Friday, November 28, 2008

AT&T: Talking to the Voice-Lady

I called AT&T a while ago to learn how to buy one of their “Go-Phones.” I found the 800 number and placed a call. Human beings no longer answer your call to AT&T. A recorded female voice answers and greets you as if it were a human. It asks you to respond by talking to “her,” speaking words into your phone from her fixed list of questions. The voice recognition routine becomes tedious and irritating real quickly and the voice lady’s options of words to say had nothing to do with Go-Phones.

Trapped by inflexible computer software talking to me like I was a three-year-old, I began to reply speaking like a hair-lipped Italian. More fun than just getting mad. The voice-lady had no sense of humor. With an insistent tone, she replied "I'm sorry, I didn't get that," and she repeated the fill-in-the-voice-blank question. Amazed at the absurdity of talking to a computer hard drive, I replied in cartoon character voices, even urban street gang black mangled English until finally, in a slightly scolding tone, the voice-lady said, "Please hold and I will connect you with an AT&T Agent." Finally a human!

But eventually being connected to a live AT&T agent, opens up a whole new set of problems. The real person did not have the Go-Phone information and asked me to hold so they could “connect me, with that department." Guess what? I got connected to the voice-lady again. It is the voice-lady or no sale.

So, customer service is now the voice-lady on a hard drive somewhere in a large computer cabinet. AT&T must assume that America will willingly turn themselves into manipulated robots happily dealing with this maddening, frustrating and totally un-customer- friendly waste of time.

I finally managed to escape the voice-lady by doing something I had read about on the internet, repeatedly pressing #0#0#0#0. This got me to another real human and he eventually actually helped me place my Go-Phone order. But it required a sneaky back door trick to bypass the voice-lady. The phone arrived promptly but the charger plug did not fit into the phone. I forced my way past the voice-lady once more, and eventually got a human who directed me to a local AT&T store nearby where I could get a phone that worked. "No problem, sir, just go out there and they will make an in-kind exchange."

The Go-Phone store, formerly Cingular, was located in a large shopping center. It was set up like a circular airline ticket counter with uniformed clerks positioned in little spaces around it like orange suited carousel horses. Customers are made to stop at a pedestal just inside the front door and sign in, noting the time you got there. Then you wait in line for one of the carousel horses to become free.

I finally got to the counter, told the fellow that I was here for an "in-kind exchange." He had no idea what I was talking about. I explained that I had been told to come here to exchange the phone for one that would properly charge. I demonstrated how the little flat rectangular plug just wallowed around in the phone charger receptacle. He fiddled around and eventually found the proper charger for my phone. I asked him if that would fix the problem, because I thought I was supposed to exchange the whole telephone in its original packaging. "Yeah, this should work. We don't carry that model phone, and we don't do exchanges. We just sell and activate new phones."

It was like an orange-hued Twilight Zone. No two people seem to have the same information. Then I then noticed that all the sales agents were using their speaker phones to talk to the AT&T voice-lady! I was astounded. I asked if they didn't have direct lines, and was told in a resignedly tired manner that no, they have to use the same 1-800 numbers all customers have to use. I could only imagine how much money AT&T was saving by forcing their counter clerks to talk to the voice-lady all day like robots, while making customers take a number and wait.

Americans are already being trained to "Press 1 for English." Now, to do business or get help we must repeat words to a soulless, humorless recording. Fad-driven cell phone users already easily accept paying two bucks for a rude and raucous 'ringtone,' and are oblivious to the monthly bill for mindlessly chatting, texting and doinking around on the internet squinting at the tiny little screen. Just put it on the credit card. If this steadily growing monthly financial obligation doesn't bother them, talking to voice-lady eventually might seem normal. But it will never seem normal to a huge number of us out here who know better, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be called customer service.

Ed. Update Note:
(This saga went on with two personal calls from the AT&T Executive offices after I sent a copy of the post above to them. Neither caller from Hqs. had any idea why they were calling me. Sad and funny. Links to those follow up posts below if you want to see how genuinely nutty this whole customer service thing got.)

