Stanley Fish Gets His Just Desserts 
Sunday, January 4, 2009, 05:35 PM
Over on his blog at the New York Times, Stanley Fish has a post up complaining about AT&T's customer service. Mr. Fish owns two homes and lives half the year at each one. When he changes homes, he has to turn on his phone service again:
“I’ve been away for some time and my services were reduced. I’d like to have them restored to what they were when I left in June.”

It turned out that this was not possible. Even though I had paid to retain my phone number, I was going to be treated as a new customer, which meant that I would have to answer a bunch of questions and decline services I had never had.


Phone companies probably don't prepare for the contingency where residential customers regularly rotate through several houses -- it is simply too small a fraction of the population that enjoys such luxuries. When adding a new customer, it makes sense to try and sell them as many services as possible.

The real thing that set Mr. Fish off, however, was the fact that the agent greeted him with the grammatically incorrect question "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?":
I should have quit when I was (somewhat) ahead, but I couldn’t resist returning to the greeting, with its double and ungrammatical “with.” I explained that the second “with” was superfluous, as the second “to” would be if the offending question had been, “to whom am I speaking to?”, or the second “about” if the question had been “about what are you worrying about?”

Somehow that didn’t make much of an impression on her. She said that her instructions were to greet callers in that way and that she would continue to do so. I replied that it was scandalous that a multi-billion-dollar world-wide telecommunication corporation would order its employees to commit an egregious (and comical) grammatical error millions of times a day.

She said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

I lost it. It has nothing to do with feelings, I ranted. It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct.


Is it just me, or is there something wrong with taking out your frustrations with a multinational corporations on the nearest poor slop getting paid $9 an hour who happens to work for that company? After all, she obviously has no control over her employer's actions. It reminds me of a similar situation at San Diego airport the other day. Fog had grounded the planes the night before and the next morning flights were still slammed, with stranded passengers desperately trying to get out. Every single passenger service counter at each gate in the terminal had a line, as harried agents rushed to reroute passengers as quickly as possible. It took me over 40 minutes to advance 4 places in line because a man at the front refused to accept what the agent was telling him.

"Why can't I wait until the 3 p.m. flight to Portland?"
"Because that flight is full, sir."
**Five more minutes of haggling**
"I don't understand why you're trying to route me through Oakland. There's a flight at 3 p.m. to Portland."
"Sir, the flight at 3 is full. The trick right now is getting out of San Diego, and there's a flight from Oakland to Portland at 2:30 p.m. today."
**Continue ad nauseum for several more minutes**

It was as if the man thought that the agent was holding out on him -- that, like a street vendor, it was possible to wear the man down and get a better deal.

In the end, as Mr. Fish discovered, taking out your frustrations on the nearest customer service agent isn't always the wisest plan:
She changed the subject by informing me that the social security number I had given when she asked for it was not the number she had on record. I asked her to change it, but she pleaded incapacity: “No, I can’t do that. I’ll connect you to the department where they can.”

That was a promise made subsequently by five other people as I was repeatedly transferred to someone who told me, “No, I can’t do that.” Everyone I talked to assured me that within seconds I would be talking to the right person. My last interlocutor took pity on me, and although he too was not the right person, he knew someone in his division who was and said he would talk to him directly. When he came back, it was to tell me that the social security number on record was in fact the one I had given him. The whole thing had been a wild goose chase.


Oops! I'm sure it was just an honest mistake...

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