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All hail the culture of incompetence

With all the thanks given last week (and still lingering), the curmudgeon in me is creeping through, the Grinch inching down the chimney and making his way for the bangles and baubles and platter of roast beast. By our very nature, goodness and light are finite qualities and being more demonic than demotic, my own supply of grace is a slight mote compared to most.

The Christmas doodads that appear on the shelves the day after Halloween are an insignificant annoyance. The cloying, craptacular commercials that pollute the airwaves get the mute button — they test my tolerance a little more. And as we slog interminably towards the grand culmination of these two silly months, my survival skills (honed by decades Fa-la-la-la elides) have allowed me to survive with my sanity almost intact.

Still, it seems that the assault grows even more diabolical with each passing year, testing my mettle, attempting to break me down into a quivering bowl of candied yams topped with marshmallows. With every vacuous boob on cable news jabbering endlessly about idiots camping for days prior to Black Friday, my patience grows thinner, my hair-trigger finger gets itchier. I swear, if I hear another mention of “Cyber Monday,” I’m going to load my underpants with explosives and lash myself to a Christmas tree.

As I said, the spirit of the season grows putrid as the hucksters steamroll me with their supercharged sixteen horsepower engine of suck.

With my gratitude going the way of leftover turkey and the last bottle of Chablis, I begin looking to the things I’m not thankful for and at the top of my list is my unrealistic expectation of minimal competence.

I know, I know — why would I watch cable news when I expect intelligence at some simple level? Call me a cockeyed optimist, a glutton for punishment, a fuddy-duddy on a fool’s errand: the more I refuse to believe that most of the world operates on the CRI (cranial-rectal inversion) principle, the more my head slams soundly into a brick wall.

The latest example is my experience with trying to get Internet and phone service.

Having recently moved to the far reaches of our isolated little town, I discovered I had few choices for Internet. My previous provider did not have enough Cat-5 to get out to where I’d built my house. No heartbreak there: they’d exhibited a level of incompetence with me that could only be described as masterful, raising ineptitude to near artistic heights, the Picasso or Bach of getting very little right.

I’d considered a wireless provider but after a week of waiting a week for them to get back to me (along with wanting $150 up front for their dish, another $50 for a wireless router), I’d pretty much lost interest and patience. No thanks, fellas. I couldn’t afford the upfront fees, kind of deciding that, well, if you can’t get back to me in a day or so, I’ll pass.

Really, my only other choice was CenturyLink, which used to be CenturyTel — having changed their name I assume, much in the same way someone changes their name to dodge bad credit or a criminal record – and although I wasn’t too thrilled with having to sign up for their service (their reputation having preceded my signing up), it seemed the rock and the hard place had me chewing off my own foot.

Besides, the far reaches of our fair town has little to no cellular service. Although one provider is pretty much the only game in town (for now), calls up where I live are a parody of their old commercials: “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? What? I said… Dammit!”

In order to get CenturyLink service, I was also required to get a land line. While I was a little miffed about that at first, another satellite provider’s own steaming heap of incompetence made it clear to me that maybe having a landline wasn’t such a bad deal after all.

There are several considerations here, since Internet is not a luxury for me but an absolute necessity. As a single dad, if one of the wee ones gets sick, I’m working from home and I need to e-mail stories to Karl. Likewise, having found out how pathetic the satellite service can be, the land line was a better idea than I’d first thought. Interviews with the town manager go much easier when I’m not having to try and explain why the call has been dropped several times.

With those considerations in mind, I made the call to CenturyLink, a fairly seamless process (or so I thought). The service representative seemed competent enough — at first. I set up the service call (since my house is a new build, I’d need to have the house hooked up to the junction or whatever) and ordered the router… and there’s where the first red flags went up.

She gave me a 264 exchange which, from experience, I knew was not correct.

“Really, I know there’s no 264 numbers out here,” I told her.“Are you sure this isn’t a 731 number?”

“No, that’s the number that comes up.”

“Ohhhh, kay. If that’s what it is … and about my Internet?”

Explaining that while I did indeed have a physical address (since, um, that’s where the service was being wired) — pretty much where every number had a 731 prefix — my mail went to a PO Box.

“Well, we deliver UPS,” she said. I pictured her doing a Word Find It while she had me on the other end of the line.

“So, let me give you my work address and you can have it delivered there.”

“Wait, no,” she continued, “we can go USPS. We’ll have it to you Monday.”

“Whatever works,” I continued, giving her both addresses,”= “just as long as I get it then.”

I’d violated the first rule of dealing with a customer service representative: DO NOT give them more information than they require. It’s like feeding a bear, with certain destruction and death the inevitable result.

The next day, I received a voice mail from a CenturyLink representative, giving me my 731 number.

