More Telecom Hell

By James Kwak

So, I wanted to transfer phone and DSL from one house to another. I went to Verizon’s web site, clicked on the promisingly named “Moving to a New Home” link, and walked through the step-by-step wizard. It said I could have unlimited domestic calling and 3 MB DSL for $55 per month, which was a better deal than I was currently getting, so I signed up. The only issue was that the scheduling calendar only allowed install dates in the next month and I wanted a date six weeks out, but the live chat representative said I could just call in later and change the install date.

A few days later I went online to check on the order status in their online system and saw that my DSL order was nowhere to be  found. So I called up and, after much misunderstanding and aggravation, I figured out that my order had been canceled by their back-end system. Even though the front-end (web) system knew that I was an existing customer (remember, I clicked on “Moving to a New Home”) and offered me a discounted bundle, the back-end (probably mainframe system) didn’t want to give discounts to existing customers and wouldn’t allow the order to be processed.* After a little arguing, the representative said that she would manually book the order at the higher price and then go in and give me the originally promised discount.

The next time I checked my order status I saw that I had three different DSL orders in their system, which made me nervous, but there was nothing to do but wait.

Then, during the dead period (the period when I didn’t want service anywhere), I got a bill. That bill showed that my phone service had been suspended correctly, but I was being billed continuously for DSL. I chatted online with a Verizon rep, who said that my DSL order had been set up as a move to happen all on the same day (July 26, the date I asked for the installation). She said that she could not change the order, but I could call customer service and they could maybe change it. I didn’t want to mess anything up, so I asked her to verify that DSL service would move to the new address on July 26, and she said yes, so I just left it at that.

Eventually the install date came, the phone worked, and the DSL didn’t. I also got a bill that only mentioned phone service, not DSL. And my online account only showed phone, not DSL. No big surprise. I started a chat session with a Verizon rep, and he insisted repeatedly that my DSL was working, and he had some system that showed it was working. When I pointed out all the evidence that it was not working, he told me to go check the modem and look at the light.

So I went back to the house with the non-working DSL, verified that the DSL light was blinking (bad), and called tech support. After the many prompts, during which the nice recorded voice told me I should turn off the DSL modem and turn it back on, the person I reached quickly verified that my DSL was not working, which makes me wonder what system the previous person was looking at.**

After some more investigation, he said that in his “system,” it showed both that my DSL order had been canceled and that there was a delay with the installation. (This is probably because, remember, I had three different orders in the system. The original order is probably the one that got canceled, and the newer one had some unexplained delay.)

At this point I said that if they couldn’t fix the problem, I was going to cancel what was left of the DSL order and switch everything to Comcast. This was partly due to frustration with the installation process, but partly due to the fact that at this point I was sure I wasn’t going to be able to convince them to give me the discounted bundle (the agent I had spoken to earlier either lied to me or was unable to do what she said she would), and without the discount Comcast is cheaper. So then the agent said he would transfer me to some other vaguely named group of people who could solve my problem. He tried that for about ten minutes before telling me that, since it was after 5 pm (on a weekday!), that group had gone home, so I should call the next day. I asked instead if he could simply ensure that all my orders were canceled so that I could go switch to Comcast, and he said only the billing department could do that, and he would transfer me. So he transferred me, I waited on hold for ten more minutes, and then I just hung up the phone.

I did go through with the threat to switch to Comcast, but that was no walk in the park, either. First I called, told the IVR system that I was a current customer, told it that I wanted new products, and ended up with someone who not only couldn’t help me but couldn’t even transfer me to sales. When I said I had tried to get to sales, she tried to transfer me, but a minute later the phone went dead. I called back in again, told the IVR system I was not a current customer, and ended up with someone who asked me where I lived and then transferred me to a voice message that said their office was closed. (This is before 7 pm on a weekday.) Finally I entered my order online, and now I’m hoping it will work.

So why did I make you wade through my personal customer service nightmare? (Actually, I didn’t make you–you’re free to leave anytime you want.) Well, partly because it’s therapeutic to be able to complain about bad customer service in public. But there are also a couple of lessons here about how the business world operates.

The first is that the business world runs on software, and most of it is bad software. The back end of just about any major company is a tangled mess of archaic, poorly coded, worse maintained, incompatible software programs written over the past forty years. When you’re dealing with millions of customers via thousands of customer service representatives, your company is only as good as your software. If Verizon had good software, none of these problems would have happened. The web site wouldn’t have let me place an order that would cause the back end to choke; the scheduling system would have gone out more than a month; the order status system would have had usable information; the billing system would have realized that I wasn’t using DSL; the tech support system would have realized DSL was down; a single customer service system would have shown each rep all of my previous interactions; the poor rep at the end would have known which teams were still available; and anyone would have been able to escalate my problem to someone who could fix it.

