Customer Service – By John Rachel

James Calder could not admit defeat.  In a head-to-head competition with any piece of electronic equipment, there was no such phrase as ‘I give up’.  It was a bitter bloody battle to the end, at which point the particular concoction of knobs, integrated circuit boards and LEDs was tamed, brought to heel, and compelled to perform as promised in either the product advertisements or the instruction manual itself.

He had been wrestling on-and-off for over a month trying to wring all of the glorious new functions out of his recently-purchased Blue Ray Multi-Format Combination DVD, CD and MP3 Player, a product of one of the few remaining manufacturers of consumer electronic equipment on American home soil, Pulsar Ionics, Inc. out of Palo Alto, California.

He had tried everything.  But he couldn’t get the thing to stop ejecting his movie disks.  Obviously this had nothing to do with his wide-ranging skills in the matter.  He had gotten the feistiest pieces of equipment to work in the past, often tricking the microprocessor-based rogue into working.  There had to be something wrong with this unit.

Time to call Customer Service, the thought of which immediately brought flu-like symptoms to his entire body.

To quell the chills, feverish sweating, trembling of his limbs, blurred vision, and general nausea, plus to give him the necessary Olympic marathon runner level of strength and endurance to get through the phone menus and verbally duel with inept, probably stoned customer service representatives, called for drastic action.  This meant huge amounts of caffeine combined with the shock and awe of acute carbohydrate loading.  Within fifteen minutes, James drank a pot of French Roast coffee and downed a half-gallon of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream, then picked up the phone and dialed the 800 number on the back of the Pulsar Ionics instruction manual.

After seventeen rings, it picked up.

If you know the name of the party you are calling, please dial 1.

If you would like our regular menu of menu options, please dial 2.

If you would like to speak to a concerned and highly competent expert on technical matters related to setting up or addressing a malfunctioning unit, please dial 3.

Well.  No-brainer there.  Even if it turns out to be a joke, it’s worth a try.

James pressed 3.

Before the first ring even completed, a friendly enthused voice came on the line.

“Good day, and thank you for being a Pulsar Ionics customer.  How can I help you?”

James, despite the edge given him by his caffeine-sugar high and his code orange readiness for a confrontation with an army of antagonists of any shape and number, was taken aback.

“You . . . you . . . want to help me?”

“Yes, sir!  That’s why I’m here.  And I believe that’s why you called.  What’s the problem?”

“I bought one of your new Blue Ray DVD players and—”

“Can you give me the serial number on that?  It’s right on the back, an engraved number next to where the power cord is attached.”

“Right.  Here it is.  XA32251176B.”

“Great.  Thanks.  I notice that you never sent in the warranty card on that particular unit.”

“Well, uh—”

“No problem.  No problem at all.  It’s still covered.  Now from your phone number, you must be James Calder.  My name is Frank Delano and I’m proud to tell you that I won the award recently as Customer Service Agent of the Month, which if I must say so myself is quite an honor.  We here at Pulsar Ionics pride ourselves in offering the best possible service in the entire industry and as a result have a positive customer service rating of 98.7%.  Not too shabby, eh Mr. Calder?”

“Not too shabby.”

“Okay. Let’s get down to business.  We guarantee 100% customer satisfaction, and to be quite honest with you, we have had quite a number of complaints about this particular unit.  Mr. Calder, are you still at 9305 SW Appian Way Drive, Portland, Oregon, 97224?”

“Uh . . . yes.  That’s correct.”

“And will you be there in twenty-eight minutes, Mr. Calder?”

“I can be.  But what—”

“Then just sit tight.  We’ll get back to you in twenty-eight minutes.  Thanks for calling, Mr. Calder.”

Click.

When the line went dead, James stared at the receiver.  Was that for real?  He finally hung up. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and scraped the inside of the Ben & Jerry’s container for a few remaining droplets of the melted ice cream.  As he thought about it, he became agitated.  Then angry.  What a huge waste of time that was!  The gall of them!  Twenty-eight minutes?  He’d be lucky if he heard from them in twenty-eight weeks, much less twenty-eight minutes.

Screw this!  He’d just take it back to the store where he bought it and make them exchange it.  Thank god he kept the receipt and the box.

Pleased that he had saved all of the original packaging, but still upset that he had to go through all of this rigamarole, he reconstructed all of the redundant wrapping, plastic bagging and bundling of the unit, power cords and cabling.  Then he stuffed all of it with the instruction manual into the box.  As he turned to walk through the kitchen to inside entrance of the garage, the front doorbell rang.  Jeez.  What now?  If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.  This was probably another one of those persistent Watchtower Magazine people.

As he opened the door, he was greeted by a well-groomed thirty-something male, in a business suit and tie, hand extended, and grinning like a game-show host.

“It looks like I’m a couple minutes late.  Sorry about that.”

“Wait!  No way!  You’re the customer service guy?  From Pulsar Ionics?”

“Yes.  Precisely.  My name is Matthew Lusario, Portland technical assistance team leader.  You can just call me Matt.  And actually I got here on time.  But I was bringing your empty trash containers in from the street and when I put them in the garage, I noticed that your right front tire was a little low.  So road service will be here in a few minutes to take care of that.  And I told them while they’re here, they might as well rotate your tires.”

