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What Big Comm is communicating: Give us your dough, get lost

January 1, 2006 12:50 am

AS UNLIKELY as it seems, we have an occasional communication breakdown here in the newsroom. When that happens, someone will always say, sarcastically, "Communication is our business."

But there is nothing funny when a major communications technology corporation offers a service to millions of potential customers, but then is unable to communicate intelligently with them.

Our world is awash in communications technology and people are drawn to it like kids to candy. But the AOLs and Verizons of the world seem to view customers more as wallets than as people who are counting on the new technology to actually work.

I bet that one day we'll be able to have a computer chip implanted in our brains that will let us send messages telepathically. For example, do you know what I think when that Verizon guy asks, "Can you hear me now?" See? It works even without the chip.

Verizon, a telecommunications giant, is the perfect example of a company that spends millions to advertise but fails to recognize its most basic customer service shortcomings. You might think that it would strive to communicate clearly with the customers it is trying to attract, but you would be wrong.

Today we are not talking about Verizon, the phone company, but rather Verizon, the DSL Internet provider, of which I recently became a home-subscriber.

On a scale that ranges from people who don't know a computer chip from a chocolate chip, to those who could take a computer apart and reassemble it with their teeth, I am somewhere in the middle. Software doesn't scare me. Internal hardware does. I've done my share of downloading, but if I've ever uploaded anything I didn't know it, I swear.

I have been in denial for years about dial-up Internet service. I figured it should be as routine as making a phone call, and that the technology would improve over time. What an absurd notion that turned out to be.

DSL? No problem. Ha!

I admit it: I am an AOL subscriber and have been for seven years. Lately, AOL dial-up service has gone from generally lousy to always terrible, as if the company were sabotaging it to "encourage" me to upgrade to high-speed service. If that's the case, it worked. On one particularly awful AOL evening, I succumbed to the obnoxious pop-up ads for AOL's Verizon DSL deal--DSL for the same price as dial-up. There would be a do-it-yourself installation package to deal with, and I was leery about the required "commitment," which is common cell-phone jargon but new to me with Internet service.

Anyway, I figured that only a hapless idiot would have trouble with this. So I signed up online that night after other phone and computer usage had ceased for the night. In other words, everyone else was asleep. Verizon would ship me the equipment I needed, and would let me know when my phone line had been configured for DSL service.

I woke up the next morning thinking, wait a minute, there was all this hype about being on the phone and online at the same time, but I was never asked about using a second computer online at the same time. If you could do that, why wouldn't they pitch that feature, too? Suddenly I feared that before this was done, I would feel like a hapless idiot.

I decided I would try to reach an actual person first thing that morning. (Early morning is the best time to get through.) That person was able to call up my order and inform me that if I wanted to use another computer, I would need a router, which wasn't included in my original online order.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think there are homes in addition to my own that have more than one computer. Why AOL/Verizon didn't consider this issue for their online sign-up customers is one of life's unanswered questions.

Nevertheless, the customer service person assured me I would receive the right equipment.

Problem solved? Not so fast. Just a day later the package arrived. That was quick. Too quick. There was a modem, but no evidence of a router. Maybe it would arrive separately. A week passed. No router.

I decided to call. After pressing 10 buttons in attempting to reach a human, I was told the lines were full; call back later. Good-bye.

This is not good PR, I thought.

After repeating that scenario at different times over the next couple of days, and experiencing the same result, I became certain that this was not good PR.

A flier for Verizon DSL came in the mail with a new phone number on it. I tried it and finally got through. And I was told that I had indeed received the wrong equipment. I needed a different type of modem from the one I was sent.

Fine, but what about the router? The router is the different type of modem, said the representative, in a tone that suggested she felt she was talking to a hapless idiot. How was I supposed to know that? Also, she would send a UPS label for the return of the original modem. If I didn't return it in 30 days I'd have to pay a $100 equipment fee or they would haul me off to Verizon jail.

The big day

Finally, I-Day (Installation Day) arrived. I had the right equipment, and my phone line was ready. I shoved the installation disc into the computer and followed the required steps.

Ha, I thought, you'd have to be a hapless idiot to mess this up.

Then it happened: A message appeared stating that my computer would need a network interface card before installation could proceed. A what? This is a nearly new computer, and it can't accept DSL?

As a last resort, I looked at the instruction booklet. On page 9 in print I couldn't read without my glasses and a magnifying glass, I discovered that PCs would need the NIC, but Macs do not.

This is a time when one wishes he had taken an anger management program so he could take the textbook and throw it through the computer monitor. Why was there no heads-up about this? I'm pretty sure there are many other people with PCs, just as there are many people with more than one computer at home.

Since I could still dial up, I searched for NICs and found $6 ones and $2,000 ones and a lot of gibberish about what they do. It appeared to be an internal part requiring installation. I was ready to write off DSL.

It was after midnight, but I decided to call Verizon anyway, anticipating the guilt I usually feel only after I have berated someone on the phone for making me feel like a hapless idiot.

I remained calm as I explained the situation. The guy said well, if you already have an Ethernet connection on the back of your computer, you don't need the NIC. Sure enough, there is an Ethernet plug back there; the software and instruction book lied. So he says all I need to do is to plug in (you hapless idiot) and you're good to go.

In an instant I was online with DSL, but aggravation has yet to subside.

It's not surprising that people think large corporations are clueless about customer service. Verizon's DSL advertising promises Internet nirvana, but it's inability to handle two incredibly obvious issues that many, if not most, customers will face sentenced me to a month in installation hell.

Turns out my wife's older PC doesn't have the Ethernet connection and will need an NIC before I can hook her into DSL. Got that? Ought to be simple enough, but it's just another chance for Verizon to make me feel like a hapless idiot.

Hey, Verizon, can you hear me now? Good.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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