The second is that oligopolies are bad for customers. Switching from Verizon to Comcast wasn’t nearly as joyous as dumping Bank of America for a local community bank was, because I’m just trading one member of the duopoly for the other. In theory, duopolies are supposed to be somewhat better than monopolies. (Draw the demand and supply curves and you could figure it out, although it’s been over a decade since I did.) But in practice they’re usually not, because it doesn’t take a lot of signaling for two companies to agree to charge the monopoly price. The same goes for customer service; they can both suck, but as long as neither is significantly worse than the other, there’s no reason for either to change, since their churn rates are more or less the same.

Since the 1980s, we’ve had cable TV, cell phones, the Internet, satellite . . . and no significant increase in telecom competition. What’s wrong with this picture?

* The software problem here is that the back-end system has some rules–“edits” in mainframe terminology–that have to be manually replicated in the front-end system. Otherwise data can get through the front-end system that the back-end system doesn’t know how to handle. Whenever companies write web front ends for mainframe back ends, they make this kind of mistake.

** I’m not surprised that, say, Verizon’s Internet and phone people look at different systems; that’s not good, but it’s common. I am surprised that their chat and phone tech support people look at different systems; that’s crazy. Or maybe some of them just don’t know how to use them.

85 thoughts on “More Telecom Hell

  1. ….And thise are the rackets all the anti-net neutrality thugs keep telling us are “innovative enterprises” who not only rightfully own the pipes but know best how to manage them for the greater good, and intend to do so. That’s three lies right there.

  2. I’ve had similar customer service nightmares and chalked them up to both rigid back end software and less than enthusiastic phone support people who aren’t creative and motivated enough to work around it.

    The few times I’ve “broken through” it’s always been phone support people who’ve done it and it’s almost always been the result of me calming down and attempting to explain the situation in a way that doesn’t put them on the defensive.

    Of course, I’ve had this method fail as well so it’s not surefire.

    A while ago I had a phone support nightmare that looked a bit different:

  3. I had a similarly frustrating experience with Verizon. I ended up spending 8 hours on the phone to get a technician to come over and plug in a new modem, since they couldn’t use the previous tenant’s modem that was already in the house. First trouble was scheduling – the earliest available installation date was over a month away. After being treated like hot-potato on the phone, I eventually got to someone who knew the absurdity of the system and how to get around it, who managed to schedule an installation for a week from then, on a major holiday. When he came, the install guy kindly informed me that the previous tenant should have returned the old modem, because now she’ll be charged $100 for its replacement. When I offered to give it to him then, and save the previous tenant some trouble, he said he couldn’t formally accept it, and it needed to be shipped. When I asked where, he said they hadn’t sorted that part of the system out yet. Can’t wait to see what obscur charges I get when I disconnect my service (and I can’t exactly refuse to pay them until any problems are fixed, since they require automatic deduction from my credit card for billing).

    What a joke.

  4. I could tell a similar tale about dealings with Bellsouth/ATT.

    I must take one small exception…

    > But there are also a couple of lessons here about
    > how the business world operates.
    > The first is that the business world runs on
    > software, and most of it is bad software.

    While the software may be bad, I hold management accountable. It is management’s choice to organize things as they do, to allocate resources as they do, to plan and train and hold acountable as they do. With management support, software can be good. So, I believe, it is management choice that leads to bad software, and management that should be held accountable here.

  5. Verizon’s people, both tech and account service, have been looking at different systems for a loooong while by telecom standards. My steps from Verizon POTS to ISDN to DSL to FIOS, in NY, NJ and PA successively, were all troublesome for just that reason. As they had expensively marketed and promoted those upgrades, I naively imagined they’d know how to manage the transitions.

  6. Incumbents are safe due to “high barriers to entry,” namely the need to put wires in the gound (or on poles). Part of the height of this barrier is the simple expense of going around digging trenches, laying cables, and filling them back up again (although it sure sounds Keynesian, doesn’t it?) However, that part can be surmounted given enough capital. The more stubborn portion of the barrier to entry has to do with local municipalities that control who is allowed to dig where.

    Russ Roberts did an Econtalk on Net Neutrality that discussed some of the incumbency issues.

  7. Something you didn’t mention was the location of your “tech support” people. When I tried (and failed) to get Veizon DSL I spent hours on the phone to India trying to explain that they had activated the wrong phone line that didn’t come inside the house. Three times they promised to send somebody out, three times I waited at home without Internet, three times they stood me up. I think if I could even talk to a rep who was local it could have been sorted out. But they were really convinced that they could do all the hardware support — on infrastructure essentially — from 10000 miles away.

  8. Verizon is a remnant of the once proud AT&T that included Bell Labs – back when it was Bell Labs and not Lucent. The list of real discoveries from Bell Labs is impressive – the transistor to start. So whenever I hear that a better system can’t be developed, I like to mention the actual difficult problems that can be solved. There is not physical phenomena limiting the utility of Verizon’s ordering sytems (as opposed to the real limits on their communications systems – limited bandwidth, SNR), it is merely an issue of organization.

