Sale of the 21st Century

Jim Rockford: This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you.
[Beep]
Computer Recording: Hi There! If you're interested in selling your product by a computerized telephone sale, stay on the line and one of our representatives will speak to you.

—The Rockford Files, "Forced Retirement" (12/9/77)

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This afternoon I got a telemarketing phone call from the good folks at HSBC, where I have a credit-card account. The perky young voice on the other end identified herself as Tina or whatever and asked how I'm doing today.

"Um…OK?" I responded, wondering what was up.

There was a little bit of a pause, and then she said, "So you're hanging in there, too?" She laughed briefly. Then she told me that the call might be recorded for quality purposes, and asked me to confirm what the computer had in its database as my name. For a second, it switched over and a recorded male voice spat out my name. It sounded just a little bit more natural than that voice emulation gizmo that Stephen Hawking uses to communicate, but it was correct, so I said "Yes." Tina asked me again, "Is that your name?" and I repeated yes. I figured she hadn't come back quickly enough to hear me the first time around, so I didn't think anything of it.

From this point, she launched into a pitch for one of those credit insurance programs that offers forgiveness on your credit card debt if you have a family emergency or whatever, and how the program costs only pennies on the dollar, and how if you have no balance then you pay absolutely nothing, so if it's all right with me then we can get me signed up in just a couple of minutes. I'm sure you've heard about it a million times before. However…

The thing that was weird about this particular pitch, however, was the background noise. Sometimes you talk to people in call centers and you hear murmuring of people in nearby cubicles. In this particular case, the background was white noise. But it wasn't just white noise. It was white noise that audibly changed in quality every few seconds, and between her sentences. Something wasn't quite right, here, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. So when Tina got to the end of the paragraph, I used my usual polite lie to brush her off: "No thanks, I already have an insurance policy that covers this." This isn't precisely true; I don't have a credit insurance policy but I do have life insurance and it's much more than enough to cover my debts.

Robot-cell-phone As if she didn't hear me (and she didn't), Tina moved into the next paragraph in the script, the one that the flow chart tells you to use when they say "no". At this point I was actively listening to the background rather than the pitch, so I couldn't tell you what she said, but I did note that the white noise would change in pitch and loudness between each of her sentences. It was pretty clear at this point that I was in a conversation with a recording. At the end of this paragraph I said "no" again and The Amazing Tina 3000 Unit now provided me with an 800 number if I should desire more information, then thanked me for my time and disconnected.

This is a bit of technology that you could have seen coming; after all, when you call Verizon it asks for your number and can interpret your voice; when it asks you to make a choice and you respond, it will reply after a pause, "Okay," and move into the next section. But it was always clear that you were talking to what was essentially a voicemail system. And if it could help you, then great and if it couldn't, there's usually a means to get to a human being. I'm not so sure that I'm comfortable with an automated system giving me the sales pitch for a product, especially one in which I wasn't especially interested in the first place. And I certainly don't need that system trying to be casual and chatty with me as a means of trying to fake me into thinking that it's not an automaton. This may be an audio version of the Uncanny Valley theory, but I'm not sure.

Have you ever dealt with something like this? How did you react?

Downhill From Here

Dave: I want you to look around. Here we have Lisa, who today very nearly gave up a career in journalism for a life in the fast food industry. Over here we have Beth, who dresses like a barmaid from “Blade Runner.” Mr. James, a millionaire who has spent the entire day eating food he knows for a fact to be spoiled. Joe, who has earned upwards of 11 dollars working as an amateur surveillance expert, albeit half of that is Monopoly money.


Newsradio, “Lucky Burger” (10/14/98)


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I can’t tell if this day has been disastrous or just plain bad. You be the judge:


My court date for the guy who stole stuff out of my garage was today. I checked the state’s website just to be sure I’m going to the right building and there’s a note that there’s parking adjacent to the building. Really!


