Cuss-tomer service, Part 1: TPC

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James Coburn, as the title character in “The President’s Analyst” (1967), meets the his nemesis in the lair of the evil enterprise everyone loved to hate. (The far-fetched plot doesn’t seem so far-fetched today.)

Once upon a time, the company everyone loved to hate was the ubiquitous AT&T, better known as The Phone Company, or in “The President’s Analyst” (1967), TPC.

The national telephone monopoly known as Ma Bell was broken up in 1984, and its copper-wire networks spun off to regional “Baby Bells.” Today’s AT&T bears the same name, but has diversified into wireless telecommunications and networks. It’s the third largest wireless provider in the U.S.

Back in the day, though, Ma Bell’s customer service left much to be desired, and more to be lampooned. Lily Tomlin developed her famous Ernestine the Operator character on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” at about the same time as Coburn was battling TPC:

Wherever we lived in the U.S., most of us knew the old Ma Bell. I even joked that the Beatles song “Michelle” was about a telephone operator:

Michelle, Ma Bell
These are words that go together well

With apologies to Paul McCartney

When I moved to Connecticut in the early 1980s, though, I discovered that there were still local telephone companies that gave good, personal customer service. One was Woodbury Telephone, an oasis in the TPC desert. It went back to the 1870s, when the owner of the general store wanted to call the railroad station. Some of those original copper wires might still be in use today.

The mouse that phoned

We had — still have — a recurring problem with mice that want a party line. In bad weather they climb the telephone poles and nest inside the high, dry connector boxes.

Back in the day, if you called up TPC to make such a ridiculous complaint, Ernestine would snort something like “Is this the party to whom I am squeaking?”

But call Woodbury Telephone and you’d get Mary, the Girl Next Door who probably chatted with you at the grocery store. She’d know you, and your recurring problem, and send over lineman Tom that afternoon to evict the rodents.

The mice would be back with the next rain storm, and you’d call Mary again and exchange recipes. Tom would come over promptly — perhaps while you were still gossiping.

Artist’s conception of a Baby Bell. (via Pinterest)

That all ended when Woodbury Telephone was bought out by the regional Baby Bell. The Southern New England Telephone Company, or SNET, wasn’t exactly TPC. Its headquarters was only about 25 miles away, in New Haven. But eventually they fired, retired, or reassigned Tom and Mary and all the Woodbury Telephone crew.

SNET closed the local office and service center and dispatched repair crews out of New Haven. We called to explain our problem to a bemused city dweller. She, in turn, told us that things don’t work that way but she’d send someone up in a few days to check it out.

Jerry from New Haven eventually found his way to our street with the help of a paper road map. Then he systematically worked his way from the nearest connection station back toward our house. After a few hours, he came back to our place with a big grin. “You’ll never guess what it was,” he said, beaming. “It was mice!”

Ring of the wild frontier

About 10 years ago, SNET was bought out by a national telecommunications company that started out West. It used a “spokesbuffalo” to introduce itself to us Connecticut Yankees, even though its headquarters are in the state. This company made the purchase not so much for SNET’s land lines as for the opportunity to build a fiber network. Good for them: It’s easier to maintain and more profitable. Good for us: It’s faster and perhaps more reliable.

If, that is, we ever get to see it. We are on a short road. Most of our neighbors have long since given up on the copper and moved any land lines over to VOIP from the cable company. The last time Tom came up from New Haven, or Bridgeport, or wherever he is now, he told us he patched us to the last two working copper wire connections to the switch station in the center of town.

To get to see Tom, or any other service person, we first have to call the customer service center somewhere in the Southwest. (They’d rather you visit the website so the human element can be avoided entirely.) They will dispatch someone about two weeks out. Meanwhile, they will keep texting reminders about the appointment.

They don’t want to hear anything about mice, or to heed when we say to send a lift truck to check the poles. When we try to warn them, they send someone in a van to check the house connection. The connection is always fine. That person has to call for the cherry-picker.

A fiber-poor diet

Last time, Tom was driving the lift truck when it came, so we chatted. The company has a 2-gig fiber line on the main road, a quarter-mile away. But, he said, we don’t have it on our block — and probably won’t for a long time. He figured it would cost about $300,000 to run fiber down our short road for only about 20 potential customers.

You might say they built a better mousetrap but don’t want to beat a path to my door.

Meanwhile, they keep texting us about “service problems in your area” even though our old copper land line is working fine. Maybe we don’t want that fiber network after all.

First in a series of vents about customer service, or lack thereof. Is it a lost art? Let me know in the comments below.

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