Jean Barker

'Welcome to the family'

2014-11-14 09:48

Jean Barker

Newsflash: Customers get screwed over in the USA just like they do in South Africa.

Of course, there are always some unlikely exceptions. For instance, I get fantastic service at the post office, which is supposed to be the one place in the US with absolutely no service culture.

The other day, a USPS employee named Shayna even realised how late I was and had me leave the addressing and other hassle for her to take care, of so that I could make it to set on time.

But elsewhere? I am driven up-the-wall, out-of-my-mind mad.

It's almost impossible to get face to face customer service from a cell phone company or internet provider. You have to “chat” online, or you have to call them. Calling them is more effective. Once you get through, you face two obstacle courses.

The first obstacle course will take the form of a computerized voice system or an automated online chat. They can never understand a thing I'm saying, but it's really hard to get them to release you into the hands of real employees. AT&T has the most frustrating one of all.

First, they tell you they know your phone number. Then, you have to confirm it. Then, to get to speak to a real person, you say “Representative”, which they'll ignore the first time. Then you say it louder. Eventually, they reply: "Would you like to speak to an operator?” If you say "Operator", they correct you too. "Would you like to speak to a representative?" It's impossible to use the right word. I've tried.

Then you get through to a representative, or operator, or whatever. This will be poor schmuck in North Carolina or Alaska, who has to deal with the people who have already been driven insane with frustration by the voice-activated system. The first thing they do is... ask you for the information you already gave to the voice activated system.

When you speak to the RepresOperator, it's almost impossible to tell if they're real people. This is because they are working off a script. It's their job to stop you leaving the company, but they're forbidden to employ any kind of human intelligence in order to do so, probably in case they admit their company sucks and start weeping profusely, or lose their temper and threaten to come to the address you just gave them and kill you.

These chat folk or telephone operators are also, in many cases, required to refer to their monolithic, monopolistic corporation as being a "family". It's probably just like a family, in many ways... a really abusive family you have to pay to be part of and that lies to you at every opportunity and takes you for granted all the time.

It took me four months to get internet set up at my new apartment, once I was dumb enough to pay for it. That's a lot longer than you'd expect for what, in California, is practically considered a basic service.

Now I said there were exceptions, and there are. Well, actually, there's one exception. If you are a new customer, or one they haven't had yet, everything is just peachy.

Companies in America behave like the stereotype of the male lover. They're perfect in the beginning. They treat you so, so well. Then you sleep with them and move in with them, and they start to take you for granted, like you're furniture or well... family. They play games and ignore your basic needs. They offer huge benefits and gifts to newcomers. They make you pay for stuff they're giving away to new signups.  

Then, when you finally lose it, spend three days crying and kick their ass to the curb because they started getting sloppy, guess what they do? They send you letter, after letter, after letter, begging you to come back and practically offering to pay you to let them try again.

In the meantime, you've started the whole sad cycle over again with a new company who, once they have you somewhat in debt to them, will immediately start screwing you over and selling your information to the highest bidder so that some stranger can call you at 8am on a Sunday to try to flog you a credit card or funeral cover.

If that sounds familiar to you, and you live in South Africa, just know that capitalism is pretty much the same, wherever you go. Welcome to the family, suckers.

- Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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