So I get down there and nearly every space in the lot is Permit Only. There are three hundred and seventy-five thousand cars trying to get into 100 parking spaces. The nearby steers are no help, either, as they’re permit-only as well. Finally I decided to cut my losses and park in the Harford Heights Elementary/Middle lot. At worst, I can argue that I’m a BCPSS employee, so that counts, right?


Cross the street, up the hill and follow a sign that points me to the District Court. I go in through the doors and the person there asked me if I was there for Court. When I replied in the affirmative, she told me I was in the wrong entrance. “Out, around the side, down the stairs and in the front door.”


In the courtroom. I check in with the DA and have a seat. Thank god I have my Kindle with me because while some of the proceedings are interesting, most of them are not. The Kindle, incidentally, got some attention from a few of the lawyers walking around. Amazon may owe me a few bucks for the referral. It was two-and-a-half hours from that point before “State of Maryland v. Keith Joines” was called. I was a little nervous because I didn’t see him in the courtroom and I thought they were going to have to issue a bench warrant. Turns out that Keith Joines wasn’t in the courtroom because he was in the holding cell, in cuffs and ankle chains. I can’t say I feel very badly about that.


His attorney (the Public Defender, of course) noted that there were a few cases against him and that he wanted them all tried at once. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this tactic, but whatever. The State attorney offered a year in jail for a guilty plea, which was rejected. Then he offered eight months if Joines would be willing to reimburse me for my losses. This, apparently was also rejected. In short, for whatever reason this guy wants to go to a trial. My guess is, based on a Maryland Judiciary Case Search I did, looking up the name “Keith Joines”, this is someone who’s gotten good at gaming the system. He’s hoping for a verdict that ends with “time served” at worst. He’s also probably enjoying the idea of using up a lot of time and resources. (Why am I using this Keith Joines’ name a lot, you ask? It’s sort of a baby Googlewhack.)


Since I got out before noon, I decided to go back to work. There was a student I was interested in observing, so I headed down to that school to see what was going on. Apparently there’d been a bit of trouble with Mom’s reliability in getting him to the school for testing (he’s a preschool-age student), so plans were made with the mother’s caseworker and all of the assessors descended on the school at the same time. This poor kid is SO autistic that he reminds me of my days working in the nonpublic school on Long Island. He’s going to be tough to place but I’m confident that we’ll do well by him.


A while later I got home and noticed that the package from Kansas hadn’t arrived yet. I checked the UPS website and noticed that it passed THROUGH Baltimore early yesterday morning, then went to Philadelphia, where it was scanned at about 7:30 AM. So I gave UPS a call and asked them what was up. They said that they had one more scan just outside the Philadelphia area around 12:30 PM but that was all they knew. However, the package could still arrive anywhere between now (almost 7:00 PM) and midnight.


Just for the giggles I checked again to see if there was a new scan. Now there was a new notation with a 7:58 PM timestamp for today: THE PACKAGE WAS DAMAGED IN TRANSIT. UPS WILL NOTIFY THE SENDER WITH THE DETAILS / ALL MERCHANDISE DISCARDED. UPS WILL NOTIFY THE SENDER WITH DETAILS OF THE DAMAGE


And, of course, GF neither declared a value for the package nor did she insure it. Let me do that sentence again: GF, and her mother the postmaster, didn’t insure the package or declare a value for the 35 pounds of meat inside it, when they handed it over to UPS. GF’s excuse was that she didn’t pay full price for it so she didn’t know what to say. Hm. 35 lbs of beef times about $5 a pound makes for a rough value of $175. So the most we’re likely to recover at this point is the original shipping fee.


You know, a more cynical mind would suspect that the package was “damaged” in transit, and that the merchandise was discarded by throwing it on a Weber full of hot coals. But I’m a trusting soul.

Form Letter

Cashier: Yankee bean soup, coleslaw, and tuna surprise.


