Digital World: Outsourcing telephone tag

We may have surly service people and grumpy operators, but at least you can get through to them.

old tele operator 88 248 (photo credit: )
old tele operator 88 248
(photo credit: )
Some Israelis are known to bemoan, at least occasionally, that the language of the land is Hebrew. There are lots of issues with Hebrew, according to these bemoaners: Hebrew letters aren't standard Latin ones, so you need to learn to identify a different set of characters; you write and read it from right to left, instead of the "standard" western left to right, so Israelis always appear to be reading things from "the end"; use of a language spoken and developed by a relatively small number of people limits your ability to communicate with others and to participate in western culture and business, so Israelis are required to learn one or more European languages to do business. Various ideas have been proposed throughout the generations in order to "westernize" Hebrew; for example, dropping the right-to-left Hebrew alphabet and writing "Hebrew" in Latin letters. While most Israelis will tell you they are proud of their heritage, and their language, many will also tick off stories about how Hebrew has made doing businesses or bridging cultural gaps more difficult. What Israelis don't realize is that the use of a "backwater" language, spoken by no one but themselves and a few million Jews outside the country, has been a boon and has saved them from one of the great banes of modern western life: the plague known as "outsourcing." This is mostly an American issue, but a recent face-to-face (or rather, phone-voice-to-phone-voice) encounter with the outsourcing monster on a recent trip to the United States made me realize just how lucky we are, conducting most business on the phone in Hebrew, with people who have likely faced the same things you have and who understand what it means when the service you rely on is broken. On my visit, I dealt with two separate instances of what I call "outsourcing telephone tag" - calling an 800 number (a free US call) for service, only to be connected to service people in faraway places like India, Mexico and even Ireland. Unless you've had to deal with a major service crisis - like in the case of the situation my hosts found themselves in of having a "broken Internet" - you don't realize just how service standards have fallen, ever since the jobs involving helping people fix things over the phone have moved abroad. Yes, it saves companies money, but it's hell on the customers. "So what," you may ask. The people on the phone are just order-takers who are reading a script, and they're limited in what they can help you with. (In one case, trying to restore a broken Internet connection from Verizon, that help was mostly limited to, "Did you unplug the modem and wait 30 seconds?") Back in the days when 800-number phone-service people were natives, they were also reading scripts. Is there any difference? Yes; the whole tone of the conversation, the agility with which the service person recommends solutions and the willingness to help are far different when you are dealing with someone who can identify with you, as opposed to someone who cannot. Not that I don't think Indians, Mexicans or the Irish can be empathetic, sympathetic or willing to help. But especially in the case of countries like India and Mexico, it's hard to expect the service people to understand what you're going through, when they have their own problems - far more serious ones. When you have a problem that needs fixing, you expect that the "voice on the phone" to have a modicum of empathy for your situation. The likelihood of that happening is far lower when the person you're speaking to lives in a tougher, less economically successful society. It's difficult enough to get your countrymen, who have "been there" and realize what's at stake, to understand just how important a service issue is to you. How much more difficult - if not impossible - is it to get a resident of India or Mexico to understand your angst, when they earn maybe a tenth of what you do and have much more important things to worry about than whether you're going to be able to connect to your online video chat? As a "computer expert" (whatever that is), my parents, with whom I recently spent some time, asked me to help them fix their DSL connection, which had mysteriously gone down a couple of days before I showed up. Since I was relying on that connection to do some work while abroad, I, too, was very interested in getting it to work. After 15 minutes of checking, it was clear to me that the problem was the DSL service provider's (Verizon). And of course I called the service number, day after day, with each person giving me the same advice, even though I made it clear that I had already taken all those steps before calling for the first time. The calls to the 800 number all wound up in India (I asked), and when they couldn't help, I was transferred to the "technical department" (in Mexico, also confirmed by the service person). Here I got at least some sympathy (because Mexico is closer to the US?), but no help. Only after copious amounts of yelling, screaming, wheedling, begging and crying, was I transferred (after six days of calls!) to a US service center - at which point the problem was solved within 12 hours of their taking the case. Why? Because the person I spoke to at the US center knew whom to call and what strings to pull to finally get the local office to fix the problem (G-d bless you Sheila from Verizon, wherever you are!). The second problem (also involving lots of wasted time and Indian 800-number phone-service people) is another tale of phone-tag woe, too detailed to go into. Suffice to say, I do not recommend using Tracfone if you are in need of a pay-as-you-go phone while visiting the US. Like I said, this can't happen in Israel. Yes, we may have surly service people and grumpy operators, but at least you can get through to them. And despite all the surliness and grumpiness, I have never had to go a week without an Internet connection here. Bezeq, I will never complain about your service again!