Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I recently switched my DSL service and ran into something that’s become maddeningly common these days. At every step of the way they got it wrong. When I told them I wanted a standard modem, not a wireless, they sent me a wireless.

On the date my service was to begin, I received an automated phone call telling me the service would start on that day no later than 6 P.M. When I tried to set it up at 7, nothing worked. Thinking I had made a mistake, an hour-and-a-half was lost while I redid everything about three times to make sure it was right.

Then I called their tech support and spoke with a fellow who—judging from his accent—was from some exotic land far away. Now, normally I would enjoy the opportunity to chat with a person from a distant culture, but in this case I would have preferred to talk with someone who actually understood what I was saying and who had the power to correct my problem.

After going on and off hold several times while he checked various things, the best he could tell me was that my service hadn’t been activated yet. When I told him of the automated call that said otherwise, he again put me on hold while he talked with his supervisor. After about ten minutes, he came back on the line and said that the date and times given were estimates, not actual commitments.

There was nothing in the message about estimates. They said it would be activated on that date.

I tried again the next day and it still didn’t work. Another call to Bangalore (or wherever) yielded nothing except that they now thought my service had indeed been activated and that the problem must be on my end. They said they would set me up for an appointment with a technician, who could probably get here within a couple days. Problem was, I had to go out of town for a few nights, so they told me I’d have to wait until I got back to make the appointment and then wait one or two days after that.

I returned home four days later but had to leave town again after a couple hours. Imagine my delight upon discovering that my internet service was finally working! I completed the online setup and everything was running smoothly. I left on my trip satisfied that I was good to go.

When I returned two days later, it was off again! Another call to Bangalore (and the obligatory journey through an endless maze of recordings and responses before one can speak with an actual human), and they tell me that I’ll have to have a technician come out to my apartment. I told him that it had worked fine a couple days before, and that nothing had been changed on my end, but he was adamant: A technician visit was the required next step.

“He’ll be there between 8 A.M. and 7 P.M. tomorrow” he told me.


Luckily, the tech arrived at 9 A.M. (Good fortune at last!!!) When I told him that it had worked fine a few days ago, he said that the problem was likely in my neighborhood phone company office.

“We always have problems with that station,” he told me. “Usually we can get a problem fixed while we’re talking with them on the phone. But in the area covered by that office, it can take the better part of a week. It’s a real mess down there. Half the time when they connect somebody new, they accidentally disconnect someone else. They can’t help it, though. They’re terribly understaffed and overworked these days.”

Just to be sure, he checked every part of my connection, starting from the back of the computer, testing the wiring running through my apartment and out to the box where the main line comes in. He even climbed the pole in my neighbor’s back yard. Everything checked out fine. The problem was definitely at the local office.

To make matters worse, it was now Friday—and they don’t work weekends—so if it wasn’t fixed that day, I’d have to wait until at least Monday before I could again be connected to the internet.

Well, it is now Tuesday and I’ve been disconnected for twelve days. And there’s no one I can talk with who has the authority to get it straightened out. All I get, after about an hour of answering recorded questions and waiting on hold, are heartfelt apologies from my Old Buddies in Bangalore.

(I imagine that, after all of my calls there, mine is now a household name throughout the Venerable Old City of Bangalore. Because of all the business I’ve generated for them, and the many genial hours we’ve spent conversing, I hear they’re planning to name a bridge after me…and that my name is to be misspelled.)

Now, I’m sure that everyone reading this has similar tales of horror to relate about their dealings with vast, faceless corporations. It seems to happen to us at the rate of about once a week in some form or other. And it always seems that, the bigger the company, the harder it is to get a problem resolved.

The point of this isn’t to rant about the frustrations of modern life (such a tirade would be truly endless), but to try to understand why—as the title asks—can’t we get any help anymore?

A large part of the reason for all this can be found in the way in which the heads of major corporations get their money. We’ve all heard the reports of outrageous levels of executive compensation, running into the tens—and sometimes hundreds—of millions of dollars. What most people don’t know is the mechanism by which the cash is funneled to them.

