Oh, For Heaven’s Sake!

A “utility” is defined as a public service, “… a system to provide water or electricity… a cell tower network, or the like”. On dictionary.com, utility is also labeled as an “elementary level” word, meaning a grade school child should be able to understand its meaning. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere, because elementary is the perfect way to describe the customer service I’ve received while setting up the utilities in my new house.

Power. Water. Gas. Internet.  I’d call these utilities the four cornerstones of a functioning modern house, wouldn’t you?  Without them you’re just looking at your walls (if you can see them in the dark) wishing you could take a hot shower and check your email.  So why is it so difficult to get the utilities going again when you move, especially when they’re already up and running in the first place?

Power was almost an open and shut-it-off case for me.  I called the supplier to transfer the electricity into my name, which seemed a straightforward process until they sent their technician to the house.  Here we have the classic case of the right hand not talking to the left.  The technician proceeded to turn the power off.  How my neighbor – the former owner – had the presence of mind to stop him in his tracks is beyond me (I owe her something from my kitchen now).  She saved me a week or two of “the lights are off and somebody’s home”.

Water comes from a well where I live.  The best example of good customer service may be no customer service because if you have a well, you don’t have to call anyone at all.  Assuming your well pump is working (and you have power) you simply turn the lever and out comes the water.  But then you realize the water is cold, which is why you need…

Gas – or propane in my case – requires a call to customer service because they won’t let it flow without a safety inspection of the system.  I get it (now) since I have a 500-gallon tank under my house.  This is good news and bad news.  The good news: I’m “energy independent” of a piped network, so as long as my tank has propane I have heat (and a stove to cook on, and a fireplace to enjoy).  The bad news: I get charged for the 500 gallons in one shot instead of paying by the month.  Whoa.  My household budget went off the rails with that bill.  And just how big is a 500-gallon tank of propane anyway?  I’m not sure I want to know.

Is my propane tank the size of a giant peach?

If not for internet, I’d say I’d fared pretty well with setting up my utilities but bless their hearts AT&T makes a big-screen adventure out of the simplest request.  Your phone call takes you to a menu of prompts, then to another menu, then to another menu, until the recorded voice seems to capitulate by finally transferring you to someone who can actually talk (but not think).  The someone who comes on the line is clearly not from your neighborhood (or even your country).  The someone says, “Yes, hello, and how is your day today, Mr. David?”  Mr. David?  No one calls me that ever.  The someone then follows a scripted line of conversation by launching into a series of sales pitches to try to get you to bundle with a bunch of stuff you don’t need.  The someone sighs when you repeatedly decline, and finally says something like, “I’ll now be transferring you to another representative who can help you with that”.

I have to pause, no, stop my AT&T rant for three reasons now.  One, my frustrations will continue for twice as many words as I have space for today.  Two, it’ll drive me to drink just revisiting the experience.  Three, if AT&T reads this post they may be tempted to turn off my internet.  Very long story short, I lost track of the number of someones I talked to, failed AT&T’s screening process three times because of poor credit history (wrong), an incorrect social security number (wrong again), and a street address where AT&T doesn’t provide service (is three times the charm?)

Go figure, the only way I finally succeeded with my internet setup was to request the service through AT&T’s website.  The tech showed up as scheduled, set up the service, and now I’m able to type my blog posts again.  Small miracles.

Because of the newish ways we now communicate with one another (most of them electronic) getting good help or prompt help or even the right help is more of a challenge than ever.  When I share these adventures with family or friends I always hear my late mother remarking, “Oh, for heaven’s sake”.  Maybe she would’ve been better saying, “Heaven help us”, because customer service for utilities down here on earth just isn’t cutting it.

Hold (the) Music!

This morning as I brushed my teeth, I could hear soft music while my wife surfed on her iPad nearby. It was a catchy keyboard instrumental, the kind of tune to put a bounce in your step. Not twenty seconds later however, there was a bit of silence followed by the same melody all over again. By the time I flossed I’d heard this “song” five or six times through and it was getting annoy-oy-oy-ing.  Then it hit me.  My wife was on her iPad – yes – but she was also on hold.

