words were like the jolt awake at the bottom of a long fall in a dream. I barely managed to squeeze out a "What?"

"I'm afraid I can't authorize anything. The billing goes to someone else."

"But it's my account! My partner only handles the invoices! I ordered these damn phones!"

"You'll have to have your partner call. I'll save all of our information in a special file. That way your partner can call and just have everything authorized. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

"No," I muttered, no really knowing what I was saying. And then she was gone.

If you're wondering whether the replacement phone is coming, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. My partner called Cingular from the office, but he didn't have the ID number from the broken phone that was still in my possession. I told him the whole conversation was saved, they had all the information--she had made a file. But it didn't matter. I realized, there never had been a file, never had been a case number, never had been a chance from the very beginning. Customer service didn't want me to have a new phone. Not for the mere inconvenience of a broken screen.

Er, display.

UPDATE: Welcome readers from the Bonfire. If you've made it this far, you might as well stick around. How 'bout checking out the main page, where, I promise, we keep the posts short.


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Abusive, hateful or irresponsible comments were probably posted by one of the contributors.
At 5/10/2005 08:50:00 AM, Blogger Susie ...
Hey, that's not satire, that's the freaking truth! And it was WAY too enjoyable to be tossed on the Bonfire....

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