(Artvoice 17 May 2001)
 

Catch-22 at Verizon, Inc.
Bureaucratic doubletalk to make Ma Bell Proud

by Bruce Jackson
 
 
 
 

OUCH!

Maybe you were one of the thousands of people burned last year when you signed up for Bell-Atlantic/Verizon’s massively-hyped but only marginally-available home DSL service. Perhaps you remember their zillion-dollar ad campaign on tv and in print media.

Many of us who took their promises at face value got nothing but frustration and disappointment. Not only didn’t the DSL service work as promised or work at all, but we wasted huge amounts of our time getting Verizon to admit that they had neither the electronic equipment in place to deliver the promised service or the qualified staff to deal with the torrent of calls from people at first trying to figure out what they had done wrong, people who then spent more time trying to get out from under what Verizon had wrongly promised but was billing them for anyway.

Not everyone who signed up for Verizon’s DSL service last fall got screwed. For some lucky people, Verizon’s DSL promises turned into DSL service. For the rest of us, it was a nightmare of dealing with bureaucrats and ill-trained service techs taking calls from frustrated customers who had been promised much, received little and, when they called to ask for help were put on hold for huge blocks of time.  Verizon had put tons of $$$$ into ads on tv and newspapers and mailings and not nearly enough into competent service technicians or lines to handle the service calls they had to have known were going to come.

TWO FIENDS

In my house, two of us spend a lot of time online. We like to think that if we had faster service we might spend less time on line. I’m not at all sure that’s true, but, as Lady Brett says to Jake Barnes at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

So last fall, seduced by Bell-Atlantic’s barrage of newspaper, television and direct mail ads promising the infinite pleasures of instantaneous downloads, we ordered DSL service for each of our two telephone lines. A few weeks later, UPS delivered boxes with two modems and two sets of software. By that time, Bell-Atlantic had changed its name to Verizon, a symbol, other ads said, of their new level and breadth of service. Diane and I were both primed to get into high velocity bytework.

It never happened. The service on my line never worked properly. The service on Diane’s line never worked at all.

I’d call the Verison service number, be put on hold for 30 or 45 minutes, whereupon I’d get a guy who would make me go through a set of moves on my computer to determine if the problem were in my hardware or my software setup, or if there wasn’t any DSL signal on the line. After the first time, I’d say, “Look, you can hear DSL. It hisses. That’s why you give us the filters. There’s no hiss on Diane’s line.” They’d say, “We have to go through these steps.” We’d spend an hour going through the steps at the end of which they’d say, “Well, I guess there’s no DSL service on that line.”

They’d say they’d look into it. They never did. We’d hang up, I’d wait, they’d go on to other unsatisfied customers and they never called or emailed back. I’d call again, and again I’d be put on hold for 30 or 45 minutes and again I’d finally get a human being and I’d tell him there was no DSL signal on the line and again he’d walk me through the steps like I had Alzheimer’s. I’d say, “Look, I have a degree in Physics. I’ve written books on PC software. I’m telling you, there’s no DSL signal on this line.” But we had to go through the steps, every time, I guess because that was all that Verizon permitted him to do, and at the end he’d say, “Well, there’s no DSL service on that line.”

I can’t tell you how many times I refrained from saying, “No shit, you sorry programmed sonofabitch.” You say things like that to people and they get mad at you. I didn’t want to get them mad at me. What I wanted was the DSL service. So did Diane.

The last time they were trying to get Diane’s line to work the intermittent DSL service on my line disappeared completely. It never came back. I spent maybe 15 or 20 hours online with their ostensible technicians, each time going through the same routine on my computer, each time they concluded, “Well, I guess there’s no DSL service on that line.”

It was the Verizon equivalent of looking at a guy with no head and saying, “He’s probably not going to get up,” and them looking at you as if they’d told you something you hadn’t been able to figure out on your own. Like there’s a line in the manual that says, “Guys with no heads, they don’t get up.”

THE MODEMS THAT DIDN’T COME

One time, one of the techs (it was never the same guy; the way they’re set up, you can’t get back to the same guy unless you get a random hit) said, “Maybe your modems are bad. We’re sending you different modems.”