  9. The Sr. execs make the big bucks for gaming the numbers to meet Wall Street expectations, not for delivering decent products and services. Remember, IBM created the CTL-ALT-DEL sequence, but Bill Gates got rich making it famous.

  10. Comcast would not provide service because I was 500 feet from existing pole service. Clearwire kept auto-billing for months after the contract expired. Go figure

  11. Just a comment on the “bad” software comment. Having developed and implemented enterprise software for 30 years, I have some insights into how such a mess occurs.

    Often the software does lock a work-flow down so that it is hard and complex to do something simple.

    Usually that happens when a company tries to use their old process, often defined for a manual system, on the new software system. Most software systems, yes even the old ones, can be configured to work many ways. But rather than understand what process changes would take advantage of the technology, organizations just try to keep doing the same old thing.

    Fear,inertia, or apathy all contribute to this, but at the end of the day it is usually a people issue, not a technology problem that causes the situation.

  12. I had a similar experience with Verizon and also had trouble returning their FIOS equipment. If you return your equipment be sure to keep your receipts. Thankfully I kept mine and saved $600.

    I’ve had both Comcast and FIOS over the years and I favor FIOS. FIOS at least in my area has better quality service(more HD channels, faster and more reliable internet) so I put up with the poor customer service

  13. We also do not want unlimited numbers of companies ripping up the pavement and pulling wires to our homes. The owners of physical telephone and power wires are thus “natural monopolies”, which is why they are (appropriately) heavily regulated.

    Verizon’s customer service issues are unfixable. They have nothing to do with software. Large organizations without competition — whether corporations or government agencies — have never provided decent customer service and never will.

    For the specific case of DSL, however, there is lots of competition, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Instead of going to the ILEC (Verizon), Dr. Kwak should have called a CLEC. There are plenty of them, and they generally provide excellent customer service. I use one myself, and I have never had a bad experience with their customer service (literally).

  14. Mr. Kwak
    Up until now I have been just an appreciative lurker on your site, but perhaps I have some help I could offer you in return. Even with your switch to Comcast this strategy might come in handy…
    My husband and I recently had a strikingly similar “customer service” experience with Verizon. All the same features you described; let’s leave it at that. What we finally did that worked very well was to make calm and detailed complaints to the FCC and to our state Board of Public Utilities (When I first contacted the FCC by phone, a very helpful woman advised me to make a formal complaint to both entities). Don’t think you can’t do it! Both web site interfaces were very easy to use. How did it work out? Well, within a few hours of my hitting the two “submit” buttons, a Verizon supervisor called our house and straightened out our problem. Hope this helps all readers. One other point-If you do call Verizon, do so before 6 PM in you time zone, because that is when billing closes. Verizon will only extend full “customer service” to you if they can verify that your account is up to date…
    BTW Mr. Kwak please allow me to thank you and Mr. Johnson for your wonderful web site and your book. As a lay person trying to figure out how this financial debacle is going to affect my family finances and my children’s lives, I deeply appreciate your insights.

  15. In Tacoma WA, the local PUD entered the cable TV/internet business about a decade ago, and I gather from friends, etc. that it’s brought other high-speed internet prices down and improved service. Alas, we moved right before it would’ve come to our old house.

  16. Moving is hell it ranks as one of the most stressful life experiences we encounter, worsened by the unchecked power that large corporations have attained to treat us badly. We all have experienced the same story, multiple times at the hands of multiple telecom companies and why not throw in the moving companies and airlines, oh and the banks too. The American experience of late 20th C. deregulation suggests that unregulated markets compete downward not up.
    Dogmatic adherence to the theory of efficient markets is quite clearly making the quality of life worse for the majority yet it still holds sway as the accepted conventional wisdom despite the gathering empirical evidence otherwise.

  17. Going through the regulatory agencies will only get you a little satisfaction. Ultimately you’ll get a letter from the big business offender apologising for the problem and assuring you that it has been corrected. Been there, done that: Verizon didn’t want to repair a problem that they insisted was due to internal wiring. After almost 2 weeks without service, they sent a letter admitting that the problem was “at the source,” and stating that it was corrected. They cc’d the regulatory agency too, and they in turn sent a letter which advised us that the matter would now be considered closed, unless there were other ‘issues’. Bottom line: did the SEC protect us from Madoff or the FAA from defective and poorly maintained aircraft?? No, we depend on the whistle-blowers for that, don’t we? Big business spends a ton of money to ensure that their puppets pass weak regulations and even more money to make sure the local, state, and federal ‘regulatory agencies’ are kept ‘friendly’ to their ‘point of view.’ Obviously, local and federal government is the tool of big business and the relationship is nothing short of incestuous. Oh, and by the way, next time the government says it’s safe to breathe the air, or safe to swim in the Gulf, or safe to eat seafood from the Gulf, call the Business Roundtable and thank them for sponsoring that message.

  18. As previous commenters have noted, software is only as good as the petty organizational politics and competing fiefdoms that produced it.