Blazing Saddles (1974)


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This one is kind of dumb, but I did promise to tell, so.


Right after the Bill Bateman’s thing went down I was on my way from one work location to another and I popped into a 7-Eleven store to pick up a beverage and sandwich. I’ve done this several times at several 7-Elevens across the city, but this particular time was at the store on East 25th Street, at Kirk Avenue. This, by the way, is one of my favorite 7-Eleven stores anywhere, if one can be said to have such a thing. I grabbed a tuna sandwich and poured myself a fountain beverage (2/3 Diet Coke, 1/3 regular to cut the saccharine flavor of the diet).


7eleven  I don’t know why, because who really knows these things, but I really like the tuna salad that you get at 7-Eleven stores. And up until recently, they put it on a cracked wheat bread that really did something extra to the whole sandwich. I’m not a complicated guy or anything, but this was a nice combination and it had what they call “good mouth feel” for me.


In the last few weeks, however, whoever’s been supplying the stores with the sandwiches isn’t using the same bread. Now they’re using something called “Fridgesoft Wheat”. OK, first off they totally made that name up, and second, it doesn’t even sound appetizing. As it happened, there was a toll-free phone number on the packaging, so I gave them a call.


The person I spoke to was very nice, but she was so programmed to deal with heavy-duty complaints that my initial compliment of the tuna salad itself whipped right by her; she didn’t even register it. It was when I got to the change in the bread that she decided she had something she could sink her teeth into. Heh. I made it clear that this wasn’t a dealbreaker, but if anyone’s taking notes on this sort of thing, I’d much prefer the old bread. Her language continued to assume that I was an irate customer who was threatening never to darken the doorways of their stores ever again. Her final move was to offer me coupons for some freebie beverages.


Today I received the coupons in the mail, along with a letter from someone named Janey Camacho which, once again, indicated that the she had no idea why she was sending me coupons, except that I’d had an “unpleasant shopping experience…at the 7-Eleven® store located at 729 EAST 25 STREET” and apologizing for any inconvenience this may have caused. There was also sincere regret for “any inconvenience or distress [I] may have experience [sic] at this location…”


Sigh. Way to pay attention, Ja-ney.


I actually feel bad for this store, since as I said above, I really like them. I also tried to make it clear that this was a city-wide situation, and the 25th St. location was simply the last place I’d been to. So I’m hoping that they, in particular, didn’t catch a lot of crap for it. I’ve actually considered writing back to Ms. Camacho and setting the record straight. But I get the feeling that this would lead to something out of a Monty Python sketch where she sends a second apology to apologize for the first letter, and so forth. So I’m not sure what I’ll do.


Other than enjoy a couple of freebie beverages, of course.

Last Impressions

Ainsley Hayes: I'll ask again: for what purpose was I brought here today?
Leo McGarry: So I could offer you a job.
Ainsley Hayes: I'm asking because I do not think that it is fair that I be expected to play the role of the mouse to the White House's cat in the game of… you know the game?
Leo McGarry: Cat and mouse?
Ainsley Hayes: Yes.

The West Wing, "In This White House" (10/25/00)

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All good things must come to an end, and so it was for my brother and my sister in law. The other night I went to the AirTran website and printed out their boarding passes. I also checked to see if their flight was running on time, which it was. So we got them packed into the car and off we went to Baltimore Washingtom International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

And what the hell kind of name is that for an airport? If my brother followed the sign from the beginning he'd be home by the time he got to the end of it. It must take gallons of paint just to touch up that sonofabitch.

ANYway.

We get to the airport and while we're waiting to check their bag, we notice the Departures board. And just like that, their 7:55 flight is delayed to 9:09. Well…at least they don't have to worry if the line slows down. But it's still only about 6:15. We get the bag checked and my brother decides that he's hungry, so we start looking around for a place to eat. This is easier than it used to be at BWITMA because they've FINALLY put in places on this side of the security checkpoint. We decided to stop in at the Bill Bateman's Bistro.

