Friday, September 17, 2010

Bad to the Bone

Today, we’re inaugurating a new column, Bad Advice from Aunt Quinn. On occasion, I will take reader questions about the frustrations of the modern age and I’ll answer them in a way all but guaranteed to get someone arrested or send their credit score into the 200s. For our first question, we hear from J, a charming and nearly solvent writer living here in Los Angeles:

Dear Aunt Quinn,
How many calls do you think it should take to the New York Times to get them to fix a bill that is four times too high?

a) 2
b) 3
c) 11 and counting
d) Who pays for news these days?

I received a bill in the middle of July for $198, because my half-off deal was ending. I promptly called and switched to Sunday only, because while I love the New York Times, since we now have a gate no neighbors can see that we receive it so we've forfeited all of the erudition points we used to get. I figure that the Sunday version lands with enough of a thud to alert those in the vicinity that the Paper of Record has been delivered, but that might just be hopeful thinking...

Since switching to Sunday only, I've received five bills, each approximately $10 less than the previous bill, each as far off the mark as Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell. The bill should be $45. How do I know this? Because I love math, and because Supervisor Lisa confirmed it to me three phone calls ago.

You know that sigh of relief you allow yourself when you've finally reached someone, finally Theseusly navigated your way past so many minotaur representatives in the byzantine labyrinth known as the call center and connected -- really connected -- with someone who instantly gets your problem, admits the company's error and -- and! -- can do the mental math confirming your calculation that your bill is 400% too high?

That was Lisa for me.

She promised me I'd get a new bill fixing everything. She gave me her private extension. I thought, "Won't this be an interesting anecdote, the 'How do you know Lisa?' question at your commitment ceremony once Prop 8 is overturned."

Then two days ago I got another bill, for $131. About $10 less than the previous one.

Oh, Lisa.

So I called her. Can you call an extension directly? No. I -- being a regular navigator of call centers -- know enough to press "one" to order a new subscription, because that takes you to the shiny desk where the pretty representative answers immediately -- but Lisa was out. Can I leave her a message? No. They have to do it for me.

Lisa would call me back. Which she did. Yesterday.

At 8:20 a.m.

Now I don't know about you, or Lisa, but I'm not ready to do mental math, or confront anyone, before 9:00. I missed the call. I left her another message -- through another representative -- an hour after she called. No call back. Though I should probably check the machine and see if she tried me last night at the witching hour, or sunrise this morning.

The thing that drives me most nuts -- since you asked -- is the mysterious "previous balance" listed on each bill. That's the number that's wrong, but that's the one all the discounts and corrections are being applied to. I don't have a "previous balance" of $168.67. I have a previous balance of $21.17.


Quinn here. Some of you will probably notice "J" didn’t specifically ask for advice, but that’s only because he didn’t realize he’d be the beta test for my new advice column. So here, unbidden, is my advice to J...
Dear I’m Just a Bill,

There is someone at fault here but it’s not Lisa, it’s you. This is the New York Times, straight from New York, where people are very up-to-date and do many things all at once and walk down busy sidewalks drinking hot coffee from paper cups with the Acropolis printed on the side. Yes, they are sending you the Paper of Record every week, but that doesn’t mean that, underneath their Gray Lady exterior, these sohhisticated and very busy men and women are not passionate about life's greater impulses. What I mean to say, J., is that you are participating in performance art. Please catch up.

Your first clue this wasn’t a real life experience was the fact that you actually talked to a living person who took responsibility for something. Think back to the last time you heard someone affiliated with a large company say anything like "Yes, our company bollixed that one up" or "Luckily, I am the person who can remedy that".

You were in short pants. People took pride in owning a hi-fi. Seriously, J, no one has admitted to understanding a legitimate customer problem since before potato chips came in tubes. I don’t know how much clearer the Times could have been with you. This was not a billing issue, this was ART. You were the inciting incident or the wacky sidekick or maybe you were the Macguffin, but you weren’t the audience and, candidly, everyone at the Times office was a little disappointed in your lack of strong character choices. Upon receiving the next incorrect bill, you called back and tried to talk to Lisa? I’m no theater critic, but that’s just flabby work on your part.

When Lisa called you at 8:20, everyone at the Times was hoping you’d waken from a sound sleep and grab the phone in a panic, assuming a loved one was dead (They already know you’re a writer who works at night. That’s why they chose you!) Everyone at the Times was a little sad you missed the heart rending scene wherein you struggled to wake up while Lisa revealed to you that she is, in poimt of fact, a replicant designed by time-traveling mutant chinchillas specifically programmed to empathize (or pretend to empathize) with humans. That was going to be sweet. Well, you missed the call and now you must make amends by upping the drama.