    There’s another big point here too, which is that bureaucracy is bureaucracy. It is effective to the extent that those who it nominally serves have some voice in how it is run and can influence its course. This bears on public-vs-private debates in that this kind of ineffectual bureaucracy can persist, and even be profitable and encouraged, for years at the core of a “free enterprise” that we’re always told are inherently more dynamic and fit than anything government-provided.

    The next time someone talks about the majesty and perfection of the private-enterprise system, think of the cable company. You really want *them* running your social services and your health care?

  19. Elaine pretty much has it right. There should probably be a ‘public option’ for just about everything. Power, banking, credit cards, health care etc. From what I have heard the Tacoma PUD approach has been very beneficial.

  20. There are about a billion things I want to say on this topic, but can’t cover them this moment. But I will say it’s interesting all the offers for “free” cable they have. You know a “trial offer”. For example they often con people into a “free” trial run of cable together from the same company that gives you internet. But it’s not free. When you eventually decide you don’t want the cable, they charge you to disconnect!!! THAT IS NOT “FREE”.

    Also, it has very little to do with a software problem. Mr. Kwak is an exceedingly intelligent man, but sometimes slightly naive man, to think that this is a software problem. How can we say definitively it has nothing to do with a software problem??? Get a stopwatch and test how long it takes to reach customer service. I mean to the exact second time it. Now take that same stopwatch and test how long it takes to reach the sales department. You will find no matter which company, which software, or how many times you run the test, you will reach the sales department multiple times faster than you will customer service. Try it.

    I would love to see Hulu take companies like Comcast down a notch or two. Frankly I think 95% of the people who have paid for cable all these years are idiots. If people stuck together and refused to pay, you could get ALL that programming for free. The advertisers would pay for all those eyeballs. But what can you say about the intelligence of the masses??? Apparently, not much

    ALSO A QUESTION SPECIFICALLY DIRECTED TO MR KWAK: Have you ever not been billed for something you should have been billed for, because of a software inefficiency??? EVER???

  21. Obligatory line sharing is the obvious solution to provide real competition.

    That’s what we have in France. adsl triple play including international calling and basic TV is about 30 Euros per month with four different companies competing over the same lines.. In central city average download about 16Mbps. There are also two cable companies, offering the same for 35 to 40 Euros per month. My download with fibre optic is 35 to 45 Mbps. This means I can get VOD over the internet. Also I have 20 free channels over the air, so I am about to cancel the TV and cut my bill to 20 Euros for telephone and same speed internet.

    This socialist country has real competition.

    I must admit, however, that although prices are low, customer service leaves much to be desired.

  22. My experience is that it is not only communication companies that are difficult to deal with. In my opinion it occurs with most companies in general today. The combination of products with worse quality, bad information systems, and unmotivated people (possibly not the fault of their own but more a result being demoralized by management with misplaced priorities). Companies continually tout how quality has improved yet, take consumer electronics for example, products frequently fail right out of the box or soon after. Many attempts for recourse are met with the above corporate response and the customer is worn down to the point of giving up.

    Companies are continually doing dicey things to minimize cost. This flies in the face of much of the “mission statements” and “governance” we hear so much about.

  23. Verizon is more interested in writing software for their FiOS system and set top boxes then fixing their mainframe billing code which is written in COBOL. Also, Verizon makes more money off of its wireless business than any other market. Not that these facts change the fact that their customer service is atrocious. But Verizon doesn’t treat customer facing employees very well either. Both the CSRs and customers likely suffer. Some of the call centers have been offshored to India and the Philippines. Good luck with Comcast. At least you’ll have more bandwidth even if Comcast throttles your bittorrent traffic.

  24. There’s quite a bit of musing out there about the horrors of “enterprise” software, usually starting with jwz:

    Or try this fun search:

    I was once incidentally involved in a massive upgrade of a software system, wherein brand-new software was deliberately made to look like the 20+ years old version it was replacing. So as not to freak out the old-timers. Ugh. (And don’t ask about trying to get it connected to anything web-like.) It was crazy-making.

  25. Mark, I hope you are reading stories elsewhere about how people have had similar issues with COMCAST, and learned something.

    Hope you are really “Mark” in the USA somewhere, and not “Rajeesh” in Mumbai.

  26. How do they measure quality improvement? These are numbers that can be easily gamed or measured in an irrelevant fashion.

    At my old job, the CIO insisted we could demonstrate data “quality” by enforcing restrictions on data entry…has to be a number, no free form text, etc. No one wanted to address whether the number entered was valid (that would require a human’s judgment), but by golly the field contained nothing but numbers, so 100% quality!

  27. The fractured back-end systems are likely a by-product of the rapid growth of wireless through the breakup of ATT and the subsequent mergers that created the current oligopoly. I can’t think of a major developed country that’s done a worse job trying to produce competition. Reed Hundt has a lot to answer for.

  28. This is good business practice that every CIO knows: put your best programmers on accounts receivable, and your worst programmers on accounts payable.