Their most extravagant windfalls don’t come from salaries or bonuses, but from stock options. Without going into the particulars of how they work, the key is that the options given to these Big Shots are worthless unless the price of the corporation’s stock rises. They are awarded the options when they assume their positions on the Board of Directors, and the more they can make the value of their stock go up, the more money they’ll make when they cash in their options later.

If the stock price stays the same or goes down during their time on the Board, the options are worthless and the poor, hapless boobs must somehow squeak by on their salaries and bonuses (in other words, mere millions instead of tens of millions).

Now, on the surface, this seems like a good idea. Stock options offer a strong incentive for executives to make their corporations as profitable as possible, because when profits go up (relative to their competitors) the stock price tends to rise and their options become worth a bundle.

Along with that, the theory goes, stockholders will prosper and, because of enhanced buying power and economies of scale, service to customers will improve and prices will be kept as low as possible. Everybody’s happy.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. In order for the options to fetch the many millions of dollars necessary for our poor, benighted executives to avoid having to give up one of their Lear Jets, stock prices have to rise as high as possible, but only until the executive cashes in the options. Once that happens, there is no incentive, none, to ensure the corporation’s prosperity after that time.

If an executive has a choice between prudent policies which would generate stable, long-term profit growth, and reckless policies (like, ahem, a flagrant disregard for customer satisfaction) which might cause faster growth, the incentive—in the form of tens of millions of dollars—is too strong for him to resist the second option, even if it jeopardizes the corporation’s long-term prosperity. It doesn’t really matter to them once they’ve cashed in their stock options.

Also, key to a rise in stock prices is how quickly profits grow from year to year. Problem is, corporations do most of their fastest growth in the years when they are small- to middle-sized enterprises. By the time they reach the size of the giants of the telecommunications industry, for example, their rate of growth has slowed considerably. Most people have telephones and cell phones already, so there aren’t too many new customers out there.

So how do you maximize profit growth when you’ve long ago done the lion’s share of your growing? By cutting costs. That means cutting (or limiting the growth of) workers’ pay and benefits. It means reducing staff so that three people have to do the work formerly done by five. It means replacing all of your telephone operators with cheap, automated systems. It means outsourcing all the service and contact personnel to far-flung regions ‘round the world where wages are low.

As I said, they don’t give a damn if their actions annoy the hell out of their customers and hurt the corporation in the long run, so long as they can rig things to generate a bundle (an obscene bundle) in the short run.

(And they can rest easy in the knowledge that, given their enormous size and resources, they can use their political clout to thwart any meaningful regulatory control.)

And anyway, who else ya gonna deal with? They’ve long ago driven out all the responsible (and irresponsible) small businesses, so they can pretty damned well do what they please and we have to put up with it. They know we have no choice but to accept their arrogance and negligence.

True, we could switch to one of their competitors—although their numbers are few and rapidly dwindling. But since they are all equally vast, arrogant and impenetrable, that ain’t no choice at all.

So the next time you’re frustrated with some incompetent bureaucracy like I was, don’t take it out on the poor chaps in Bangalore. They’re just regular folks like us, struggling valiantly to stay afloat in a world economy whose floodwaters are threatening to drown us all.

Instead, let’s raise a little hell where it belongs: with the Big Shots who are living high on the hog by causing it.

If you’re one of their servants, drivers, a waiter at one of their favorite restaurants, or anyone who works in the industries providing luxury and convenience for our Corporate Barons, be sure to louse up EVERYTHING you do for them. Spill their drinks, disconnect their calls, drive the golf cart over their favorite putter, pretend you don’t understand when you really do. Not enough to lose your job, mind you. Just an ‘honest mistake’ as often as is safely possible. Make yourself as utterly incompetent with them as their corporations are with us.

We need to remember that everything they have and do depends on little schmucks like us, so we have more power to annoy and delay them—far more—than they have over us. Maybe if their lobster is undercooked and their wine not properly chilled one time too many, we can get better treatment.

I mean, they’re sunning themselves on their yachts and hurtling themselves aloft in their private jets while we sit on the phone, hour after hour, waiting, and waiting, and waiting…..