Our initial greeting wasn't the warmest, but I marked that down to the fact that this woman suddenly had three parties to seat at once. For all that, it wasn't especially busy in there.

By now, you probably realize that I don't write stories that begin with "We went to a restaurant" and end with "and it was delicious!" What you're waiting for is the next part, where something goes wrong and I wind up writing to the Customer Service department. So I'll let my email to them tell some of this. I used their "Online Comment Card" so they already have the date, time and location:

While waiting for a delayed flight, I stopped in with my brother and sister-in-law for something to eat. The waiter was friendly and efficient and we have no complaints there.

Shortly after we started eating, we noticed two gentlemen at a table nearby looking at something. It turned out that they were watching a mouse scampering around their immediate area. As we looked around, we realized that there were actually several mice running around the dining area where we were sitting. We counted at least five individual animals. We asked to speak to the manager and she was reportedly nowhere to be found. We told the waiter that we were leaving and would not be paying for our meal, although we did tip him for his efforts. He commented that he didn't really blame us, although his overall attitude appeared to be more as though he was resigned to the situation rather than surprised or upset by it. This, in effect, was my brother's last impression of the Baltimore area: a delayed flight and a rodent-infested restaurant.

It was actually a little worse than this. My brother got really upset and started swearing, telling the waiter that his appetite had been "frigged up" (yeah, I don't know either) and that "I'm not gonna eat this fuckin' shit. I'll give you [the waiter] some money, because you did your job. But I'm not paying for this shit." By "nowhere to be found" I meant that the manager, we soon learned, left the restaurant and nobody knew where she was headed. Back to my note:

I realize that airport restaurants don't necessarily depend on a lot of repeat customers (who, by definition, are transient) and therefore probably don't feel required to care about the people who pass through. However, this is a small, local chain which presumably still has relatively centralized control. Therefore, as someone who lives in the area, I'm inclined to generalize my experience to the other restaurants in the chain, and I'm going to have a very hard time returning, or recommending Bill Bateman's to anyone.

Yeah, I know I was baiting them there, a little bit. (Heh. See what I did there?)

I thank you for your attention and, while I'm not begging for an apology or a refund (as I said, we didn't pay for our partially-eaten meal), I would welcome your comments regarding this situation.

I read once that when you write a customer complaint, you should spell out specifically what you want out of your transaction. I didn't really want much other than acknowledgment by this point, especially since the waiter was so blasé and the manager was apparently on the run.

A couple of days later I got a letter from Lee Glowacki, the Area Manager for Bill Bateman's Bistro Corporate Restaurants, via US Mail. The letter was kind of long, so I'm going to cut a little and paraphrase a little.

They noted that the airport location is a franchise and that while they are not directly responsible for this location, "we will do everything possible to see that your concerns with them are handled appropriately." They stressed that all feedback is invaluable, and that "excellent service, outstanding food and drinks, in a clean comfortable restaurant, is what we strive for."

"We are disappointed," Lee wrote, "at our obvious lack of attention to your needs and for the staff giving you the impression we do not care." There was a promise to follow up with the Franchise Owners (capitalization his) concerning my experience. He then assured me that it was their "corporate policy, if there is ever a guest satisfaction issue that the manager on duty should be made aware of the problem, and whenever possible be corrected immediately. Obviously that did not happen with you." He closed the letter with an offer to bring it in to their Glen Burnie location for a $20 credit. 

So there was a pretty quick response to the problem, and while it wasn't something the restaurant could have handled immediately as such, that they made the offer despite my telling them that I didn't really want anything other than a response, goes a long way, for me. I don't know that I'm going to pop back into the BWITMA location just to see whether or not they've gotten rid of the rodents, but it was good to get the response, a promise of actual action AND a coupon that basically asks for another chance.

Next up: My call to 7-Eleven and More Coupons I Didn't Really Want.