The 4th of July weekend was just a day away. Life seemed to be wonderful, and the sun was shining brightly. But fate had darker plans.
On Thursday afternoon I attempted to check my voice-mail, and dialed the numbers. The cell-phone display flickered momentarily, and died in front of my very eyes. I panicked for a moment, regained my composure, and powered up the cell-phone again. It burst into life, and relieved, I tried to check my voice-mail once again. I dialed two more numbers, and the inevitable happened. It died again. The consequences were clear.
My phone had gone bust.
There was nothing else to do but walk down to the Cingular Wireless store. I walked up, and patiently explained my problem.
The store-attendant patiently listened to me, and then pulled out my records.
”We can’t give you a replacement sir. Even though your phone is under the 1-year warranty, you are an AT&T wireless customer. So, you’ll have to call technical support and ask them to send you a replacement. We can only replace your phone here if you were originally a Cingular customer.”
I stared incongruously. Just months ago, Cingular proudly announced to the world that it had bought over AT&T wireless. We former AT&T customers received poetic cards talking about a seamless merger, and complete protection and continuation of former AT&T plans under Cingular, with superb Cingular “customer service”. I pointed out this fact to the employee, but he shrugged his shoulders and said sorry.
I accepted my fate, took the support number, and went home.
The next morning, I woke up my friend next door, and borrowed his phone to call “technical support/warranty services”. After going through a bunch of “press * now” options, I finally spoke to a human being.
I was asked my name, my social security number, my mom’s maiden name, my date of birth, my pet goldfish’s nickname, the name of the first Sith Lord, and finally, after about 15 minutes, she asked me what my problem was.
I explained my woes in excruciating detail.
The sympathetic attendant finally understood all.
”So, your phone won’t start up?”
“No, no, it starts up fine, but every time I dial a number, it shuts down”
”OK, is there any thing broken in the phone? Shake the phone and tell me if you hear a noise.”
I shook the phone like I’d never shaken before. No noise.
After more of this, I was told to open the phone, and read out every one of the 30 odd numbers that were written on the back.
Finally, she said, “we’ll send you a replacement in 2 working days”, and then said I had to listen to some important information before I hung up.
I was directed to the automated voice system, and waited, listening to it sing Cingular’s virtues for 5 minutes. I imagined the important stuff would come in the end. It said thank you and hung up, and I was left waiting.
I spent the 4th of July weekend without a phone.
Finally, the phone arrived on Tuesday. I opened the box in eager anticipation, like a kid opens a birthday present. I found only the phone (sans battery inside). So, I stuck in my old battery into the phone, and power it up. Nothing happened.
I tried again. Nothing happened.
In sheer frustration, my wife and I walked down to the Cingular store once again. I repeated my woes. The attendant looked at the replacement phone, and said ”I’m sorry, but it’s a defective piece. You need to call Cingular for a replacement. Thanks for stopping by.”
Next morning, I was at it again, calling customer service (at least my wife’s cell-phone was working). Again, I finally reached some call center (this one was not in India, they couldn’t pronounce my common Indian last name). Repeat performance, but this time in that list of questions I was asked to name the world’s largest parrot (ha! It’s the Kakapo! So there!).
In exasperation, I told them that their replacement phone was busted, and what was more, it clearly wasn’t a new piece. So, the person (who took 5 minutes to understand this simple fact) apologized and promised to send me yet another replacement.
Two days later, the replacement for the replacement arrived. It appeared to work, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Two days later, there was a flicker on the screen, and it died.
Curse them all!
I made my third phone call to Cingular, went through the merry-go-round process yet again, and this time I was promised a new phone (What were they sending me the previous two times? Granny’s antiques?). Not only did I have to put up with this, but I also had to put up with listening to that last 5 minutes of “important” automated messages THREE TIMES.
In anger, I wanted to call customer service and complain. I called, and after negotiating four automated options, I gave up. It was my destiny.
Finally, the replacement for the replacement that was a replacement for a replacement arrived. I said Hanuman Chalisa and powered it up. It worked! I did the Maori war dance, and made a successful phone call! I was actually grateful that Cingular had done what they were supposed to do.
Michael Higgins had a post in praise of competition, where he had the option of changing a provider because of bad service. But cell-phone services are a classic example of a choice between a devil or a deep blue sea. Given the scale of investments involved, the only viable cell phone service options are the large area providers. There are three, all of them equally fat and lazy. Once you sign a contract with them, you cannot change your provider, because they charge you for it. They are under no real obligation to provide good service. The next best other option is another company that’s nearly as bad.
Competition is a very good thing, but what if the system prevents it in a real sense? And how can a large company avoid a “top-down” approach? Greater questions, but methinks these are all the same problems large top-down governments have.