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Volume 15, Issue 37 ~ September 13 - September 19, 2007

Customer Disservice

Your chances of getting a number are like odds at the track, about 50 to 1

Number, please.

You don’t hear those two words much anymore, except perhaps at the pari-mutuel booth at the race track — though thank yous or pleases are about as common at tracks as 50-to-1 winners.

It’s pretty much the same in line for lottery tickets at convenient and liquor stores. No formalities; just tell me your numbers.

In much of my generation, when you picked up the phone to make a call, the first thing you heard was Number, please. And from a real live person, a friendly sounding woman. Male operators were scarcer than 100-to-1 shots. The guys were out climbing poles.

On the phone, you’d have to get far up the totem pole with a problem that wasn’t the bailiwick of the fair sex. You’d talk to a man only when he arrived in a truck, tool box in hand to ask What’s the problem?

Then, you didn’t have to watch the clock, worrying what the bill would be by the time repairs were completed. Service was on the house. The house of Alexander Graham Bell.

Last time I heard, if a phone problem is outside the home, the server picks up the tab; if it’s inside the house, the customer picks up the tab to the tune of about 80 bucks an hour.

I wonder who coughs up when the trouble is within the foot depth between the inside and outside walls.

In the old days, a call for service gave the subscriber the impression that somewhere in the neighborhood was a building where phone fixers lodged as do firemen in a fire station with its brass pole. They arrived almost as early as the men in suspenders toting hoses and hatchets.

Whether an inside workwoman or outside workman answered your call for help to the former Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., you could count on prompt, efficient and courtesy service. Everyone worked for the subscriber.

Now let’s skip ahead 30 or 40 years to our computer age. Utility companies are equipped with everything imaginable to ensure continuous and interrupted service, accurate and understandable billing (have you yet deciphered your phone bill?) make repairs, schedule appointments and such. Millions, probably billions, have been spent, but methinks service is no better.

Worse, there’s no sympathetic operator to hear your tales of woe. You have to listen to a lot of computer-generated voices; then, maybe, a live voice comes on the line.

Time was you picked up the phone that had a wire between it and its base and the thing one talks into and hears from. If you wanted to talk to John Smith in Los Angeles, no street address, you could practically count on the operator to track him down. Today, forget it. Case in point:

No Such Listing

The past weekend, on deadline for a story, I needed help big time to get more details. I had most of the phone numbers I needed, but I lacked two. No problem, I thought. I’ll call information. Never again! I got as much help as I would have got in asking Bank of America to loan me a million bucks.

The last Garrett County phone book I saw was the smallest in the state; it could be folded and carried in the pocket.

I had no big problem for Verizon, or so I thought, just the numbers for a prominent person and for long-established Little Sandy’s Restaurant, a gathering place for hunters and fishermen in the Deep Creek Lake area.

I got an automated voice, which was of no use; then, at last, a real voice. I asked for the Garrett County number for Wendell Beitzel, a longtime hunting companion and currently state delegate.

To be sure of no mix-up, I said it could be the e before the i — or just the opposite — in the spelling of the last name. And, I said, he lived in Garrett County.

The operator said no such listing.

There had to be, I said. The man is a delegate, and he has a phone; I had called him in the past.

The operator picked up on delegate, but still no listing.

I detected a reluctance in her voice to continue the conversation. Then she curtly reminded me to call back if she could be of further assistance.

Before I had the chance to say Yes, you can be of further assistance, she had hung up.

It dawned on me that the next number I had to call was friend Chuck McCrobie, the brother-in-law of Wendell. Not only could I get some quotes but also get Wendell’s number.

Think again, Burton.

No such listing in Garrett County, I was told, this time by a male operator.

There has to be, said I. I’ve been there many times and used the phone in the phone booth. There’s even another Little Sandy’s closer to Grantsville, 20 miles distant in Garrett County.

I waited while the operator double checked, same answer.

Again, this operator sounded like he would like to conclude the call — and did before I could give him any more information. My deadline clock was still running.

The Garrett County friends whose numbers I did have were of no more help. I finally found the Little Sandy’s number rummaging through some old journals. I got a few quotes.

When I did talk to Wendell, after my deadline, he said he couldn’t imagine how his number wasn’t listed. “My constituents call me all the time,” he said.

In the old days all operators lived in the rural communities they served. Often they didn’t have to look in the listings to answer such questions.

But so much has changed in the world, even talking on the telephone.

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