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Jewish World Review
April 8, 2009
/ 14 Nisan 5769
No more phoning it in
Just 25 years ago, if someone had told me that by the year 2009 most Americans would be carrying around small, wireless telephones that could be used nearly anywhere to make calls, send text messages and take and transmit photos and videos, I'm pretty sure I would have been skeptical. "How do you know?" I would have wondered, suspiciously. "What are you, a visitor from the future? And if so, who cares about micro-telephones that take pictures - where's your time machine?"
But the fact remains that, in terms of telephone technology, we've come a long way from the era, not too long ago, when "roaming capability" meant having a phone cord that could stretch all the way into the bathroom.
One of the big differences back then was that consumers didn't enjoy a range of service options. When ordering a new phone, the provider alternatives you faced were, essentially, "Do you want to go with the phone company, or do you not want to have any phone service?" And you didn't complain because the phone company was a mysterious, powerful organization that no one dared cross, much like the mob, except that not even the Mafia had access to those cool phones with a rotary dial right in the receiver that a phone company technician could make work even when clipped onto, say, a toaster.
Then in the early 80s, perhaps fearing competition from another massive, unresponsive, unaccountable bureaucracy, the federal government broke up the phone company. This ushered in the era of long distance wars, in which every other television commercial you saw featured an actor like Candace Bergin or Cliff Robertson expressing their expert celebrity opinion that consumers should avoid making a horrible mistake and choose whichever long distance company happened to be paying Candace Bergin or Cliff Robertson.
This was, of course, back when receiving a long distance phone call was actually a big deal. Why, even the term itself inspired great reverence. After answering the phone, a mother might shush her rambunctious brood by hissing, "I'm talking to your Aunt Agnes long distance," employing the same dramatic emphasis one might use to say, "I'm talking to the kidnappers about your father's ransom."
Today we have not only moved beyond the concept of the long distance phone call, but many consumers are abandoning traditional home phone service altogether. One increasingly popular alternative is the free Internet-based service Skype, which involves getting used to talking into a computer instead of a standard telephone. But most Skype users report adapting quickly, crediting the practice they've gotten over they years yelling at their computer screens.
The phone companies aren't just idly sitting by while this newfound competition cuts into their customer base, however. I discovered this fact recently when I tried to cancel the account with my home phone service company, which I will not explicitly identify because I have a policy of never publicly criticizing a company with a name that consists of the first three letters in the word "attorney."
Anyway, I repeatedly tried calling the customer service line to cancel, but I kept getting stuck on hold. Typically in such situations I would assume, based on my past dating experience, that the other party was just blowing me off and wanted nothing further to do with me. And I'd get the hint, at least once the restraining order was delivered. But in this case I knew that my provider couldn't be trying to ditch me because a recorded voice kept coming on the line to explain that my call was important to them. "Darn this unusually high call volume that seems to strike every time I call!" I remember thinking.
Eventually I did thwart their ingenious plan to keep by business by never taking my call, but only after I gave up on getting through and instead soliciting help from a Voodoo priestess friend.
And as it turns out, they were telling the truth that my call was important to them. I know this because, since canceling my account, company representatives have become incredibly communicative, calling practically every week to plead for me to sign up again. And much as I'm flattered by the attention, it's sort of pitiful. After all, this is the same company that not too long ago had the arrogance to tell people trying to order new service, "We'll have a technician out there between the hours of 9:00 am Thursday and whenever the comet Kahoutek returns. Will someone be at home?"
And now, here they are, in full grovel mode, begging me to take them back. Frankly, I feel a little bit guilty about abandoning them. So guilty, in fact, that very soon I'm going to check to see if the representative who called yesterday is still waiting for me on hold.
JWR contributor Malcolm Fleschner is a humor columnist for The DC Examiner. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner