Customer Service

"Please hold."
"But I-"
I tried to get in - fast but not fast enough; suddenly the line clicked off and I was relegated to a surreal land where the music would have been a better background accompaniment for the dreary drone of a dentist's drill. One thought, and one thought only kept repeating itself in my bewildered brain:

What the hell?

Background: My dad has a kind of dream, which is to send my mother and my sister to my place in the Big Apple, and the three of us will spend a day in Manhattan, shopping together and ultimately seeing the annual Radio City Music Hall Christmas show. Says Dad, "I'll go if your sister can't, but it would make me feel so good to send 'my girls'."

Fine with me. A free show and a chance to get my mother and sister out of their respective houses; pretty cool. But the best-laid plans oft go awry; as the New York City resident, it became my task to procure the tickets, and I quickly found out that, unless we were all willing to sit alone, there would be no show at Radio City for us. Dad was disappointed, but undaunted: if it couldn't be the Christmas Show at Radio City, then let it be A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden (advertised as the musical with Roddy McDowell "that touches you." My friend Charlie says that he, for one, does not want Roddy McDowell touching him).

My mission, should I choose to accept it: obtain tickets for a matinee of the desired holiday musical on the designated date of the Great Shop-Off of both Current and Former Pennsylvanians. My nemesis? The infamous, the ugly, the seething-with-the-potential-for-evil Ticketmaster! I am David, armed only with the stone (OK, so it's my Discover credit card) going up against the Goliath that is Ticketmaster; the little guy approaching the giant with pride and courage. David, however, had one advantage - he had a major deity on his side. My particular brand of "stone" was not previously blessed, and my chosen Goliath used it to smite me good.

I call Ticketmaster, and am put on the line with Joshua, sales agent extraordinaire. Joshua was obviously a stone in his past life, or perhaps a sponge - maybe both, for his I.Q. was somewhere between both. He couldn't tell me anything about the show (couldn't even confirm that it was a musical) and got my credit card number wrong three times (as it turned out, I wish I hadn't corrected him) as well as my address. All he could tell me for sure was that Roddy MacDowell was the star. I'm not too familiar with that particular actor, though I believe he played a chimp in The Planet of the Apes.

Finally, the tickets are purchased, and I call my folks back with the news (don't ask me why THEY couldn't call Ticketmaster - I live in New York, the show is in New York. The folks are buying the tickets and there are numbers for Ticketmaster everywhere. Whatever!). My mother is pleased, but has heard that TWO different folks are appearing in the part of Scrooge this year - Roddy McDowell, yes, but only for some of the performances. Hal Linden will be appearing as Dicken's "old sinner" the other half of the time.

"I would much rather see it with Hal Linden I think, honey. You've heard of him?"
"No, Mom, I can't say I have."
"Do you remember the show
Barney Miller?"

Barney Miller was before my time, but time, but no matter. I had only just purchased the tickets ten minutes before and I had not been given an option as to what leading man we would like to see. I would call back and change the order.

Naive child am I! Ticketmaster would have none of it. "Ma'am, we have a no-refund policy," the woman droned on my second call. I told her I appreciated that, but I wasn't trying to return the tickets - only change the performance. She took my number, assured me that someone from Customer Service would be in touch with me the next day. They weren't. I called the day after that, was given a number to the Administration Office, who took my number and informed me they would call me back. They didn't. My mother and sister have decided that Roddy McDowell will be fine, though I'm still rankled at the lack of courteous and professional treatment. But if a popular rock band like Pearl Jam would come out of a Supreme Court battle with this corporation the worse for wear, how could I ever think that I would get anywhere?

For good reason are they known as "TicketBastard."
"I thought monopolies were illegal!" I complained to Steve. "Didn't they make AT&T break up over that?"
He snorted. "They broke up in name only."

Of course he's right. Although there are more long-distance options than there used to be, AT&T - like Microsoft and Ticketmaster - operates with virtually no competition, which means that not only do they command prices - it also means that if they don't feel like working for a customer, they won't, and there's not much the customer can do about it. I remember having a few run-ins with Nynex (now Bell Atlantic) when checking into some unknown calls on my phone bill; upon hanging up after talking to them, the customer service representative recited dutifully, like a schoolgirl, "Thank you for choosing Nynex." Thought I to myself: "Did I ever have a choice?"

The old rule - "The customer is always right!" - no longer seems to be in effect; or, if it is in effect, it is not in effect with the big boys. During my early college years I worked weekends and breaks for a banquet hall, and I remember one particular incident involving seating at a sports banquet. Four people, coming in late, wanted to sit together, but there were no longer four seats available at one table in the "free-seating" room. When they asked that another table be put up, the hostess asked the feast organizers did they want to pay for the addition of another table? The organizers said no, let the late-comers sit where they can - they would not pay for extra.

When informed of this decision, the late-comers left in a huff, blaming the banquet hall, not their fellow club members who organized the banquet, for the decision. When the manager found out about it, he chewed out the hostess. "There might have been a couple of weddings or showers or anniversaries in that family," he raged. "Now, when the time comes, they won't bring their business here."

It may seem less than noble, but it's good business in its realism and common sense - treating a customer well and catering to his or her needs will encourage repeat business. I like to think, myself, that perhaps the good customers make it worth dealing with the bad customers, and that a good customer is someone a customer service rep can take pleasure in doing things for. My father, once a businessman himself, found out that times have changed when he wrote a scathing letter to Reader's Digest Magazine.

My parents are - WERE - fond customers of Reader's Digest. They subscribed to the magazine each year and ordered gift subscriptions for those of their children they thought would enjoy them. My mother joined the book club, and both parents entered the sweepstakes a number of times as well as purchasing a number of books and compact disks. My father paid his bills faithfully and on time. When one day he had forgotten a payment and was late by a few days, he made haste to send in the check - a check that crossed a letter, an extremely ugly, threatening, and borderline insulting letter from Reader's Digest that, in effect, demanded he "pay up now" or be prepared for legal action.

Dad was appalled. He himself would never have treated a customer this way in his bar; particularly a customer who had always been conscientious and an all-around good customer. He knew he didn't have to send in the payment - he'd already done that - but he did send in a letter informing the magazine of the cancellation of his subscription and stating the reason why, which was irritation and insult caused by a hasty threat over a bill a few days late. He cited his status as a good customer and reiterated his decision to not purchase anything else from Reader's Digest.

Upon the completion of this letter (which I have no doubt was a well-written missive, knowing my father), Dad expected something that he probably shouldn't have from such a large magazine in this day and age: an apology. It was what he would have done in an attempt to conciliate a good customer whom he had offended, and to him merely common courtesy and good business. He was shocked that Reader's Digest did not seem to feel the need to pen such a piece of correspondence - one customer out of millions world-wide? Who needs him! I for one doubted that his letter got very far within the corporation. But I could be biased: this was the same organization that didn't even bother to acknowledge a submission of mine a year or so ago. That tends to make a person...well, bummed!

My mother put it best, I think. On the phone with her one day, I complained long and loud about a company from which I was ordering a Christmas present not giving me good service. I wound up with "If I ever get into such a business, I'll-"

"Make yourself feel better by doing the exact same thing!" My mother finished with savage satisfaction.


Jenn Eagen
December, 1997