I said, “It’s not the modems. There’s no DSL service, no hiss. The lines are perfectly clean.”

He said, “Well, why don’t we try these other modems. It’s what we’re shipping to customers now, since you got yours. They’re better than what you got.”

I said, “Send me the modems.” I knew they wouldn’t fix the absent signal problem but I figured, why not have better modems? That thought, as my friends in the legal profession would perhaps put it, was mooted out. The modems never came.

I called, I emailed. Someone said , “Send back your modems, we’ll give you a refund.”

I sent back the modems. They sent a refund. We’d never had service, we were never billed for service, so that was it. So I thought. Foolish me. I didn’t know what a tenacious beast Verizon, the blood descendant of Ma Bell, turns out to be.

Enough of that. I prefer not to use human metaphors right now. Rather, I think of the vile creatures Sigourney Weaver’s character Ellen L. Ripley  dispatched in Alien and Aliens. With two differences. The first is, Ellen L. Ripley and those creatures were in movies and Verizon is real. The second is, Ellen L. Ripley killed the creatures and Verizon is impervious to any weapon known to you or me or Ellen L. Ripley.

ALMOST SAVED BY ADELPHIA

About that time, Adelphia Cable started its own huge campaign offering cable modem service. We got maybe five mailings in two or three weeks from Adelphia telling us how much better our life would be if we signed up for their cable modem service. That service, according to the mailings, was better in all regards than the service promised by Verizon, and it was totally reliable.

“Maybe that’s why Verizon pushed so hard to sign people up for service they weren’t ready to deliver,” Diane said. “Maybe they were trying to preempt what they knew was coming from Adelphia.” That made sense to me. Still does.

We live in a big old house, so cable modem service isn’t as useful to us as phone line service –  we have phone jacks all over the place, cable hookups only in a few places – but by this time I had a major jones for the highspeed service. So I called Adelphia and said “Hook us up.”

The guy took all our vital statistics and then, after we’d spent maybe 30 minutes pleasantly communicating with one another, he said, “Gosh, we don’t have cable service to your part of Buffalo. You keep calling and we’ll get to your area eventually, you betcha.”

“When?” I asked.

“No telling. They’re laying lines all over the place. No telling when they’ll get anywhere.”

“Next month? Next year?”

“You keep calling. We’ll get to your area eventually,” he said, cheerily.

“The ad said if you had cable service you could get the cable modem service.”

“Ah,” he said in that voice algebra teachers have for when you forgot to multiply everything inside the parenthesis by the number outside the parenthesis, “there was a line saying ‘check for availability in your area.’”

“How much of Buffalo doesn’t have service?”

“Pockets here and there. Can’t say how many. We’ve laying lines all the time.”

“And I’m in a pocket?”

“Just for now.”

SUCKER BAIT

In early April, Diane and I each received from Verizon personal invitations to sign up for their new improved DSL service. Everything had been tuned, fixed, updated, polished. Moreover, the card said, if we ordered online, we’d get a free video camera, a free modem,  and free first month’s service.

We figured, Why not give it a try, if it’s as bad as last time we’ll quit like last time, only sooner. Surely they’ve learned something in the intervening nine months, surely their previous venture into this market with inadequate facilities and incompetent staff and thousands of pissed-off customers had taught them something.

You are perhaps thinking we were like battered wives who convince themselves that he won’t do that again. Or people with cheating spouses who come home smelling like you know where they’ve been and they look at you and say, “Gee, honey, I just don’t know how that happened, it will never, never, never happen again because I love you and only you.”

If that’s what you thought, you were right. . We really believed Verizon wouldn’t have the chutzpah to scam us twice in one year.

Sock! Pow! You caught what?!!

I ordered the DSL service online on April 10. Later that day, Verizon sent me an email telling me I’d receive my free modem and video camera by the end of April and my service would go online May 2. The Verizon email gave me a profound confirmation number: 1223695-986920555051. That’s the biggest confirmation number anyone has ever given me for anything. That wasn’t all. The same Verizon email also gave me an activation code to use on May 2 when I logged on for the first time: DSLLTWS.

Clearly, they had it together this time. A nineteen-digit confirmation number, a seven-letter activation code: that’s serious business. They were ready to deliver.

