The Mind of James Donahue

Missing "Ma Bell"

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What Happened To Good
Telephone Service in America?

With all of the new communication systems available, I find it hard to understand why telephone companies insist on (a.) charging such high prices and (b.) giving terrible service. It is almost as if the people in charge are purposefully trying to run their businesses into the ground.

For starters, I would like to throttle the guy who invented the contemporary "cost savings" telephone invention for businesses that replaced the old fashioned operator. I am sure it has a technical name, but I don't care to know what it is.

I am sure you have all experienced that sinking feeling after dialing a business and then hearing a recorded voice say: "Welcome to Fred's Drug Store. If you know your party's extension number, please dial it now. If you are interested in soap, press one; if you want to inquire about your bill, press two; if you want a date with Fred's daughter, press three; and, oh yes, if you want to renew a prescription, press four."

You know the routine. After pressing a number that you hope will lead you to Fred's line so you can place a simple order, you are told that "company representatives are busy with other customers." If you want to talk to a real person, you are going to have to wait an estimated three to five minutes. Sometimes the forecast is much longer. In the meantime you have what I call "elevator music" to listen to while you wait.

This insidious device has been slowly creeping into businesses across America ever since it first invaded state and federal government offices about 20 or possibly even 30 years ago. I remember going through the routine many times while working as a newspaper reporter, desperately needing a quote from a representative of the state agriculture department, or the department of natural resources.

We used to hate this kind of assignment because it often involved an hour or more of our time, while we punched buttons and tried to get a live person to talk to. And all the time we vowed we would vote socialist in the next election so we might have chance to "throw the rascals out."

I recently connected the source of this bane on American business, government and society in general. It is the telephone company.

We recently moved to a new community. Among the first services we wanted was a telephone. Not that I really love telephones, but since we are living in a small rural town, the device is still necessary for my link to the Internet.

The problem with moving into a new place where you don't already have access to a telephone, or know any friends who will let you use theirs, is how to order a telephone. We discovered that the local telephone company has no office in this town. To order a phone, we had to make an 800 call to some central office in some distant city.

My wife solved this problem by getting her new boss to let her take a few moments off her job and use the office telephone to order our telephone. Because of the mechanical answering device, the task took much longer than she expected. She literally gave up her lunch hour.

Once she made contact, she learned that the telephone company also offered Internet service. She ordered that too. But there was a snag. We were living in an apartment located behind a business, and for some reason the place was never given an address by the local post office. We have a post office box instead. The telephone company representative said it would not be possible to give us a telephone if we didn't have an assigned address. My wife argued with this person for a while, and eventually got someone else on the line who agreed to let us have a telephone.

We were told someone would be at our home within the week to hook up our telephone. A CD would be sent to our post office box in the next two days. Problem solved.

But it wasn't. Two weeks passed and nobody came to hook up our telephone. No CD arrived in our mail. Doris asked permission to make another call from her job. Another hour spent punching numbers. Another promise. Nobody showed up the second time.

A third telephone call was made and this time my wife got through to some district manager who acted outraged that we were still waiting for service. This person promised something would be done right away. That night a telephone truck pulled up to our front door. Within a few minutes we had a telephone. When we asked about Internet service, the serviceman shrugged and suggested that we try a local provider. When I asked for a telephone book so I could find an Internet service provider in the yellow pages, he said he doesn't carry them. He promised that a new phone book would arrive in the mail in the next day or two.

Of course we never got the phone book.

After another week passed I decided to bite the bullet and go through the telephone company's electronic obstacle course just to ask for a phone book.

Sure enough, once I dialed the number, an electronic male voice said "Thank you for calling . . . " and then directed me to start pushing buttons to receive certain services. They included: ordering a new telephone, complaining about a bill and asking for additional services. For anything else, like ordering a phone book, I was directed to wait until a "service representative" becomes available. I was told that all lines to service representatives were currently busy and that I had about a five-minute wait. Expecting this, I decided to wait.

Of course the phone company does not simply let you hang their with dead air in your ear. I was treated to five minutes of telephone company promotion, by that same deep male voice especially designed to sell, sell, sell. I enjoyed responding to it with a few special four-letter words, knowing that nobody was there to hear me.

Suddenly I heard a telephone ringing sound and a woman's voice asked: "How may I improve our excellent service?"

I had to laugh out loud at that. "I don't know how you can make the service excellent," I said. "What I want is a telephone book."

The woman said she could help me, but then gave me another 800 number to call. This meant going through the same routine all over again.

Even though I was promised that a telephone book would be sent, to date, I am still waiting for it to arrive. That was about a month ago. It is very difficult to find badly needed goods and services in a new town without a telephone book, but I don't have the heart to go through the task of calling the telephone company again.

I remember the good old days of "Ma Bell" when the telephone serviceman handed you a book with your telephone. That was back when the telephone company provided the telephone too. And somehow we didn't worry about the phone bill then either. 



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