Little did I know but my forehead was racing squarely towards a brick wall.

That was two weeks ago. On the following Monday, I received a call from the CenturyTel technician, telling me he was at my place and was hooking up my house. Subsequent calls from him told me that he was either very confused or very lonely. Not particularly hard up for friends, I kept our conversations brief, mostly anxious to get my hungry little fingers on my router and finally have Internet service. Unfortunately, my visit to the Post Office was greeted with a big zero — no yellow card, no package, just a bill from Verizon for my half-assed service.

“So, where is my router?” I asked when I called CenturyLink.

“I dunno,” answered the latest incompetent, “I’m showing that it was delivered to your PO Box by UPS.”

Sweet Jesus on a thin wafer. “No,” I explained, “UPS doesn’t deliver to the post office.”

“Well, they have it now. You’ll have to call them.”

Which I did and, within two days, UPS had my router delivered to my office.

After the call, exasperated, I returned home to a house that, though wired, was not really functioning as far as communications from my new home. And I knew I was wired because the technician had left the cable from the junction box exposed on the ground. One hundred feet of wire, phone wire, the kind that electrocutes crows and blasts out sparks in bad weather, just lying on the ground, running from the junction box, up the east side of my house, around the back of my house, and then half way around the west side of my house to where the connection is located — just lying on the ground.

A bit irritated, I was nonetheless certain things were cool, at least until the cable was buried. After all, I was fairly certain my kids wouldn’t be out in the yard chewing on the cord.

Nothing happened as far as burying the cable.

In the meantime, my parents had arrived for Thanksgiving and I had other things to think about: family, food, no fist fights. But by Friday, I was fit to be tied. Cable still flopping around on the dirt and, having tried both numbers that had been assigned to me, neither worked: both were disconnected.

Of course, another call to CenturyLink was warranted. It was as if they’d had a sheet of Things We Can Completely Screw Up and they had checked every box. I was in no mood to deal with continued incompetence.

Except, unbeknownst to me, they had one more box to check.

From early Friday morning, the absurd menu that customers are sent through to talk to a live person ended with, “Our resolution center is experiencing an emergency. Please call back when …,” a message that continued until… well, hell I’ll never know. By that afternoon, frustrated, I bypassed the idiotic menu system and just pounded zero until I finally reached a live person.

The first woman who took my call received the brunt of my ire: with the delivery of my router a joke (UPS resolved that issue), exposed cable on the ground, no working phone, a customer service menu that went nowhere … I was in no mood to deal with yet one more example of morosis.

“Can I get your social security number?” she asked a minute or so into the call.

“No,” I said, spitting nails. “I won’t give you anything. You give me something. In fact, there are so many issues with my account, let’s escalate this; let’s take this to the next level. Let me talk to your supervisor.”

It took 20 minutes of me being on hold but I finally talked to the first non-blockhead I had talked to during all my dealings with CenturyTel. Sylvia was wonderful — sympathetic, understanding and, first and foremost, competent.

“Really?” I asked her, “is laying bare wire on the ground the way CenturyTel does things? Do you think that’s safe? Do you consider that good workmanship?”

“No, sir,” she replied, “that’s not how we do things and I don’t know what happened. And that’s not what is going to be done.”

Although Sylvia was wonderful (giving me a small credit for my troubles), she conceded, very apologetically, that nothing could be done until Monday; someone had misplaced the order for my phone number and there was no way to get technicians out to my house to bury the cable until then.

Not your fault, I said, and thanked her for finally being the first bright light at a company whose motto ought to be, “We’ve raised the bar in FUBAR!”

Last week it was reported that American corporations had reaped $1.66 trillion in profits during the past year, the most ever in over 60 years (and when such records have been kept) and, I suspect, they’ve managed that, by and large, to make those profits through continued shoddy products, screwing their workers and overpaying the imbecilic floor-lickers who run those corporations, who have done more damage to our country than a battalion of 9/11 hijackers.

I’m not saying that my situation is comparable to a flaming airliner crashing into a building. However, the culture of incompetence, at a corporate level, and a complete disregard for simple customer service and quality is certainly symptomatic of why we’re handing our jobs, our money and our standing in the world over to China and India, part and parcel, with no regard for our country’s future.

When you’re picking up that next package of Christmas lights, box of ornaments or wreath and take a look at where it’s made — you’ll see where we’re being bah-humbuggered.

I don’t think I’m being unrealistic in expecting minimal competence; after all, it’s expected of me. And I don’t think I’m being unreasonable finding it odious to see Christmas promoted almost two months before it happens; two weeks is sufficient. And I don’t think I should be grateful that it’s not as bad as it could be; if there was ever an excuse for incompetence, that would be it.