Elevator Music. Lift Music. Piped Music. Muzak. Call it what you want, but my unofficial survey says hold music is not the satisfying little concert it was designed to be.  How many times have you heard, “Thank you for your patience… one of our representatives will be with you shortly…” followed by the same cloying music over and over and OVER again?  You pull out your teeth (I mean, your hair) because “the representative” will NEVER be with you (let alone “shortly”).  More to today’s point, the persistent music-on-hold (MOH) doesn’t lighten your mood, and, it’s an insult to technology.

MOH had the best of intentions when it debuted in 1962.  Like many products MOH was invented by accident, when the phone lines of a small factory accidentally picked up the music of the radio station next door.  MOH appealed to businesses because customers stayed on the line longer if offered music over nothing at all.  Hold music also found an audience in places where people tended to gather, like elevators, waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, and airport boarding lounges.  You should agree; music beats silence any day (in other words, something is better than nothing).  It’s just, the “something” should be a whole lot easier on the ears.

I have a personal connection with hold music.  Years ago, it was a part of my responsibilities as the switch programmer for a long-distance phone company.  If you call customer service today – any customer service – oftentimes “events” happen before you’re connected to a real person.  How many times does the phone ring before someone (or something) answers?  Are you offered a menu of choices to route your call to a specific department?  Would you prefer a callback instead of waiting on hold?  A behind-the-curtain person programs these little events and that person was me.  I also chose when to offer you hold music.

Mercifully, my long-distance company subscribed to a professional hold music product, which meant calls to our customer service were offered pleasant, non-repeating tunes.  You might have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes but at least you wouldn’t get a mindless tune, slowly eating away at your brain cells.  Unfortunately, my company was the exception.  Professional hold music isn’t cheap (thanks to copyright law) and most companies don’t care enough about their customers to pony up.  So, you get “catchy” keyboard instrumentals instead.  Even worse, you get the endless loop of tape-recorded music (a tape recording!), including the hiss and pop of too many plays.  Like I said, an insult to today’s technology.

You might disagree about the loss of brain cells. “Not ME, Dave; I don’t get hold music stuck in my head“.  Okay, but listen to the following YouTube audio and then reconsider.  This ditty may be the most famous music-on-hold specimen of them all; the so-called “Opus Number One”, composed by Tim Carleton and Darrick Deel and incorporated into every single Cisco phone system.

The days of hold music are numbered (and thank heavens they are) because the days of live customer service are numbered too.  Today’s customer service has you self-diagnosing through torturous “interactive voice response” (IVR) menus or by scrolling online through endless lists of FAQ’s.  But MOH still has its place at other tables.  The sophisticated InBody body composition scale at my fitness club offers MOH while you stand there getting your vitals measured.  Our Samsung washer and dryer play the same happy [irritating] little tune after every load is done.  And elevators aren’t going anywhere (except up and down).  You’ll still hear plenty of Muzak on elevators.  At least today’s smartphones help riders escape their awkward proximity to strangers.

The next time my wife is subjected to hold music, I may have to move to another room to brush my teeth.  Then again, maybe it’s not so bad.  You can now buy toothbrushes with built-in hold music while you brush (lasting exactly two minutes). This would be detrimental to my dental hygiene. I might tear my teeth out before I even get to the flossing.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lego Grand Piano – Update #15

(Read about how this project got started in Let’s Make Music!)

At long last, our piano has a keyboard! Bag #15 – of 21 bags of pieces – added the final key to the right side of the board for a “grand” total of twenty-five.  Then the whole assembly slid into the piano frame smoothly, as if closing the drawer to your bedroom dresser. The piece of the black frame running the length of the board just below the keys secures everything into place.

As a part-time perfectionist, I’m a little bothered by the fact the piano keys don’t rest at a uniform height across the board.  You can see one to the far left sitting a little higher than his neighbors while one to the far right sits a little lower.  Removing the keyboard at this stage in the performance is easy, so I might see if I can level things out.  Or, I’ll just make peace with being a little “off-key”.  Maybe.

Running Build Time: 11.6 hours.  Musical accompaniment: Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Leftover pieces: 1 tiny green square.

Conductor’s Note: Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question is one of the most creative classical pieces you’ll ever hear.  It’s a “dialogue” between a trumpet and four flutes.  The trumpet asks the question, “What is the meaning of life?“, and the flutes try in vain to answer, a total of six times.  The flutes get more and more frustrated (and the music more disjointed) every time the trumpet repeats the question.  The Unanswered Question concludes with the trumpet asking its question one last time.  Now that you know the story, listen to the short piece through the following video.  It’s only six minutes.  The Unanswered Question was the perfect choice for today’s topic.  After all, how many times do you call customer service only to come away with… an unanswered question?