Follow-up on AT&T and the Voice Lady

Follow-up on the Follow-up above

revised update from original May 08 post

Monday, November 17, 2008

Palin: Call of the Moose!

Sarah is making the most of what's left of her remaining moments in the spotlight. The previously unknown state governor is using her hockey mom hoopla VP candidate exposure to seemingly promote tourism in Alaska. Or is tourism all her huge direct mail campaign is about? My first thought was, "Why would Sarah Palin be sending an invite down here to the balmy South Mississippi gulf coast inviting me to Alaska less than two weeks after the election?" As I write this it is 12 degrees F. in Wasilla and will be 9 degrees tonight and winter is just getting underway up there. It is in the upper 60's here and locals out on our golf courses are talking about how chilly it is.
The nice off white envelope with the Official State Seal comes directly from the "Office of the Governor of Alaska," not from the Alaska Division of Tourism. Searching for the Alaska Division of Tourism's web sent me to the Alaska Travel Industry Association's website which has Sarah's photo and her welcome. Sarah tells us that, Alaska is different from every other destination in the world. Sure is, Sarah. And every other destination in the world is different from every other destination in the world. Duh.

Inside the envelope from the Gov's office is a tear-off return postage paid card for a FREE travel guide. Unforgettable Alaska memories include a dog sled ride and a mother moose and her calf. Personally, I have all the memories of a moose mom I will ever need. On the back of the mail-in card are, Questions to help you plan your Alaska vacation, and include, Do you have children at home? Highest level of education attained? and What is your age? While these questions may somehow help find you that perfect igloo with a nice view of Russia, such information, along with your email address and telephone number, would be awful handy to have to cross-check against voter rolls.

Again, why is Sarah Palin mass mailing my neighborhood in the deep South? At this point I started to wonder if these invites only went to Red States? Curiouser and curiouser is the fact that the return card with all your info on it is not sent to the Alaska Division of Tourism in Anchorage, but to "ALASKA, Vacation Information Distribution Center, Portland Oregon, 97208-9807. Portland, Oregon? Sarah seems to have outsourced Joe the Junketplanner's job to the lower 48. But the ad copy on all the direct mail pieces was clearly written in Alaska, probably by Governor Sarah, or perhaps her husband? The tear apart card, below has more deathless copy offering a "virtual guarantee" you will get a travel guide before they are all snapped up:

I rushed to scan the envelope, card and letter for this article so I could get the card off for my FREE official Alaska travel guide because Sara's note tells me that Previous editions have disappeared quickly. I bet they haven't disappeared, Sarah, they are probably still all down in Portland, Oregon. But I am dying to get my copy because Sarah tells me that it is a really dandy thing to have, and starts off her letter to me:

"Dear Neighbor, (Neighbor?)
As Governor of Alaska, I am pleased to tell you about a very special offer:
now you can receive an official Alaska travel guide-absolutely FREE. This isn't some skimpy brochure-this is a full-color publication, as bold and exciting as Alaska."

That sold me, because I hate skimpy. The letter continues with its pitch and invites me to Just Imagine: Watchable wildlife, (as opposed to unwatchable wildlife, I guess) Clamming, Eskimo blanket toss, and lots more really neat stuff. But her pitch really stretches my imagination asking me, To learn about our comfortable weather. Nothing like clamming in comfortable weather, Sarah. I might come up if could take that tour of the world famous Alaskan "Nowhere" but I understand the bridge is still out.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

GOP: Whoops! There Goes the Firewall

This is an update to an earlier article on Senator Orrin Hatch's frenetic September internet email plea for $7.00 donations to “defend the firewall!” Just two months ago, the Vice Chairman of the angst-ridden GOP Senators' Club was mainly concerned that Al Franken would beat Norm Coleman in Minnesota. Now, Franken and Coleman are barely a couple hundred votes apart. A Statewide vote recount gets underway there shortly. Franken could win. Poor Senator Hatch is still digesting the cold, hard post-Nov. 4th election results which saw him lose a half dozen of his fellow Senators in a massive firewall breach. What's a Senior Senator to do?