  29. I live in rural US and have only one choice for internet – the rural telecom company: Big Bend Telephone. We get EXCELLENT service from this monopoly. How? Because we see these folks at the grocery store, the gas station, etc. We know their names, they know us. We know where their offices are and can and do show up in person.

    These types of problems are always solved by people, not machines nor better software.

    There are some drawbacks to small-town life, but they are GREATLY outweighed by the upsides.

  30. Zekeman,
    You are absolutely right. Crappy customer service abounds in 21st century America. It doesn’t matter what industry.

    Companies have forgotten that customers pay their salaries. Many do not realize that the wonderful cost-cutting system they have developed results in lost customers. Without customers would these companies survive?

  31. Now imagine that you manage telecom for a company with multiple lines in multiple locations, both data and voice.

    The service is no better even in the Fortune 500.

    We employed a full time contractor for years to locate and correct billing errors. In more than one year, she corrected erroneous charges in excess of $1M.

    There is nothing innovative about telecom aside from finding new ways to under service and over charge it’s customers.

    All the real innovation is with the box builders i.e.Cisco, Juniper, etc.

  32. Re: engineer27’s diagnosis and recommendations:

    The most generous characterization that comes to mind is “nuts!” No doubt municipal regulations impose various additional marginal costs and complications to terrestrial network facilities rollouts. However, even if 100% of all such rules were suddenly eliminated, the notion of competition by means of multiple parallel, (literally) redundant facilities platforms — a.k.a. “facilities based competition” (FBC) would still be absurd on its face. In the end (which will come fairly soon in all sane middle-upperincome national economies), there is going to be one optical fiber-based access path to all but the most rural and inaccessible premises, and — apart from very high density metro cores, mission critical bunker facilities, and places where a parallel cable plant was completed way back when voice and video were presumed to be completely unrelated products — there is going to be exactly one such path.*

    Of course, there’s no guarantee that the US or any other national economy will exhibit sanity in this domain. I guess we can only be thankful that crackpot ideas like FBC were not around back in the 1950s when the US Federal Interstate Highway System was completed — otherwise every time a family or business encountered local traffic congestion, they’d be forced to choose between moving to a less bottlenecked town, or else building their own parallel national highway.

    *To understand why this is the case, see Max Hyperbole Action Comics, Episode #2.

  33. Sun must have licensed the basic technology from one of the pioneering researchers at IMCIC.

    Granted, ff they’ve developed a solid commercial implementation, perhaps facilities-based competition might be viable after all.


  34. not sure that the software is bad, it is likely doing what management said do.
    there are very many common reasons for this
    management doesn’t remember the rules (so they don’t tell the developers that they shouldn’t allow x)
    management changed the specs after they started (the back end systems were to be changed but that was cut to save money)
    the front end system was set up in error, and it didn’t have any thing to do with any errors in got when trying to add the data (after all no errors should happen right, so why would you code for them?) and that error handling may have been cut to save money

  35. The worst experience I’ve had is with Comcast, but they are not the only ones. The best with Amazon and Netflix, simply because their service works, and customer support is also more responsive than others.

  36. When FIOS came to our neighborhood last year, we attempted to switch. The installer laughed as we started verifying the salesman’s statements. We’d been told we could keep our old Comcast email addresses for a $5 fee, which turned out to be a figment of the salesman’s imagination. According to the installer, Verizon salespeople are on straight commission and will say anything a caller wants to hear.

    So we’re still on Comcast. We’re not happy, but Verizon is worse.

  37. Perhaps we should nationalize the connectivity between a centralized office and our point of service. All vendors would serve us at the central office with some standards and regulations.

  38. She’s got it right. Apply pressure. I do it in writing just to have a paper trail for later, but the FCC enterprise software is working. Bravo.

  39. Thanks Al….on a lighter note; I clicked to your blog and concluded that if everyone could get a hug from the woman in the orange top, all would be well!

  40. There is a simple answer. If, under the current, and apparently “rigged” system, the respective “competitors” are all essentially making reasonable profits, there is no motivation to change. One could argue, fruitlessly, that better companies have actual pride about how they do business. Not only in how they serve their customers, but also in their efficiency and efficacy as businesses. I know, as a former service-minded small business owner, that, in most markets, the companies with pride and dilligence will succeed to the detriment of others without strong customer-oriented philosophies and capabilities. But, once the laws and regulatory schema get established, and lobbyists massage the plutocracy to establish rule and law making which favors businesses over customers, that all goes right out the window. It has gotten to the point that when I call any company for service, I am so thankful to finally be transferred, when it happens, to a live person that I thank them for not being part of the evil “queue” that I must battle to get to them. What does all of this mean? America (and maybe most or all of the rest of the world) has become completely and utterly apathetic regarding ethics, become overwhelmingly greedy and deceitful, and now takes the “path of least resistance” on virtually all of its problem solving, which means that it is always the cheapest, most expeditious and ineffective solutions that are applied to every problem relating to quality and service. For, you see, while arguments for “free markets” are rampant coming from Capitol Hill, we have completely non-free markets where no business of any size must compete by providing better moustraps or service for them. Even if no mouse is ever caught, they know that no one else will be providing a better one or servicing it better. For the past year or so, I have noticed that, as car sales have dwindled, recalls of vehicles have mushroomed. At last automotice manufacturers are coming to grips with the idea that if they sell crap no one will want it, and obviously they are out to prove that they care.

