The missing link

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

Corporations have invested considerably in Web technologies. Unfortunately, despite their million-dollar Web sites, many of them anger and possibly lose customers because their customer service is as soulless as an electron.

Take for instance my track record with telecommunications. For 30 years I have paid my phone bill. That bill has expanded since my move to Juneau to include Internet service. Recently my phone line was converted from the traditional copper wire connection to cable. This places me in the dubious position of having one provider for two important means of communication. I say dubious because on two occasions I have lost both services when the cable connection was interrupted, leaving me with no means of communicating with anyone.

With the advent of the Web, the way I pay bills also has changed. To take advantage of airline miles, I decided to enroll in an automatic payment plan using my credit card. This worked pretty well for about three years. Recently, however, I noticed that I needed to update my profile to reflect the new expiration date on my credit card. I went to the Web site, updated the record, and went on with my life.

Two days later, late in the afternoon, we lost our telephone and Internet service. No letter. No phone call. Nothing.

Thank goodness we had an ACS cell phone! I called ACS' leading competitor and gave the poor girl at the customer service number a real earful. I suppose the company has little to fear, being a monopoly in a small, isolated Alaska town. I find it interesting that the local trash-removal company shows more common sense, for it sent me a renewal reminder by mail. And like the global communication company, it has a monopoly in Juneau.

I think there should be a law against this, for the only counter-balance to a monopoly is the government. But the long-term effects can be just as costly: mistrust and a lack of confidence.

My first act was to get off the automatic payment plan. It costs them more to send stuff by mail, but at least I will see a bill and pay it using the old-fashioned online banking service.

This whole affair teaches a lot about how we have placed so much of our lives on autopilot. Some grief could have been avoided if before pulling the plug the company had first checked my profile and realized it had been updated. When our means of conducting transactions becomes increasingly automated and lifeless, we lose touch with the process. Once we got a bill, read it, and wrote a check. Now we get an e-mail saying "Message from your recurring payment." Just about every letter we receive in a mailbox we read. But our e-mail? Then we go one step further and "automate" the process by scheduling our credit card payment.

Avoid having only one provider for communications. If it had not been for my cell phone, I would have had to solve the problem the way they solved such issues in the 1950s: vehicular transport.

• Eric M. Niewoehner can be reached at

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