Published in the Open Systems Database Association Newsletter, Winter 2001
The story you are about to read is mostly true. The names have been changed to protect… well, you know…
A couple of days ago, as I was preparing for a three-day trip, I called my internet service provider to get a local access number for my destination. At the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea; I mean, this company provides telephone service to the entire country; they should be able to look up a number and read it to me, A LOYAL CUSTOMER, right? However, as happens sometimes when a customer has a complicated technical question like a PHONE NUMBER, the ensuing ordeal left me breathless, fingers poised above 911 in preparation for the cardiac failure that was certain to follow. Looking back on this experience now a couple of days later, and having had some time to ponder the meaning of all these wonderful technologies that allow us to communicate our species’ most important information (like recipes for potato salad and meaningful greetings gleaned from hours of watching beer commercials) while limiting access to crucial private information like a PHONE NUMBER, there can be only one explanation for the ordeal I have experienced:
The telephone company needs a new computer.
I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised that something like this has happened. It was only a matter of time before all these mergers, acquisitions, redeployments, features, enhancements, upgrades, and adjustments would take their toll on the delicate technical infrastructure of what is arguably the largest carnivore in the American communications industry. I mean, hey, it takes a lot of work for all those little bits to move themselves from Los Angeles to New York and back in the blink of an eye. Eventually they’re going to get tired, right? Certainly the phone company can’t afford to hire new, more healthy bits as the older bits move slower and start dying on the long journey over Nebraska and Wyoming, so we – the LOYAL CUSTOMERS – must simply learn to accept the service being provided by these geriatric bits and be happy with it, RIGHT?
But I digress…
The story really starts a couple of months ago, when I unfortunately committed the cardinal sin of the communications industry: I elected to receive internet service from – (gasp) – my telephone company. Like so many things, it sounded like such a good idea at the time. When I told the nice salesman that I travel quite a bit and really need local internet access from all over the country, he smiled (I know, I heard it) and said “Certainly! Here, I’ll give you a phone number you can call when you need a local number. Just click your heels together three times, tell the nice operator where you’re going, and they’ll give you a magic number that will give you UNLIMITED ACCESS from WHEREVER YOU ARE.” (cue: angels singing)
“WOW”, I remember saying, sounding something like a newfound communications junkie looking for a quick fix, “Can I… have… a local number… now?”. “SURE!” he smiled, and gave me not one, not two, but SEVEN different phone numbers! It was almost too much to bear. In the ensuing high bandwidth, I never figured my smiling salesman was simply leading me along a path where I’d eventually have to face the music; pay the piper; walk with the big ugly hooded dude with the upside-down L.
But that day came. I needed to travel. I needed a local access number for my destination. So I did what any thinking person might do – I called the number that Smiley was so kind to provide. Moments later, I was greeted by the personal automated message that I’m certain is prepared specifically for all LOYAL CUSTOMERS:
“THANK YOU FOR CALLING TECH SUPPORT. WE APPRECIATE YOUR BUSINESS. YOUR CALL WILL BE ANSWERED IN THE ORDER IT WAS RECEIVED. YOUR EXPECTED HOLD TIME IS… ELEVEN…. TY… DAYS. PRESS 1 TO HEAR THIS MESSAGE IN SPANISH, PRESS 2 TO HEAR THIS MESSAGE IN FRENCH…”.
Several dreams later, I was awakened by a pleasant voice who promptly identified herself as “Betsy” (not her real name, remember) and who graciously provided me her 96 digit personal employee identification code so that if I needed to contact her again, there wouldn’t be a prayer I’d ever find her. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I barely began to form words when Betsy spoke first:
“MAY I HAVE YOUR BILLING TELEPHONE NUMBER? AREA CODE FIRST.”
“Uh, sure. It’s …-…-….”, I responded.
“MAY I HAVE YOUR NAME?”
“Sure I’ll give you my name, as long as you give it back when you’re done”, I laughed. (Note to self: NEVER do this again.)
“WHAT IS YOUR ADDRESS?”, she responded.
I stated my address.
“IS THAT ALL?”, she replied.
“Do you really need my ZIP code too? Don’t you have all this information already?”.
“SIR, PLEASE REPEAT YOUR COMPLETE ADDRESS”.
Fear begins to well deep in my soul. Still, Betsy is my “support”. She knows the magic numbers. She can help me. I have to comply.
Moments after repeating my ENTIRE address – while exercising great caution to use the best of diction to make sure she received every word – Betsy spoke those deeply personal and touching words: “PLEASE HOLD WHILE I ACCESS YOUR ACCOUNT”. Moments later (after I had listened to three Def Leppard songs converted to Muzak) she was back.