  41. Telecom Act of 1996 already allows for competition for end-customers through co-located equipment at the central office, or straight resale of ILEC POTS. If you go to a CLEC for POTS or DSL service, they use ILEC wires all the way to your local Central Office, when the signal gets passed to the CLEC equipment.

    Also, by today’s flexibility standards, telecom backend software may be rigid and “bad”, but you don’t hear about those systems crashing, ever.

  42. “When you’re dealing with millions of customers via thousands of customer service representatives, your company is only as good as your software.”

    And your software is only as good as its book-keeping framework of rules. The issue here is the lack of understanding of the 670 year old double-entry book-keeping framework of rules. Software developers have never taken the time to learn how this venerable framework has done its job over the centuries. It ought to be being done being completed better using computers. Instead it is doing a worse job.

    Therein, James, you have the mess that you described. Working as a building contractor way back in the early 1970s I began to notice, and be aggravated by, slipshod book-keeping practices generated by computer driven systems.

    I spent ten years from 1994 to 2004 attending software conferences attended by persons writing business software. They did not have a clue as to how a proper book-keeping gets its important job completed properly. They seemed to believe it was not of their concern.

    You need to give the book-keeping topic a lot more attention than you have been giving it in the past. On the financial end banks are using bad book-keeping to cheat the system by creating bogus currency. At the production level work environments are not putting a proper book-keeping to work to anticipate and solve the very problems that you describe.

    The problem is real and getting steadily worse with time.

  43. Not all bad. We are with Verizon and have FIOS. Our internet went down early this week which we determined was because of a problem in the router. Verizon said they could get a new one to us by Thursday but by Wednesday they had shipped us a router and we were online by Wed. evening.

  44. Agreed, the state of broadband technology in France (southwest) is impressive, and I’m convinced it leaves the US in the dust.

    Also agreed, unfortunately, is that customer service is really bad here. As a rule, if your broadband goes down, the simplest option is to dust off the ole 56K modem and do dialup for a few months, concomitantly calling telecom support from time to time, suffering the emotional death by a thousand paper cuts until DSL comes back.

    Moral of the story — telecom support sucks on both sides of the Atlantic.

  45. When AT&T was first given the grant money to lay our national infrastructure they told our government that DSL was to be a quick fix, but not a solution. Shortly after laying the DSL lines, they pocketed the rest of the money, and have been dragging their heels in laying a solid new network. If we really want things to run smooth on our “neutral net” we need to ask AT&T what the hell happened to our 10mb/s national data rate.

  46. Might I suggest in the future, you do some research and look for a local company. My Internet is provided by a local company — “Starwire Technologies” this is a wireless system from a local tower to an antenna on my house (if anyone is from NW Wisconsin, I recommend this small company of two people, Joe and Sarah, and the fact they get to know their clients.) It might cost me a little more than a big company, but I can talk to a real person who knows me on a first name basis.

    The reason big companies do so well is you don’t have to do research to find them – they are in your face with advertising and rates that sound good until you need their services and want to talk to a real person.

  47. This morning my wife had a question she wanted to ask about a certain branch of Motel 6. She went to the contact us tab on the Motel 6 web site and found an interesting, I think very useful intervention.

    Instead of a phone number that leads to a computerized voice response system and endless holds and confusions, you send them an e-mail with your basic question and when you want them to call you back. (Call me back immediately is one of the options.) They do indeed call you back as scheduled.

    The flaw in their system is that the people who make the callbacks don’t have complete and up-to-date information. But if they can fix that problem, this would be a huge improvement over most customer service lines.

    By the way, I have received excellent customer service from two other places:

    1. I buy my prescription drugs from Target. In addition to having very low prices, their pharmacists are easy to reach and can flexibly manage special problems like needing to get an early refill because you’re about to go on a long trip.

    2. After many unhappy years of cell phone service with Verizon, then AT&T, and then Sprint, I am very happy with both the cell phone service and the customer support provided by Consumer Cellular. I think their business model is as a re-seller of service from one of the companies I dropped, but by interposing themselves between the customer and that company, they make life a whole lot easier. And, by the way, I’m also saving money by using them.

  48. Things are both simultaneously completely screwed up at a certain place I work, and not screwed up.

    I will say the number of backends, middleware, applications, age of systems, etc. is daunting…and replacing it and keeping it maintained costs LOTS of $$$$$$$$. So, unless there’s immediate business benefit for doing that, guess what decision is made?