In September Sen. Hatch warned, “Al Franken is the poster-boy for the liberals' plan to break our firewall in the Senate and to seize total control of our government. Frankly, Al Franken is unfit for office." Damn, imagine, Al Franken unfit and a poster boy to boot! Al graduated cum laude from Harvard College, is a highly successful author, and a little of his SNL humor in the Senate chambers might be a good idea. Orrin should read Frankin's, 1993 book, "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me."

Since the early panicked pleas for money, here’s the firewall’s status: Six GOP senators have lost their places on the wall, falling off just like a bunch of Humpty Dumpties including a long-time Dumptyette, Liddy Dole. Three more GOP seats teeter precariously. Democrats now have 57 Senate seats. Three more wins for a true firewall-smashing majority of 60 votes is very possible.

They are still counting in Alaska in legendary incumbent and convicted felon, Senator Ted Steven's race. At this writing with some 35,000 ballots left to count, Democratic challenger and Anchorage Mayor, Mark Begich, has the lead. Again, Al Franken has a good shot in Minnesota as the recount gets underway there.

And three's a charm in Georgia. A December 2nd runoff is scheduled there between GOP incumbent, political hack Saxby Chambliss, and Democratic challenger, Jim Martin, an Atlanta attorney. In 2004, then Georgia Senator, Max Cleland, a triple amputee who was awarded the Silver Star for exceptional bravery in Vietnam was targeted by Chambliss and the GOP slimemeisters in a filthy Rove-style campaign of lies and denigration. The ever lovely Ann Coulter was Chambliss' cheer leader savaging Cleland with her vapid vitrol. And the Senate Republicans are only worried about firewalls?

Looks like you should have asked for more than $7.00, Senator Hatch. More than money, your private senator's club needed a dose of humility and a reality check. And that is just what you have just gotten. You might have also considered that your firewall was already being attacked from the inside by the excess weight of Senatorial hubris, greed, negativity and a massive overgrowth of moss in your midst.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Post Election Tidbits

Every reporter or writer has story ideas and scrawled words left in their notebooks after extended major news events. The daily news focus is ever changing. Wars, global warming, killer hurricanes, and of course, politicians and political campaigns. A presidential campaign produces a mother lode of ideas. One learns to keep a pad and pen handy. It is not possible to use each idea you jot down as a central theme for an article. But it always seems a shame to let them just fade away because the hot theme du jour has changed from wayward politicians caught flagrante delicto, to deadly earthquakes in California. So, here are some of my recent sketchy notes plumped out into mini-articles. We are in a recession, so best to use everything in the pantry.

America's veterinarians are reportedly getting an income boost since the campaign is over. Sarah Palin cost them untold dollars in potential exam and treatment fees because, as one Vet observed, "Damn, that woman has a voice that would worm a dog at thirty yards!" And sure enough, soon as her nasal twang quit filling America's living rooms, dogs again started dragging their butts across those same living room floors about a week after she packed up her designer duds and returned to Alaska. The dogs are reportedly lots happier having the vet worm them than the moose mom.

Continuing the pet theme . . . Billions of American taxpayer's dollars have been shelled out to "rescue" huge Wall Street firms because of lax Federal oversight allowing greedy management to royally screw up. But there is no such thing as a Chagrined CEO. Soon as the cash was deposited in their depleted tills what did do they do? Go into the conference rooms of their posh high rise office digs and start planning how to get a grip and tighten things up? Oh, no. The almost-on-the-rocks mortgage and insurance moguls booked thousand dollar a night rooms at distant posh resorts and flew the whole management staffs there from Wall Street . . . first class. Poolside penitence. Between spa treatments, lobster niblets and lots of Dom Perignon they discussed how to best spend all the new money we just gave them. A TV news investigative team followed and caught them red-handed. That night America saw the AIG hotshots poolside, sipping drinks with little umbrellas in them. Outrage! Fire them all! (this call for their heads lasted for two, maybe three days) Then, only a few weeks later, the Fed gives them another 80 billion or so of bailout money to keep their doors open, and guess what the top AIG managers did? A bit of conference room contrition? Not on your life. They kept the doors open at AIG so they could dash out of them again and fly off first class to yet another poolside executive "workshop." Again they were caught by waiting cameras. We see them on the nightly news stonily walking away from a reporter's microphone as they are asked why they are pissing away all our money.

