“We can do whatever we want.”

Long, long ago on Saturday Night Live there was a brilliant skit, a commercial for the phone company featuring Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the Operator giving a behind the scenes tour:

A gracious hello. Here at the Phone Company, we handle eighty-four billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth. So, we realize that, every so often, you can’t get an operator, or for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order, or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn’t make.

We don’t care!

Watch this… [ she hits buttons maniacally ] We just lost Peoria.

You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space age technology that is so sophisticated  [ she hits buttons with her elbows ] even we can’t handle it. But that’s your problem, isn’t it?

So, the next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string?

We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.

Along these lines, here’s a recent anecdote taken from the comments section of an economics weblog I follow.

I have a buddy who owes 10K on a 20k credit card. He makes plenty of money and makes his credit card payments on time. He called up the bank to negotiate a final payment of lets say 60 cents on the dollar and he would pay off the rest of the balance. They asked why he thought he could do such a thing and that he has to pay back the money he borrowed. Well, he said that since they are re-negotiating the balances and payouts of people who could not make their payments, he wanted in on this deal also of not paying off the entire balance.

Fair enough, I’d say, and good for this fellow for noticing that the bank’s decision to reduce balances for only folks who couldn’t pay them was not out of any sense of fairness but strictly pragmatic.

The pragmatism continues, though, as does the anecdote.

They said no deal. Two days later they dropped his credit limit to 11K and raised his APR. He called back and asked WTF. They said the account rep could hear stress in his original call. He replied that he has no stress as he makes more money now then when he applied and was given his 20k limit. Also, why would stress in my voice cause you to make these changes to my account anyway. Why does that even matter if that was the case. The bank responded with….”we can do whatever we want”.

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4 thoughts on ““We can do whatever we want.”

  1. A few of the catalog clothing companies and book catalog people, and my online grocery store, are still quite knowledgeable and helpful, but sadly, abysmally bad service, given with scrupulous, flow-chart politeness which signals its opposite, is the new normal for most large companies. That said, I still find that if I can go into a business and talk to the people who work there face to face, employees are almost always kinder. This happened with my bank last week when a large, mysterious, and unexpected fee appeared–the phone rep was implacable, but the branch manager listened when I went by in person, and I appreciated it.

  2. Ernestine the operator was on “Laugh In” not “Saturday Night Live.” You have to be over 50 to remember that! As a former phone company operator, she lives forever in my heart ;o)

  3. Well, I’ll be switched! There she is….I worked for Ma Bell from 1981 to 1991 in the business office and honestly, it was the worst job I have ever had.

    Sometimes with customer reps on the phone, when you get terse or less than helpful responses, it’s the pressures behind the rep on the phone with you that are to blame. It’s still not right but when you are treated like a number, it brushes off on your work.

    That experience is also why I now try to do as much of my shopping locally, getting to know the local clerks and merchants. It helps avoid the impersonal response.

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