    The REAL problem is, they need to get Accountants and Lawyers out of IT, and let IT be IT. But, since the Leadership is always concerned about the bottom line, and getting in legal issues (Sarbanes-Oxley, an inane set of laws that make zero sense in IT), they apply accounting and legal logic into an area that needs, nor works with, either.

    Welcome to your future Federal Uber HealthKare System!

  49. Or:

    The interfaces are so complicated, the back-end systems so old and convoluted, and the deadlines so short that writing good specs is impossible. No one understands how things really work anymore.

    The turnover in the customer service department is so high and the training so minimal that 20% of the representatives on any given day have no idea what they’re doing.

    They discovered massive problems when testing, but deployed anyway because on the whole it was better than not deploying.

    Major functionality is absent – they discovered massive problems when testing and pulled pieces out for later release.

    They’ve fired half of the development staff and are only doing the highest priority work. They have more important things to worry about than losing a few customers.

    They are working on fixing things now but they keep slipping the deadline.

  50. Software developers are no longer expected to know anything about the applications, as they were when I started 30 years ago. They code to the specs, and they wouldn’t spot a hole big enough to drive a truck through, nor are they expected to. The analysts who write the specs are generalists who translate what they are told by others. In the end, when things don’t work properly, there isn’t anyone in particular to blame. There wasn’t anyone involved whose job it was to see the whole picture.

    Additionally, the pace of change has become so fast that no one expects software to work perfectly anymore, or even close. Everything gets deployed with bugs and design flaws, many of them never get fixed, and the problems multiply with every release. It’s out of control. It’s a miracle the world functions as well as it does.

  51. I have used Verizon in various capacities over the past 5 years for business…because they were the only game in town.

    Without exageration, either myself or my employees have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours correcting mistakes identical to those listed by James. It is a running joke that they even have a ‘business’ billing site. We have not been able to successfully get in to it EVER!

    Believe it or not, they cannot find my account when I read them the acount number off their own bill. I am told that they (customer service) accesses files with different numbers, and that they don’t have the capacity to scan that database by name. So……well you get the picture.

    There should be a website dedicated to Verizon Horror Stories and the people who worked around them.

    Cheers, Gene

  52. In Indiana, Freedomworks lobbied and won exclusions from oversight of telecom service operations by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. Before this exemption telecoms were regularly fined for service outcomes such as the one Mr. Kwak had.

    Anyone for more deregulation?

  53. MarkJ wrote:

    “In Indiana, Freedomworks lobbied and won exclusions from oversight of telecom service operations by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. ”

    Wikipedia & other resources said….

    “FreedomWorks is primarily funded by individual donations. According to the media watchdog group Media Matters for America, FreedomWorks has also received funding from Verizon and SBC (now AT&T).[9] Other FreedomWorks funders have included Philip Morris and foundations controlled by the conservative Scaife family, according to tax filings and other records.[10][11] It also receives funding through the sale of insurance policies through which policyholders automatically become members of FreedomWorks.[12]

    FreedomWorks is closely tied to its founder, corporate lobbyist and former Republican Congressman Dick Armey, whose former lobbying firm DLA Piper that he resigned in August 2009, represents Bristol Myers Squibb, among other pharmaceutical companies.[13][14]”


    Several of FreedomWorks’ campaigns have been described as “astroturfing,” or projecting the false impression of grassroots organizing.[15][16][17]

    “Glen Beck and Freedom Works are now United”


  54. By coincidence, driving back out from Payson, AZ, earlier today, we went past a large billboard advertising Verizon – Ruler of the Air!


  55. Excellent Verizon bashing, I’ve never failed to be disappointed by them. Someone mentioned earlier paying with monopoly money. If that doesn’t work, try giving them a painting as collateral.

  56. Bell Labs, you’re going back to the days when people profited from new ideas and innovation. Now we profit from discovering new methods to screw people. Get with the program, would you!?!?

    Even AT&T was a screw for years, clear back to at least the 1970s. They abused customers and acted like dismantling a rotary dial phone was a crime to be equated with treason.

    What amazes me is how Apple associates themselves with AT&T. I don’t know what the exact reason is, but I can guarantee you there is some funny business going on with Apple choosing AT&T. And I have yet to hear Steve Jobs give a legitimate reason why he chooses a company for the i-Phone renowned for crapping on their customers. Another sign his mental attitude is slowly shifting to the Bill Gates Zone. I know tons of people who want to purchase an i-Phone, but refuse to because of the association with AT&T.

  57. Hint: hire an independent ISP, who has staff that will deal with your local DSL, or sometimes cable, provider. You’ll pay more, but if you make a good choice, you’ll get better service. If you buy business-class service from any provider you will get much more responsive service, but this costs much, much more. I’ve also heard that Clear/Sprint’s wireless service isn’t bad, though slower than cable modems.

    This is not a software problem.

  58. And now try all of that, for a speed <2Mb, higher price, while *paying* for every minute of every phone call at some absurd price like at least 30c/min. US customer service is still by far the best, even if not good.

