Sunday, July 09, 2006

Every Game You Play, I'll Be Watching You

Latest Newspaper Column:

When New Yorker Vincent Ferrari tried to cancel his subscription to America Online, he ran into the same problem that a lot of people run into who try to log off for good from the popular Internet service provider: It's like trying to get out of a bad marriage.

See, you can't just quit by the press of an online button. You have to call a "customer service representative," and I put those words in quotes for a reason.

The guy Ferrari got hold of, who called himself "John," didn't want Vince to leave AOL. I mean he really, really didn't want Vince to go. He stalled. He argued. He offered deals to get Vince to stay. He argued some more.

"What's the matter, man?" "John" said plaintively at one point, as Vince got testy. "I'm just trying to help here." Finally, with ill grace, "John" gave in and let Vince cancel, with this parting shot: "Someday you're going to realize it was actually in your best interest to listen to me."

When Brian Finkelstein of Washington State called for someone from Comcast, his Internet service provider, to come fix his broken cable modem, a tech finally showed up after three missed appointments. The tech had to make a call to Comcast's headquarters to resolve some issue and was, of course, put on hold. The tech then fell asleep on Brian's couch.

How do we know these horror stories? Because Vincent and Brian discovered how to harness the power of modern technology to expose lousy customer service. Vincent, prepared by stories of AOL hell, recorded his ordeal with "John." Brian recorded footage of the sleeping technician with his digital video camera. They then posted their recordings on the Internet.

Vincent used his weblog, entitled "Insignificant Thoughts," whereas Brian posted the video on, a Web site where subscribers can upload their favorite videos to the net for all to see. Brian even made "Sleeping Beauty" the centerpiece of a little music video, complete with title cards thanking Comcast for "weeklong outages, long hold times, high prices, three missed appointments, promising to call back and not calling thanks, Comcast, for everything."

The recordings got thousands of hits on their respective Web sites, so many that Vincent had to go offline briefly because of the traffic load.

Vincent and his battle to get free of AOL were profiled on the "Today" show, where he played a selection from the tape. Both men's stories were featured in an article in the New York Times.

The two got more that just 15 minutes of fame, however; they got results. Vincent received a letter of apology from an AOL vice president, who claimed that "John" was "no longer with the company." Brian posted later that his problems with Comcast had been resolved.

Complaints of lousy customer service are nothing new on the Internet. There are even whole sites devoted to them. But thanks to small, cheap, and easy-to-use video cameras, cell phone cams, digital recorders and mp3 players that can record audio, people can document their grievances.

A company called Pure Digital is marketing a "point and shoot" video camera that runs on AA batteries, holds up to 30 minutes of high-quality video, and can instantly transfer the images onto your computer, ready to be uploaded for viewing worldwide on sites like YouTube. Price: a dirt-cheap $125.

Imagine the possibilities. Getting the runaround from the guy at tech support? Record the call and upload it. Surly teenager behind the counter refusing to come and let you pay for your rental videos until she's hashed out her boyfriend problem on her cell phone? Whip out the vidcam and make her a star. Smile, Suzy, you're on "Candid Camera."

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once famously observed that "an armed society is a polite society."

The saying has been cited for years by gun advocates, but upon reading the story in which it appears, I doubt that anyone would really enjoy living in the heavily armed and duel-intensive fictional society he describes. On the other hand, if everyone were armed with a video recorder and a fast Internet connection, society might very well be a more polite place.

Now, before some ninny jumps up and accuses me of being inconsistent on privacy issues, understand that I'm not talking about recording private interactions among third parties without permission. But you've got a right to record your own dealings with people.

And certainly anything that happens to you in the street or in the shops is fair game for you to record.

So the next time a telephone customer service rep informs me that "your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes," I may just respond, "you can count on it."


Cornelia Read said...

I want one of those $125 video cameras. I have a feeling my family would prefer I NOT have one, however.

Great article!!

Rae said...

Awesome article, dude ;-)

Kim Mizar-Stem said...

Great stuff Dusty! My husband recently had such an incident inside of a Best Buy - - no one would help him.....he sat there for almost 30 minutes after asking for assistance in buying an expensive printer!

I wish he would have had a video camera with him. Instead, he just pushed on the emergency exit door, suddenly the entire sales department was at his side!! (Embarassed the hell out of his 13 year old daughter!)

Elizabeth said...

An AOL rep called me three years ago in November and tried to offer me a $99 travel package. I told her no, and asked her to put me on AOL's do not call list. One month later, what appears on my bill? $99 AOL travel service. Took me three months to get it off my account.

The next year in November? Big surprise, another $99 charge.

And this year in November? You'll be shocked I'm sure to hear that yet another $99 appeared on my bill.

The moral of the story? Never take a phone call from AOL. Ever.