“SIR, DO YOU HAVE DSL ON THIS LINE?”
“Yes, but I use both the DSL and dial-up conne…”
She interrupted. “SIR, YOU’LL HAVE TO CALL DSL SUPPORT AT 1-800-PAIN-F..”. (Not the real number).
But I surprised her. Before she could finish the number, I interrupted HER and as quickly and efficiently as possible I rapid-fired my question: “IjustneedalocalinternetaccessnumberforMinnesotaPLEASE!”
She was trapped. I had done it. I had actually asked my question. She couldn’t help but answer it now.
“PLEASE HOLD WHILE I ACCESS YOUR ACCOUNT”.
What? Didn’t she already do this? Did her computer screen magically erase all my information in the last, say, four seconds? Or could it be that my “account” is little more than a manila folder sitting in a pile of other manila folders on the corner of her desk? (And how can you know for sure?)
“OUR COMPUTERS ARE RUNNING SLOW TODAY”.
So slow that Betsy has to ask it for information TWICE? Or perhaps the bits that hold my information took a wrong turn somewhere over Iowa? (And how can you know for sure?)
Like I have other options? Yeah, let’s just hang up and start this conversation from the top – yeah, that’s the ticket. (It’s not, by the way.)
“Betsy, I know your name, and I know you know mine. Please call me Kevin.”
“YES SIR. SIR, YOU’RE NOT SUBSCRIBED TO THE GLOBAL WHIZ-BANG INTERNET ACCESS SERVICE” (not the real name of the product).
“O—kay.. What exactly does that mean?”, I asked.
“WELL SIR, IT MEANS YOU CAN’T ACCESS THE INTERNET FROM ANYWHERE”.
“You mean “everywhere”, right?”
“WHATEVER, SIR. SIR, WITHOUT THIS SERVICE YOU CAN’T GO TO MINNESOTA”.
“You’re going to stop me from going to Minnesota?”
“YES SIR. WELL, SIR, I SUPPOSE YOU CAN GO, BUT YOUR INTERNET SERVICE HAS TO STAY HOME.”
Okay, now this is interesting. I’m finding myself really needed some clarification at this point.
“So what you’re saying”, I responded, “is that you have telephone lines and servers and networks all over the country, and I can’t use them because I’m not subscribed to some special whiz-bang service that you offer?”
“THAT’S RIGHT SIR”.
“But I don’t understand. When I signed up for the service, Smiley the sales guy (not his real name) said that I could access the internet from anywhere in the country. All I would have to do is call you, and you’d give me the magic numbers. I specifically asked for this!”
And that’s when she said it; the phrase that rings in my ears still:
“SIR”, she stated boldly, “ACCORDING TO MY SCREEN, SIR, YOU DID NOT ASK FOR THIS”.
At this point, I’m becoming convinced that somewhere in the Midwest tiny packets of information are dying on the side of the road from heat stroke after missing that last 7-11 off of the freeway. Smiley told me I could do it, and he even gave me my first fix of “local access”. Now, Betsy’s telling me it’s just not so? Oh, the deception! Oh, the pain!
“Betsy, how can I fix this?”, I asked.
“SIR, FOR ONLY $….. I CAN SIGN YOU UP FOR THE SERVICE RIGHT NOW.”
A glimmer of hope! “You can?”
“YES SIR. IF YOU HAVE A MAJOR CREDIT CARD NUMBER, I CAN TAKE THAT ORDER FOR YOU RIGHT NOW”.
(Sidebar: Has anyone ever had a “minor” credit card number?)
As I began fumbling through my wallet, looking for my most major credit card to make this fiasco go away, Betsy began to explain how the service works:
“ONCE I SIGN YOU UP TODAY, YOUR SERVICE WILL BE ACTIVATED IN FOUR DAYS”.
“Four days?!” I replied, “But I’m only going to Minnesota for three!”
“SO DO YOU WANT THE SERVICE OR NOT?”
Silence. At this point I’m having great difficulty believing that all this is happening. Betsy wants to enroll me in a for-fee “service” that won’t be enabled until AFTER I’ve returned home and will ultimately commit me deeper to the pit of despair. But without it, I’ll pay high long distance charges. Interestingly, it all seems to work out in the end, as the phone company will get theirs while simultaneously giving me mine.
Obviously the phone company has some real tired bits. Operators like our friend Betsy here have to ask those bits for information twice. Then, even when she does ask, they take their sweet time coming to her. Then, if my bits decide to not tell her that I have some special service, she can rent me some new bits that give me “the service”. But even those bits must be tired – it takes four days for them to get to Minnesota?
Heck, my plane ride is only a couple of hours. Maybe I could pack a few of them in my carry-on…