What they were ready to deliver was, if you’ll forgive a second Yiddish word, bupkis. Denotatively, bupkis means “nothing,” and if that’s all I wanted to say I would have used the English word “nothing” and avoided this paragraph. Connotatively, bupkis means, “nothing and up yours as well.” Or “nothing and piss off.” Or “nothing and don’t bother me because I already cashed your check.” Or “nothing and I’m bigger than you are so what are you going to do about it?” I’d hoped for DSL, what I got was bupkis.

JOE HELLER, WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

Diane ordered her DSL service more than two weeks later, just a few days before the end of April. She got a nineteen-digit confirmation number and a seven-letter activation code too. The email said her service would begin May 21.

A box with her free modem and video camera, her instruction booklet and other goodies arrived three days later. I hadn’t gotten any hardware yet and we were only a few days from May 2, so I called the number on the confirmation of service email I’d received from Verizon to tell them of the shipping problem. This is where it gets really Byzantine.

The first guy asked for my telephone number. I gave it to him and asked if he wanted my 19-digit confirmation number. I had it right there: 1223695-986920555051. The phone number was all he needed, he said. He put me on hold and then, after a while, he came back and said I should be talking to someone else. He went silent. So did I. He stayed silent. So I said, “Can you transfer me to that person?” “All right,” he said, and did.

The problem, the second guy said, wasn’t with Verizon’s shipping department. The problem was with the service I hadn’t gotten last November. I asked why that was a problem now, at the end of April. Because they had never shut down November’s service, he said. But I’d never gotten the service, I said. That’s not what he meant by service, he said. What he meant by service was them setting my line up for service whether or not they actually provided the service.

I said that seemed an internal Verizon matter, that  I’d sent the modems for both lines back, I’d cancelled both at the same time, I’d received a refund for both modems. Surely his records showed that. Indeed, he said, he records did show that, but he couldn’t find a record of cancellation of the service. I asked how I could cancel service when there was no signal and we didn’t have the modems. He said he was trying to explain that to me.

I said I hadn’t ever seen any charges on my phone bill or credit cards for the service I hadn’t gotten. I asked if they had been billing me, if I’d missed it somehow. Oh no, he said, they wouldn’t have billed me for service that they hadn’t delivered and he even checked to make sure they hadn’t. They hadn’t, he said.

It wasn’t my service that I hadn’t gotten that hadn’t been cancelled, he said. My service that I hadn’t gotten didn’t need to be cancelled. What hadn’t been cancelled was Verizon’s internal instruction to itself to provide me such service. The service I hadn’t gotten. And because the internal Verizon order to provide that service I hadn’t gotten last November hadn’t been cancelled by Verizon, Verizon couldn’t set me up with DSL service now.

(I’m going to stop paraphrasing and start using quotation marks, but you should know that this is all from notes I made after the phone call. Verizon records all their calls, but most of the rest of us don’t. Most of the rest of us don’t think we’ll have any reason to tape our calls. Most of the rest of us don’t provide anyone the basis for articles like this one about calls like that one.)

I said, “Let me be sure I’ve got this right. I can’t get service now because I didn’t get service last November and Verizon screwed up in its records?”

“Not quite,” he said. “The reason you can’t get service now is because Verizon’s records don’t show cancellation.”

I asked, “How could the records show cancellation of service I never got?”

He made a noise, like I was an idiot.

I said, “How about all the email traffic, what about that?” He didn’t know about the email traffic, he said. “I can send it to you,” I said. In an instant, I called up the Verizon file in Netscape. “Give me an email address and I’ll forward it all to you.” He sighed. That wasn’t the point he said. The email traffic didn’t matter, he said. He didn’t want to see the email traffic.

“What about the nineteen-digit confirmation number?” I asked. He said the confirmation number didn’t mean anything either. I said, “What?

He put me on hold while he searched the records. After a while he came back and said he had found the order for the service I was trying to get. He said it had been placed about 45 minutes ago. “I didn’t place any order 45 minutes ago,” I said, “I placed my order almost a month ago.” He said his records showed I had placed my order 45 minutes ago. I said the only thing I did 45 minutes ago was begin this call trying to find out where my DSL signal and free modem and camera were.