This should be called the "Bad Dog" syndrome. These hedge fund hotshots are basically peeing on America's rug, over and over just like the family's pedigreed pooch, who despite threats and attempts to change his behavior, continues to pee the carpet. The pooch just won't learn, but at least he displays a slinking, hang dog indication that he knows it is wrong. Ever see a hang-dog sub-prime hotshot? When they talk about having a leg up on everyone else, we now know what that really means.

Finally, I was playing with the idea of the nation's self-service gas stations all of a sudden feeling the pinch of the recession with gasoline dropping from four bucks to less than two bucks. Regular gas at the Exxon station near my house has always been lots higher than the big discount station across the street from it. Now they're having a gas-war with just pennies difference in their prices. Today the discounter had regular for $1.95 and Exxon had it for $1.97. Lots of readers are too young to remember, but when Exxon was Esso, all the stations had a gimmick to get you to buy gas at their pumps. You stayed in the car while an attendant came out, asked you how much and what grade of gas he could put in your tank. Then he checked the oil and cleaned the windshield while the gas was pumping. If you got a fill up, you got a free dinner plate or coffee cup. The idea was to get you to return and eventually get a service for six of dinnerware. Wonder if Exxon and Chevron will be forced to actually compete for business in the coming couple years of recession? There would be no trouble filling the station attendant jobs. But I wonder if folks will have anything to put on the dinner plates?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Parsing the Pundits

After months of endless guessing, speculating, pontificating, fear mongering and blathering, came the evening of November 4th, and the TV talking heads had spectacularly shown their asses. Ordinary American voters had it right. The talking heads had just been jabbering.

Let’s set this up a little first. As a retired nightly newscaster from the old school, I stayed on the air just into the gender-correct Alphonse and Gaston vaudeville co-anchor era, I know the difference between what's correct and commercial chowder. I lament what passes for news and commentary today. I wish America’s broadcast and cable news operations were still run by tough-nosed editors, news directors and assignment editors instead of by their corporate headquarters.

Today’s news and commentary offerings, with very few exceptions, are run strictly as major revenue producers. Most are dog food factories with higher paid, better looking employees. Good looks, perfect hairdos and smooth teleprompter reading skills are the hallmarks of “good” today. What they read is second to how it all looks. America’s remaining three major networks, broadcasting over the public airwaves, still have one newscaster sitting in the chair introducing stories, beamed in via satellite in 30 second to two minute “packages.” What little network news there is, sandwiched between interminable commercial breaks, is generally OK, excluding the fluff stories. Cable news has lots more time to fill, and so there is lots more about Paris Hilton than there is about Paris, France, and lots more fluff.

Like pond minnows swarming around a morsel tossed into the water, news outlets on TV, and especially cable talk shows, have a feeding frenzy when a speculative gem is broadcast by any one of them. In a matter of minutes everyone is doing their own version of the gem. “Bradley effect, is a good example.” “Bradley effect” sent the 20-something desk producers and ‘researchers’ to the Google servers. Faster than you can say “Exclusive,” all news and sorta-news outlets were predicting a dire hidden force eluding the polls that menaced the Obama campaign. In a loud “Not so” to the prognosticating pundits, more white men across the nation, and even into the old South, voted for Obama than for any Democrat since Jimmy Carter. More voted Obama than for Bubba Clinton.