Tipsy-Turvy

Emily Post’s Etiquette is surely an authority on its topic, considering the book was first published in 1922 and is now into its nineteenth edition. I would’ve enjoyed meeting Ms. Post, as Etiquette remains “the most trusted resource for navigating life’s every situation”. The advice never veers from its original premise, simply adapting to times as they change.  Of course, it’s all about manners – good ones at that. And were Emily Post alive today, she’d have us flip to Chapter 13, for a review of a practice of growing concern (and confusion).  Chapter 13 talks about tipping.

   

I’ve written about tipping before.  Three years ago (!) I told the story of my family’s visit to New York City, and the cabbie who crammed the six of us into one vehicle, then demanded a bigger tip than I gave, as a reward for saving the cost of a second cab.  I disagreed with him, because I believed – still do – a tip reflects the service itself (which was marginal).  More importantly, the recipient should never expect the tip, let alone argue over the amount.

Square’s POS

So-o-o, why is tipping such a hot topic now?  Because restaurants and coffee shops are moving to point-of-sale (POS) technology at the counter, allowing the customer to complete the transaction through an iPad, no cash required.  POS software (like Square) includes a tipping screen, offering suggested percentages/amounts, or no tip at all.  It’s a change to the social dynamic.  Before POS, you could discreetly add (or not add) a tip to your receipt before signing, or perhaps throw a few coins into the jar.  With POS, the tipping decision is forced on you at the front of the line (hurry up!).  And don’t be surprised if the person behind you sneaks a peak while you choose your tip.

My issue is not with the POS technology itself.  I like the security of completing a transaction (i.e. the credit card never leaves the hand), and I don’t mind navigating a couple of iPad screens to do it.  What I do mind is “tipping manipulation” as I’m standing at the counter.  The suggested amounts are the first thing you see, and beckon in LARGE FONTS.  To leave a smaller amount requires additional screens.  The “No Tip” option sits at the bottom like an afterthought.  Behavioral science says you’ll almost always choose from the top row, whether the service deserves it or not.

POS software gives the merchant the option to remove the tipping screen altogether, but I’m not suggesting they go back to a jar of coins.  Instead, before the tipping screen, why not insert a common courtesy (channeling Emily Post here): a screen simply asking, “Would you like to leave a tip?”

If your habit is to always (or never) leave a tip, consider the variables behind the curtains.  Some businesses adjust employee pay down if the position receives tips.  Other businesses pool tips, then divide the pot between all service positions (did you really intend to tip the dishwasher)?  The American Restaurant Association claims some states allow service businesses to pay less than minimum wage, because tips are legally considered wages.  Finally, minimum wage varies by state, so a nice tip in one state might be an insult in another.  Yet you, the tipper, have no idea if one or more of the above applies as you’re about to pay.  Messy, no?

Timeout for a favorite tipping story.  After years of one-on-one sessions, my personal trainer decided to resign my athletic club and pursue another career.  Knowing she was leaving, I asked if I could leave a tip with my final payment.  She declined, saying club policy did not allow tips.  However, she said, I could give her a positive review through the club’s on-line survey, and then she would likely receive a bonus in her paycheck.  Money and acknowledgement by her manager?  I completed the survey.

Someone once said, “Tips are like hugs, without the awkward body contact.”  I like that, except we’re starting to get awkward again.  POS screens allow for invasion of personal space, bringing tipping into the open.  Maybe Square should take a “tip” from Starbucks.  Use the Starbucks app to pay with your phone at the counter, and the tipping comes later, in the privacy of your own whatever.  You’re given several hours to consider if and how much you should tip.  I think Etiquette Chap. 13 would agree with that approach.

I’ll continue to be a savvy tipper, no matter what I’m faced with.  If I use a POS iPad, I’ll go with a “Custom Tip Amount” if I need to.  If I sign a credit-card slip, I’ll always tip on the pre-tax amount and I’ll never blindly choose 15%.  If it’s cash in hand, I’m at the mercy of the denominations I have in my pocket.  And in every case, I’ll ask myself the same question Emily Post would pose: “Did I receive notably good service?”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”,  from the Wall Street Journal article, “You Want 20% for Handing Me a Muffin?”, and from the USA Today article, “How Much to Tip…?”