  59. The interesting part of this story for me was how similar it was to my own Verizon experience. In my case I had several installation attempts until a technical supervisor told me it was not possible to install DSL through my line. However, I had a company representative still wanting to sell it to me because his computer told him it was possible.


  60. James- Try Ooma, small company, $10/mo for extra services, 0 for regular service, one time purchase ~$200


  61. Only difference is, when you disconnect from cable, you have more money in your pocket, less background noise, less talking heads from Fox news manipulating you to vote for Pro regressive tax Republicans and manipulating you to buy gold at multiples above its true market price and more time to read and educate yourself. Life can actually improves without cable TV.

    When you disengage from the political process and become passive about voting and passive about the small amount of time and energy it takes to be an informed voter life gets worse.

  62. Corporation Commission members are often bribed by the very companies they are regulating. It happens with state insurance, state utilities (gas, electric, phone), and “Environmental” Agencies. Count the number of Republicans vs Democrats on that Indiana Commission. I would wager a decent amount it is 60%+ Republican Commissioners. Most of the idiots who vote can’t even tell you what these commissioners stand for. They usually vote for them because they have a cute jingle/song in their campaign ads that rhymes. “Tate is Great, Vote for him in 2008!! Tate is great, vote for him in 2008!!” They check the name that they heard in the song and figure if he’s Republican he won’t raise their taxes. But they never think who banked their campaign is the same company he controls the rates on which go from your pocket to the utilities’ pocket. This is why many Republicans hate public schools. Once they kill off public schools the 3 people in Indiana who can still read above a 5th grade level will be eliminated by attrition.

  63. Well, outsourcing all of the software to people in other countries who do not understand the needs, habits, expectations, culture of customers in the US, and do not have experience working in the US cable service business is a sure fire way to improve system response. Go globalization!

    p.s. TimeWarner Cable service is also pretty disappointing. Unexplained interruptions of service are frequent, and last time I tried, asking for a credit for a day’s downtime resulted in a half hour phone queue wait, and a broken promise to reduce my bill. Go domestic business!

    p.p.s. Dude, who are you to demand 3MBPS service anyway? If you want high bandwidth move to a developed country, like South Korea.

  64. Wow, a finally a topic I am an expert in. Just retired from a ILEC(Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier). All the nation wide wireless companies have been selling off their wireline assets(DSL is wireline) because the profit margins were smaller than wireless and they forecasted declining revenues and profits. In parallel they have been pruning their workforce to bare bones level which of course makes install schedules and customer service decline proportionally. Look at the dividend yield of the ILECs and you can see where the customer service and install cost savings is going.

    Interesting topic about PUD telecom service. A PUD borrows at very low cost from the federally subsidized lending unit, runs basically as a non-profit, pays no corporate income taxes, gets free right of ways, trenches, pole hangers, etc. They obviously have some cost advantages there.

  65. Comcast: My wife says they would not let her pay via a credit card? They wanted her to come down to their offices to make the payment via cash or check, ostensibly because they were worried about credit card fraud. Does anyone else find that to be an odd paradox for a “high-tech” company?

  66. I too had had a bucket full of problems with V’s dsl. One case resulted in four calls to four different countries, Philippines, India, Mexico and finaly the US. Nothing but agita ….. where are all those support employees they show in their adds? …. having a lot of dummines on the payroll is not a replacement for doing it right the first time.

    Going to try t mobile wireless … no V, no dsl, no wires …. hope its a better experience.

  67. The real problem is that we are still talking about DSL in 2010. Not only is the software of both duopolies poor but the communications they are selling is ancient and there is no incentive to upgrade it.

  68. You should consider yourself lucky that you don’t have to deal with Orange and France Telecom (aka FT) here in France. We have had no possibility to receive VOIP calls for over 2 weeks. We can call out but no calls arrive. Sometimes a caller gets to voicemail, sometimes not. We have no conventional “fixed” line so callers have to know our mobile numbers or catch us on skype, gtalk etc. The cordless phones ring fine when tested from the router.

    Neither Orange nor FT seem to be remotely concerned and say they’ll try to get someone along soon to look at it. I am expecting them to say we have the wrong plan and will subscribe us to yet another one that takes another 3 weeks to get set up as they did recently without telling us. That time we had no services at all for 3 weeks and had no idea why until calling about 5 times (long waits) by mobile phones at great cost (no offer to recompense). I’m not surprised that the suicide rate at FT is so high.

    Despite my wife’s exceptional patience and calm it must be a really shitty places to work especially for someone who has to deal with us:-) However, I hear Telstra in Australia has an even worse reputation.

    Incidentally while I’m crapping on famous brand names, I have been waiting patiently for about 8 months for my son’s almost new Sonyericsson W910i mobile phone to be returned by their UK repair shop. Now they really are a totally fucked up company when it comes to customer relations. The only way I get a response is by public tweeting with an @SonyEricssonUK included but as only the kind but powerless marketing people are watching I don’t get very far.

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