Obama Hussein, the secret Muslim terrorist, was not going to get the Jewish vote, and Florida was portrayed right up to election day as teetering and a toss up. A huge helpless sigh issued from TV sets across America. Ooops. Wolf got blitzed and Olberman was overruled. In a turnout even larger than that for John Kerry, 78 percent of America’s Jews voted for Obama. And endless shuttles to the polls from retirement homes in Florida as well as the Cuban-American vote there helped produce a handy win for Obama.

The ones listening hardest to appellations like terrorist, socialist, most liberal, inexperienced, were apparently the TV pundits who endlessly repeated and combined them ad nauseam. The ones really listening to America's heartbeat and making their own assessments clearly were average American voters, not the pundits.

There is a lesson in here somewhere for those who fill the time on cable channels and for the folks reading teleprompters and doing interviews. Producers and millionaire show “hosts,” why not do your own Google searches for, “initiative,” “resourceful,” “original,” “variety,” “lucid” and “accurate.” We’ll see how you do in four years. Faux News, never mind, you don't count.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A String of Lights

It has been like a long Christmas morning since the evening of the November 4th Democratic victory. Tens of millions of us basked in a new feeling of peace on earth and good will toward men. But by now we have already taken off almost all the political ornaments, tinsel and flashing lights from our early stand-in Christmas tree, and have packed them away for another four years.

Don't expect pretty incentive packages under America's real Christmas trees this year. This New Year's day, millions of households will face post-holiday blues not felt in more than half a century. Frigid winter's increasing chill will punctuate our deep economic crisis. We are slowly realizing that no immediate rescue is in sight. We are stuck with Bush and company till late January next year. The new Obama administration will require time to get effective plans underway. “Maybe some mortgage relief in a few months,” say the hopeful. Meanwhile we watch the daily terrifying cycle of vanishing credit, no one spending leading to layoffs and store closures, leading to a dimmer and dimmer future.

Imagine an early TV broadcast of June Evelyn Bronson Cleaver, of all people, having to tell Beaver and Wally that it will be a one present Christmas. Ward still has his job, but he had to take a steep cut in pay and his company pension fund is dwindling daily. Already more than half of the Cleaver’s neighbors have packed up and left as the foreclosure signs went up. June’s spinster aunt, Martha, has had to divide her prescription drug medicines to every other day because there is just not enough money, even living alone. It is the last show of their season and we don't get to see the ending.

For today’s real families there is no way to leave it to Beaver. Millions of Americans are slowly being reduced to the basics of just having enough to eat, and trying to stay warm. Crime rates are predicted to climb as many normally law abiding people resort to doing what they think it takes to feed their families. As dark times of scarcity face us it is imperative we not lose that newly rekindled sense of hope seen across our nation on the evening of November 4th.

“Yes We Can” requires that we all work together as a connected string of individual bright lights that refuse to burn out as a new Obama administration tackles the huge stack of problems that face us. All Americans regardless of political stripe must find that inner energy, powered by our pride and hope, to keep that essential string of lights burning to fight the darkness we face. Decades of unregulated financial dealings that led to today's economic nightmare will take a long time to clean up and repair. Bad habits in Washington will have to be broken, and lots of sticky fingers and downward pointing thumbs on Capitol Hill should get broken as well.

The brightest light of all for America would come from a vigorous effort to bring criminal charges against the Bush administration and the neo-conservative, Constitution-trampling knot-heads who need to pay for the serious damage they have done to our great country. For them to ignore subpoenas, wait out the clock, smugly return to their super wealthy protected enclaves as though nothing culpable had happened is not right.

Actually charge and prosecute the powerful? Yes We Can.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Graphic Change Coming

What to say after the historic, emotion filled hours we have just witnessed?

My first post-Obama post . . . a design from my mind to yours.
Instead of writing, I was motivated to use my graphic design and artistic side to produce this "first post-Obama post." I hope you let your own eyes bore into this image and that it speaks to you as you take a moment to decompress compressed feelings, both mine and yours.