Getting caught in labyrinth of voice mail ends patience


The tape-recorded voice on the telephone thanks me for my patience. What patience? The voice must be confusing me with somebody else, somebody whose TCI cable TV service actually works, this being two weeks since Hurricane Floyd, this also being more than a week since all BGE power has been returned, this being long enough that power has been restored in parts of Taiwan, so what's the problem in Baltimore?

But the voice on the TCI line thanks me for my patience, because this is what it has been programmed to do. It's the modern way. You pick up a telephone, which is a machine, and you dial a number that connects you not to a human being but to another machine, a machine that placates you with false flattery, and this is what we call progress.

A second machine at TCI tells me to pick a number. Press 1 if I want sales, 2 if I want billing, 3 if I want service. I press 3, which naturally connects me not to a service person, but to a third machine.

This machine asks for my social security number. In a while, a revelation: a human voice, female, wishing to help me. I explain that since the storm I've been receiving only some cable stations, and want the rest of them restored.

The female voice says, let us work together. Wonderful, I say. This voice now says something about a child. Then I notice music playing. Then I hear another voice in the room. I ask, Are you talking to me? There is too much confusing noise on the line.

Sir, the woman says to me, unplug your cable box. Then plug it back in. OK, I'm no technical genius, but I believe I can do this. Distractedly, the woman says something else about a child, and there's that second voice again and, as the TCI lady's conversation is floating hither and yon, something unanticipated happens: Instead of having a few functioning cable stations, I am now staring at a sea of blue.

Sir, the TCI lady says, do you have another television in the house? So I go upstairs, where we get absolutely nowhere with the second TV set.

OK, the TCI lady says, she will send a repair person to my house -- in a few days. I'll pretend to be patient until then. But, when I go downstairs, I immediately notice that the TCI lady has not restored the original working power to the TV there. Instead of a few stations, I have none. So I call TCI back.

And I get the tape recording, again thanking me for my patience.

And the second tape-recorded voice, telling me to press a button for sales, billing or service.

And the third tape-recorded voice, asking for my social security number.

And then, a new touch, a fourth tape-recorded voice, saying: Please hold while we access your account.

And I wait. In silence, and in frustration, because I suspect I have fallen into some Machine Netherworld, never again to hear a human voice.

And, after long minutes, I hang up.

And dial again.

And go through the same maddening process, one taped message after another, finally to be told to hold while they access my account -- whereupon I am again plunged into several long minutes of silence, uncertain if machines are working to reach me, or there's been a disconnect.

At which point, I am tired of dealing with talking machines.

I get into my car. I drive to TCI headquarters, off Northern Parkway near Liberty Road, where I meet Michael Hewitt, TCI's general manager. He is a nice man who immediately confirms with simple arithmetic the problems many of us have.

"We were overwhelmed by the storm," he says. "We've had a lot of complaints."

How many? Tough to say, since so many people hit the wall of machine recordings when they call. But, Hewitt says, about 14,000 TCI homes lost service during Hurricane Floyd -- not including those tens of thousands whose cable disappeared when BGE's power went out.

And how many people does TCI have handling the company telephones to receive all these complaints?

"About 65," Hewitt says.

All at once?

"Well, no," he says. "About 20 or 25 at any given time."

And they're all handling service complaints?

"Well, some are handling sales calls," he says, "and some are handling billing problems. But, in a pinch, they can also handle service calls."

Swell. Two dozen people to handle calls from thousands of people. Of course, it's not every day that 14,000 households lose their service. But, on a typical day, how many calls does TCI receive?

"Two or three thousand," Hewitt says.

When service goes out, and callers slog through the recordings and reach a human voice, the company can then turn to technicians. How many technicians does TCI employ to serve its 110,000 customers?

Says Hewitt: 22 service technicians, 12 line technicians, eight construction technicians.

But not all at the same time.

The day after my meeting with Hewitt, there came a follow-up telephone call. From a TCI technician. He tells me to turn on my set. In an instant, I have power on all my stations. I am delighted -- and not surprised. TCI has solid, professional help -- when you finally get through to them.

One slight problem: the guy got me all my stations back -- but the numbers are out of order now. Where there used to be Home Team Sports, there's now a cooking channel, and so on.

It means I have to call TCI back.

And, once more, face the dreaded machines.

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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