23 August 2001

"The trouble with the rat race is, even if you win,
you're still a rat."
   - Lily Tomlin

I am sitting at my workstation, sunlight pouring into the room at an unreasonably early hour. I’ve been online already. Even though the service provider has gone bankrupt, the systems are still up and running while another provider salvages the usable pieces. I had a look to see if anything new is posted in the provider’s internal news group. There is.

The man who oversaw the daily operations of the business, who led the team that made all the wrong, bad decisions, who let the company fall into extraordinary debt and disarray while the customers suffered, now writes pathetic little notes to the users. He says he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but one possibility that suggests itself to him is to follow his engineers to the CLEC that purchased his operation. He observes that he’s learned being between the customers and the telephone company is a terrible position for anyone, and he’ll be glad to be out of it. The service in the company and the relationships with long-term customers declined with his arrival on the scene, but he does not seem to have observed this.

I always think it’s interesting to hear what arrogant, proud men have to say for themselves when they are undone by the very wheels they set in motion with their own hands and minds.

I remember how furiously angry I was last summer. I was trying to upgrade to a 56K modem on a computer I wasn’t prepared to ditch. The upgrade wasn’t going well at all. The ISP’s technical support folks blamed the modem manufacturer, the telephone company, and the computer manufacturer for my predicament, feeling themselves blameless. No matter that they’d swapped out access servers at precisely the same time I installed a new modem. “Not our problem,” they insisted, “all our equipment is industry-standard. It’s definitely a problem on your end.”

I believed them at first, and restored my original modem and settings. The performance was abysmal, nowhere near the level of performance I’d experienced the four previous years. “It must be your telephone line,” they said when I reported back my results. “Call the phone company and have them test your lines.” The telephone company came and tested my lines, at the standard rate for service contacts. The ISP technicians bumped me back and forth between first-line and second-line support, and I spoke to several supposedly senior people, all of whom seemed baffled by my problems, because “Nobody else is having trouble.” I’d been reading flames on the newsgroup for weeks. The president of the company posted a note, sneering at my technical ineptitude, and my “whining” about service levels and performance. He suggested the only thing wrong with my computer was the person operating it. He said, “I stand behind my decision to upgrade our equipment for the greater good of our customers.” With that, I stopped believing, and found myself another, better provider, even though I had pre-paid for six months of the old ISP’s services.

I logged in to the old provider now and again, just because I was still paying for the services. About a month after my switch, I found announcements by the ISP’s technical support manager in the internal newsgroup stating the “upgrade” to the new equipment had “failed.” All equipment and settings were being returned to their original states. I laughed when I read the post. I wasn’t going to be returned to my original state.

I’d been maligned in a public forum by people I didn’t know, who’d been paid for services they weren’t rendering to me. In the end, it was my threat of exposure to the Better Business Bureau that got results. I told the ISP’s president, “Just keep it up. I’m beyond caring what you do. I’m a writer, and all of this is going to make for dandy reading in a local trade journal or newspaper.” I may have aimed too low.

The same arrogant manager who so infuriated me then now nostalgically addresses us, the disenfranchised customers, about “the good old days.” The irony is, this is not the person who made those days good. This is the person whose management decisions made all the trouble. I am always surprised when organizations fail to keep their focus on customers. I guess it’s hard to be humble. 

Look at all the people who have climbed the slippery slope, achieved the summit, and then fallen. 

What they wanted was power and control. What they discovered, all of them, was that they could not maintain either power or control without the approval of those who they wished to subjugate. The venue doesn’t really matter, either — the issues and outcomes are always the same.

Excuse me. I have to send up a serving of steaming crow to the newly-unemployed executive. I wonder if he’s hungry enough to eat it?


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