“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” ― the Rev. William L. Watkinson*(1838-1925)
The nonprofit organization Fight for the Future has set up a website called Comcastroturf which allows people to check if their name has been used surreptitiously to file anti net neutrality comments with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC had recently opened up a public comment period in anticipation of rolling back net neutrality regulations, and within a short time they were inundated with anti net neutrality comments which appeared to be generated by Internet Service Provider (ISP) astroturfers from hijacked subscriber lists. Comcast threatened Fight for the Future with a lawsuit, from which they have since backed down after it appeared obvious even to them that it was a tone deaf public relations debacle. They blamed the company they outsource their brand defenses to for excessive vigilance.
Let there be light; photo by Flickr user Arup Malakar, taken in the Kamakhya Temple, a shakti temple on the Nilachal Hill in the western part of Guwahati city in Assam, India.
It’s clear from new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks on net neutrality that he does not support the FCC net neutrality regulations adopted in 2015. Since the rest of the now Republican controlled board of commissioners will most likely go along with him when they vote on the regulations in September, the public comment period appears to be a mere formality. That apparently hasn’t deterred the ISP industry from feeling the need to generate a phony campaign to support the anti net neutrality commissioners. Perhaps they were concerned about the pro net neutrality campaign of John Oliver. Now Comcast and other industry giants have egg on their faces, and Chairman Pai has not escaped squeaky clean either, as he has declined to question the validity of the astroturfed comments, while distracting the attention of the public by complaining about mean tweets.
There are customers of Comcast who complain endlessly about the company’s high prices and lackluster, even adversarial, customer service, yet those customers do little or nothing to explore alternatives to Comcast. They sit grumbling in the dark and won’t lift a finger to light a candle. Such people do a disservice to themselves, but since they seem to be satisfied with that in a masochistic way, the rest of us are left having to listen to their grousing while they do nothing to improve their situation. That shouldn’t be a problem for those of us who can get out of earshot, though in the broader perspective it is those dissatisfied but immovable customers of Comcast who grant the company its monopolistic power in the marketplace, and that’s a problem for everyone because it limits affordable options as smaller companies struggle to establish themselves when confronting the obstacles thrown at them by industry giants and the legislators and regulators they have in their pockets.
Comcast and companies like it might behave better if they started experiencing mass defections. Comcast has been losing subscription television customers, while increasing broadband customers. Cord cutting does not affect Comcast’s bottom line if the customers doing so are merely moving their dollars from one part of the service to another. City dwellers and suburbanites have more options for internet service than people in the countryside, and so they have fewer excuses for continuing with Comcast even while they dislike the company intensely. Ultimately the choice comes down to a decision about what to give up, at least in the short term. Even without streaming video, life goes on. For the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants, the whining of some Americans about how to get along without access to each and every National Football League (NFL) game over either the internet or subscription TV, or the latest “must see” TV series, must appear ingloriously obtuse and selfish. These companies have too much power because we have given it to them. It’s like being abused in a relationship and not working to free yourself because you can’t imagine life any other way. Who knows, life untethered from the Comcast umbilical cord could be better than you think.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse, south of San Francisco, California; photo by Diedresm.
Few things are more frustrating than dealing with poor or indifferent customer service. Calling a company’s customer service number – if you can track it down – usually involves navigating a phone tree of options that may or may not result in discussing your problem with a human being, and then only after waiting on hold. When you do get to talk to a person, that person may be based at a call center in India, and while they are almost always polite and professional people honestly trying to do a good job, there can be language and cultural barriers getting in the way of resolving your problem. Some companies have reacted to customers’ frustrations by touting that their customer service representatives are based in the United States, and to avoid long hold times they offer to call customers back.
Email is a somewhat better route for dealing with a company’s bureaucracy if you don’t mind delays of a day or two in getting a response. If you have follow up questions, the back and forth can stretch to a week or more and can feel like dancing with an elephant. Even though you might think there is an advantage to having your questions and their answers in writing, it has come to be more of a stumbling block than it used to be as reading comprehension deteriorates in the population. Consider how many times you have written an email to a company’s technical support only to find out after the usual one or two day delay in getting a response that they obviously misunderstood your question. They read the first sentence, and whatever followed made their eyes glaze over, because after years of exposure to television and the internet, they no longer have the attention span to comprehend anything longer than a snippet or a sound bite.
MÁV train reservations call center in Hungary; photo by MÁV Zrt.
Of the three major technological ways of interacting with customer service, that leaves chat, and it turns out to be the most satisfactory in many ways for both customers and companies. Unlike a phone call, chat leaves a customer freer to do other things while waiting for a representative to come online or even while the chat is taking place. Unlike email, chat response times from companies are far quicker, and in many cases quicker than phone call response times. And like a phone call or face to face interaction, chat allows for immediate clarifications of misunderstandings. There is back and forth between the customer and the representative as in a phone call, and at the end the customer can print a transcript. Companies prefer chat, too, because it is cheaper to run than a call center on account of the flexibility the representatives have in handling multiple customers at once, and because the experience leaves customers more satisfied than dilatory email responses.
Hotel owner Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese, was not one for tact or subtlety.
But what about older folks, who are often not as technologically savvy as the rest of the population, or what about people who simply don’t want to hassle with computers? These people prefer to contact customer service the old-fashioned way, either in person or by phone. They experience even more frustration than the rest of us because companies have mostly moved away from those older methods as being too costly, and even seem to actively discourage their use by making the experience unpleasant and time wasting. That can lead to serious consequences for the elderly especially, as their frustration with modern customer service options leads them to take foolish risks, like trying by themselves to dislodge a fallen branch from the power line service drop to their house after a storm rather than calling the power company to have them remove it, a service power companies perform for free because the hazard is serious and people should not be discouraged by a fee from having the problem resolved safely.
The 120 volt insulated line connecting to a house or apartment building can be every bit as dangerous as the higher voltage lines going from one utility pole to the next, and you have only to make one mistake with it and you’ll never make another. For safety reasons like this, it is vital that companies who deal in dangerous products like electricity and home generators and space heaters not hide their old school customer service contact points as some modern companies have done. We can gripe as much as we like about the cable company’s lousy customer service, but their product can’t kill us if we mess with it (physically, that is; mentally – that’s open to question). A power line is another matter entirely, even when the birds seem to tell us it’s okay.
Three magpies (Pica pica) gathering in the tree tops, United Kingdom; photo by Flickr user Peter Trimming. In a nursery rhyme featuring magpies, three together signifies a human girl will be born. That may be, but for purposes of this post it is important to note that birds can perch safely on a power line because they come into contact with it at only one point, and therefore do not provide a path to ground. An exception can be found in the case of large birds such as raptors, whose extensive wing span can bring them into contact with two lines at once, or with a line and another point, electrocuting them.