He said, “That’s the only order I have a record of. Other than the one last fall.”

“This call isn’t an order,” I said, “it’s a complaint.”

“It’s logged in as an order.”

I said, “I’m looking at an email from your sales department date-stamped May 10. It’s got a nineteen-digit confirmation number. Your confirmation number. It says my service will start on May 3.”

“That,” he said, “doesn’t mean anything.”

“The date you promise in an email to commence service doesn’t mean anything?”

“No.”

“The nineteen-digit confirmation number doesn’t mean anything?”

“No.”

“Then why did you send it?”

“It confirms to you that you placed an order.”

“You sent me a nineteen-digit confirmation number to confirm to me that I placed an order?”

“Yes.”

“And that doesn’t commit you to anything?”

“No, of course not.”

He put me on hold again. After a while he came back and said he had it all figured out and could fix the problem. He was putting through that very day an order to cancel the service I’d never gotten last November. That would take two weeks to go into effect. Then, once that service I’d never gotten was cancelled, I could call up and order DSL service like anyone else. And about two weeks after I made that call, I’d get the service.

“How will I know when the service I never got is no longer in service?”

“I’ll give you the date it’s out of service.”

“And I have to wait a month for the service that was suppose to start May second?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I told you, it takes two weeks from when you place your order for the DSL service to be available.”

“What about the order I placed nearly a month ago?”

“That,” he said, “no longer exists.”

“Where did it go?”

“It didn’t go anywhere. It couldn’t happen because your service was open from last November. I told you that.”

“So why did you send me the confirmation number and activation code and specific date service would start?”

“That’s just the way we do it. It doesn’t mean anything, I told you that.”

“So why,” I said, “did Diane get to place an order for new service on her line and why did she get a box with her free camera and free modem when both of our previous service orders were cancelled at the same moment? Everything about my line was exactly the same as her line. The orders went in the same time, the modems went back the same time, our cancellations went in the same time.”

“Do you want to change her new DSL service?” he asked.

Did you ever have the feeling a bureaucrat was threatening you because you were asking too many questions? Nothing said overtly, just a hint that if you think things are bad now, just keep on being pushy and you’ll see how bad they can really get.

“No,” I said, “leave her DSL service alone. Let’s just stick with mine. When I placed the order in early April, Verizon promised me a free modem and video camera and free first month’s service. I still get that, right?”

“No,” he said, “you’re not eligible for the camera or the free first month’s service. You had to get your order in by the end of April for that special offer. You can’t even place your order until the middle of May.”

“I got my order in on April 10.”

“I’m talking about the order you’ll place after we turn off the service from last November.”

“The service I never got last November?”

“Yes.”

“So this is going to cost me a hundred bucks more than it should because you lost your own records?”

“No. Because you didn’t get your order in before the end of April.”

“What about the order I gave you April 10?”

“I told you. That doesn’t exist.”

MURDER

He was probably working from a script and I, surely, was not the first frustrated customer he’d had this conversation with. His total disinterest in trying to fix the problems was clear indication that he was saying what he’d been told to say to people calling with problems like these.

As the conversation went on, I heard the tone of my voice begin to change. It was really angry. I’ve studied bureaucracies a lot and I know that the worst thing you can do when you’re dealing with bureaucrats is let them see you get angry. Even when they’re not the people who screwed you, they get defensive anyway, so you’re not only trying to resolve a problem but you’re trying to placate an ego, and since that ego probably didn’t commit the blunder you’re trying to fix there’s no way that ego can or will take responsibility for it. So they just get frustrated, and then they get pissed off at you, and you all go home mad and nothing gets fixed. You’ve had this experience, so I needn’t say any more about it.

I said, “Look, I hear myself getting angry. Don’t take it personally. I’m not angry at you. I know you’re not responsible for this. It’s just what’s going on I’m getting angry at.”

He said he understood that. Then he said the same things all over again. All of it.

I realized that, as much as I was angry at Verizon for their duplicitous advertising, and as much as I was angry at myself for falling for it twice, I was really angry at this guy for talking to me in this bland bureaucratic voice and saying all this stuff he had to know (unless he was an outpatient from the Verizon Moron Detention Center) was utter bullshit.