Starting Monday, and every Monday in perpetuity, you are to send the New York Times a bill. Monday, the “Previous balance” will be $71.24 or any other random number of your liking. The week after, you will add interest to that amount. The following week, you’ll add interest plus a “billing fee.” The week after that, it’s interest, the billing fee and “Chinchilla Food.” Any previous week's total should have no bearing on the current balance because while you might think you’re getting incorrect bills from the New York Times, what you are getting instead is a series of plaintive requests to please, please create a meaningful and lasting piece of performance art about the mulish stupidity of large corporations held hostage to their own billing systems.
And you, dear J, are just the man to do it.

And save the crossword puzzles for me.

Yours in bad advice,
Aunt Quinn


Blogger Sara J. Henry said...


5:44 PM  
Blogger lisahgolden said...

Hilarious. Definitely worth the wait.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Susan said...

Very funny! Enjoyed reading it twice...

6:27 AM  
Blogger Another Joan said...

If I can get the coffee of my computer screen, will be bookmarking (or however one saves stuff on the innerwebs these days) this for the next time I have to deal with eejits and bills. And I'm going to say you told me to!

8:58 AM  
Blogger Miss Cavendish said...

And 8:20 in LA is . . . about 1:20 in NY, yes?

In my small town, one has to reserve the Sunday Times at the local pharmacy. For the past month, the pharmacy ladies have been particularly gleeful in telling me that although I have a NYT reserved, they have given away my NYT to someone else because "someone else" was there first. Love small town logic and schadenfreude.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Quirky said...

Oh Quinn. I do love you. I've been trying to sort out an insurance bill for weeks (Medical insurance's motto: You dare call us with a billing question? Vague $400 "miscellaneous blood work" invoice for you! HAHAHAHA!) and I do believe things will go much better if I just admit that the whole thing is performance art.

wv: trama. Oh honey, you have no idea.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Robin Raven said...

So funny. Yet a frustrating situation, for sure! You would think that they would really be devoted to better customer service, with the problems that traditional presses are facing.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Kathryn said...

Sublime! Why must some bills just do a Topsy every time you turn around? Here is my question.

I decided on January first of this year that since I am fast approaching middle age (currently 58), I would really get serious about all that health stuff. So, I walked. I breathed. I ate correctly. I hydrated. I read labels. I ended up in the stinking hospital for an inordinate amount of time because of some virus that I am fairly certain was brought on by organic cotton/bamboo undergarments. My question. Why must one be weighed at five in the morning? Is that the magical hour when the scale fairies come to life? Every stinking morning? Do the fairies not have a union? To whom should one complain? I attempted to describe what a scale grill would look like to Ben, the perky orderly, but he didn't seem to care. I finally was released yesterday to come home. This morning at five, I swear I heard our scale clanking, so I got up and threw it out the bathroom window.

Oh, and the word verification for this is obhit. Just a tad close, don't you know!

12:48 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Love it! I wish I'd had Auntie Quinn's advice when dealing with a similar situation with the Chicago Tribune. What is it about newspapers and basic arithmetic/customer service issues?

7:11 AM  
Blogger Eileen said...

Dear Aunt Quinn~

I used to work in a call center for a major metropolitan newspaper (lo, these many eons ago), and I would like to thank you for pointing out the error of J's ways. It's very frustrating to get call after call from people who refuse to do their part.

There is no scope for creativity if you call and merely politely notify the company that your carrier hasn't delivered your paper for three years, and yet keeps billing you on a bi-weekly basis. If all you are going to do is quietly ask that your bill be adjusted to a realistic level, you are not in the game and you might as well not show up.

I can't tell you the thrill it gave everyone when a real player called and threatened to personally track me down and shoot me with a missile launcher if I didn't immediately drive over and remove the paper from his bushes. Now THAT is a real artist with his head in the game!!

Let's hope your bad advice will have a good influence on all the lazy participants out there - really, all this 'good sport' crap is ruining the national passtime. If you can't throw your heart into it, don't play the game, people. Complaining isn't for dabblers.


9:11 AM  
Anonymous Carol said...

I have a friend who says that when she has a problem with customer service or what ever, she just asks if she can speak to a Carol or a Betty or an Agnes. She know that she will the talk to an older lady who knows customer service.
That is if she is lucky to actually find someone with that name.

12:15 PM  

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