Friday, May 20, 2005

It’s about time!

Welcome to The Fuddler, an occasional sounding board or soap box if you will for my opinions, musings and just plain rantings. This is the first of what will hopefully be many postings. I hope that they’ll inspire you to stop and think about things in our everyday lives apart from what’s on the tube or the talk show circuit. At the very least, I hope that you will enjoy reading them.

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Service? What’s that?

A while back, I visited The Czech Republic, a central European nation which until the collapse of Soviet Communism was part of the old Soviet Bloc. A travel guide which I was reading warned that having come out from behind the "Iron Curtain" only recently, many Czech shop owners, restauranteurs and sales clerks would probably be indifferent, sloppy and even downright rude in their delivery of services. Well, upon arriving in Prague (a lovely city, but I’ll talk about that some other time), I braced myself for the worst. Well, it turned out that my travel guide was dead wrong. The bank tellers who changed my money were quick and courteous. The guy in the camera shop where I had my film developed was knowledgeable and spoke very good English too. The bartender in the pub where I had my first sip of Absinthe (served Czech style with a flaming sugar cube, of course) was cheerful and talkative. The salesclerk in a CD shop the size of a bathroom but nonetheless loaded with interesting titles was friendly, knowledgeable, and even gave me a free copy of a CD of some of his homeland’s native music for my edification. Even the cashier in the convenience store where I bought myself some Fidorkas, who didn’t speak a single word of English, told me how much I owed by punching the price of my purchases into a calculator and showing me the total. So much for Soviet-style non-service, indeed!

The Land Of The Free seems to be a different story. A few weeks back, I bought a broadband router/firewall for my computer from a local computer store. No problem with the store, whose name you’d recognize in an instant. Rather, it was the manufacturer who gave me the hell ride of my life. I ran into some technical problems with the router about 2 weeks after I got it, and so I went to their web site and looked up their customer service number. As often happens these days, when I dialed in, I got a robot answering system, but its female voice had a distinct Indian accent. Okay, I thought, a lot of companies are farming out call centers to India. I actually found the female voice rather charming. A few minutes later I was connected with a tech support worker. That’s when the real fun began. Between the slightly noisy connection and the fellow’s VERY heavy accent, it was very difficult for us to get our points across to each other. Halfway through our conversation, I got cut off. I tried calling back, but got a recording telling me that technical support was closed for the evening and why didn’t I go to their web site (which promised a 24-hour 7-day-a-week toll-free tech support number!).

More recently I contacted my record club about some outstanding charges. The fellow on the other end (who insisted that he was indeed stateside) obviously had a very poor command of the English language and needless to say, the transaction did not go very smoothly.

Now, if I travel to Bangalore or Tegucigalpa and I cannot speak the local tongue, too bad for me. But if I’m dealing with an American company whose clientele is primarily American, then I have a right to expect that whoever’s behind the counter or phone desk knows enough English to complete my transaction. Hiring some immigrant who doesn’t know proper English, simply because he’ll take any job and work cheap, is frustrating to the customer and damn cruel to the immigrant. And with all kinds of Americans unemployed now, why are corporations shipping call-center work offshore? (Answer: Why hire an American for $6.00 an hour when you can hire someone else for $6.00 a DAY?).

The Czech people are trying out capitalism after almost half a century of commissars and official quotas. It looks to me like they’re making a serious go at it. American corporations on the other hand, have gotten so huge that they appear to have become insulated from most real-world market forces. Their mania for cheap labor and goods whatever the cost to our nation is in my view a bigger threat to capitalism than anything all of the world’s Communists put together could do. What will it take, short of wholesale customer rebellion, to turn this situation around?