In fact, I was hugely angry at him. I thought of the young film school professor in Mexico City who told the great director Luis Buñuel that he taught, “The semiology of the Clonic Image.” When he heard the professor say that, Buñuel wrote, “I could have murdered him on the spot.”

WHAT’S IN A NAME

Years and years ago, Esso – Standard Oil –  was having major image problems: they were seen as the classic manifestation of corporate greed and exploitation. The image was well-earned. The way they decided to deal with this was to change their name. Then people could say whatever they wanted to about that evil giant Standard Oil and maybe they’d say it too, since that wouldn’t be their name any more. They underwrote a very expensive study looking for a name with no connotations whatever, a name that didn’t mean anything to anybody. The name they came up with was Exxon. You’ve maybe wondered what that funny name is an acronym for? Now you know. Nothing, it means absolutely nothing. That’s the point.

Huge corporations have mergers all the time and hardly ever do they come up with a name that has no links to anything. Most of the time, they want to retain some of the goodwill or corporate image they spent so long creating. When the oldtime Buffalo Courier and the oldtime Buffalo Express merged, for example, they became The Buffalo Courier-Express. When the German Mercedes-Benz merged with the American Chrysler Corporation they became Mercedes-Chrysler.

When companies don’t want you to think about who or what they were, they go the Exxon route. A company that used to be called Bell Atlantic did exactly that: last year, they had a merger with another company and used that as the occasion to change their name to something completely new – Verizon, a name to which none of the old connotations would attach.

Verizon. Verizon. Say it a few times: Verizon, Verizon, Verizon. A mixture of verity and the horizon, maybe? Truth and vision. Where’s the Ma Bell in that? Where’s the Bell Atlantic in that?
 

TWO TIN CANS AND A PIECE OF STRING

Verizon, schmerizon: it’s the same old company, the same old stand, the same old scams, the same old contempt for the consumer when they’re confident we’ve got no alternative.

The comedian and social critic Lenny Bruce used to refer to the “one big telephone company. You don’t like them, whaddaya gonna do? Get two tin cans and a piece of string? They got you and they know it and so do you.”

That’s obviously the way Verizon feels about us. If you want DSL in this area, you go through Verizon. Even if you get it from another provider, those other providers deliver it to you through Verizon lines and Verizon gets a piece of the action.

Well, if you’re going to get DSL, maybe you should get it from another provider anyway, a provider where the service staff wants to help rather deflect you, where they don’t have contempt for you and your time. Maybe another provider will have enough clout with Verizon to get them to deliver the service they promise, when they promise.

A friend of mine just got his DSL through AOL.  It turns out that the cost of getting DSL service through his telephone line via AOL is cheaper than the combined cost of his AOL service and Verizon’s DSL service. I don’t much like AOL – it’s much clumsier than Netscape or Microsoft Outlook –  but you can bet a Buffalo nickle Verizon isn’t going to have any service technician feed an AOL executive the Catch-22 jabberwocky people like you and I get when we have problems with their service. And when you get your DSL through another provider, then Verizon isn’t getting to scarf up all the money for the service they’re parceling out.

Verizon will eventually have to get it right and Adelphia will fill those empty pockets, I’m sure. There’s so much money involved that eventually real competition will give them no choice. For now, it’s catch-as-catch-can. If you’re lucky, you’ll get DSL service that works or they’ll be honest and tell you they can’t deliver on their ads. If you’re unlucky, you’ll go through all these Verizon/Ma Bell Catch-22 conversations, you’ll waste hour upon hour, you’ll get angry, and anger may be all you’ll get.

DAYLIGHT

Which isn’t necessarily the worst thing.

All of this has gotten me thinking about something I should have thought last November, back before I set about increasing the rate at which bytes poured into my house. Maybe you and I shouldn’t be spending so much time surfing the web anyway. Maybe we should be very specific about going there only when we really need some information or need to buy a specific product. Maybe we shouldn’t lurk and linger and prowl quite as much as we do. Maybe we should go back to reading books, taking walks, going to movies, having lives. Do you remember what life was like before the web? Sure you do. Well, try. Come on, move away from the desk and try.

copyright 2001 Bruce Jackson
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