“But, I can’t—”

“No worries.  I’ll put it on my expense account.  So, Jim.  It’s okay if I call you Jim, isn’t it?”

“That’s what my friends call me.”

“There you go!  I know we just met, but I think we have the beginnings here of a real solid friendship.  So, Jim.  Where is the troublemaker?”

“Troublemaker?”

“You said you had one of our new Blue Ray DVD units.  Can I have a look?”

“It’s right here.  I put it back in the box.”

“A smart move, Jim.  Frankly, it’s not very good.  There are much better ones on the market.  I don’t know what those guys down in engineering were thinking.  Maybe they were smoking some of that funny weed.  How much did you pay for it?”

“Here’s the receipt.  It says $129.95 plus tax.  It came to $138.40 total.”

“Fine.  Here’s $150 cash.  Just keep the change.”

The customer service guy reached down and pulled from his duffel bag an unopened box with the Panasonic logo prominently printed on all sides.

“Now this is a much better unit.  Much much better.  Simpler to use.  More reliable.  And it’ll last forever.”

“You’re recommending a competitor’s model?”

“Jim.  We want you to be happy.  A happy customer is a loyal customer.  That’s our motto.”

“So what’s this going to cost me?  You want the $150 back, right?”

“No, Jim.  Just keep it.  For your inconvenience.  Anyway, let’s get this up and running.”

Matthew unpacked the new Panasonic Blue Ray DVD player, hooked it up, then put in a Blue Ray DVD disk of Leonardo DiCaprio’s new movie Shutter Island.  It sprang to life on the flat panel screen James had set up in the corner of his modest living room.

“You have a copy of Shutter Island already?  It just came out in the theaters two weeks ago.”

“We have our connections, Jim.  Keep it.  It’s yours.  Compliments of Pulsar Ionics.”

“I . . . I . . . don’t know what to say.  Usually—”

“Yes.  I know about ‘usually’.  We get it all the time.  People complaining that once we get your money, we forget about you.  That kind of customer service is a thing of the past.  But that’s how we are at Pulsar.   We’re different, Jim.  We are serious about . . . about going the extra mile.  For you.  We believe it’s the least we can do.   So is there anything else I can do?  Looks like the Panasonic is working great.”

“Wow!!  I have to say, this really helps restore my faith in corporations.”

They shook hands.  Jim was all smiles.  Matt was all smiles.  Jim showed Matt to the door.  But just before he left, he turned back to Jim.

“This is kind of a personal question.  But if you don’t mind . . . ”

“Personal?”

“Well, yes.  Are you single, Jim?”

“I am.”

“I kinda have a feel for this and looking around your place I get the feeling that right now you’re not  ___ how should I say it? ___ in a relationship.  Is that right, Jim?”

“Well, actually I’m flying solo right now.  My girlfriend and I broke up about three months ago.”

“Sorry to hear that.  I was thinking that maybe you’d like to meet my younger sister.”

“Your younger sister?”

“I think you two would get along.  You seem like her type.  I think she’d really like you.  Would you like to meet her?”

“I’m sure she’s very nice.  But I don’t normally—.”

“I completely understand.  You’re afraid she’s a dog and you don’t want to get stuck.  But trust me on this.  Okay?  Let me see if she’s home.”

Matt pulled out his cell phone and dialed.

“Danielle.  Glad I caught you.  Hey!  Whatcha doin’ right now? . . . Really?  Cool.  There’s this great guy I met and I thought of you immediately.  He’s right here.  Do you wanna talk to him?”

He handed the phone to Jim.

“Hi, Danielle.  I’m Jim . . . Well, thank you . . . Tonight? . . . Yeah, sure.  7 pm.”

They agreed to dinner and she insisted on picking Jim up.  He gave her directions and it was all set.

“Thanks, Matthew.  She sounds fantastic.”

“Matt.  Just call me Matt.  We’re buds, right?  After all you’re dating my sister.  Ha ha.  By the way, you might recognize her.  Anyway, I gotta go.  Here’s my card.  In case you have any problems with that Panasonic unit.  You shouldn’t.  But give me a call.  Have fun tonight.  Good-bye, Jim.”

“Thanks, Matt.  For everything.”

Matt dashed out to his service truck and was off, probably to his next call.  Jim ran up stairs to get ready.  It was already five o’clock and Danielle had said she would be right on time.  7:00 o’clock sharp.  She arrived in a shiny new powder blue-Porsche exactly at 6:59 pm.

Recognize her he did.  Jim had seen her in three movies, one with Jude Law, one with Owen Wilson, and another with Matt Damon and Claire Danes.  Without a doubt, she was the most beautiful woman Jim had ever met, and was intelligent and funny to boot.

She drove them to her favorite Thai restaurant, insisting on paying for everything, then afterwards they went to two of Portland’s hottest dance club where Jim, grinning from ear-to-ear, tried to ignore the envious stares and amazed looks of his hometown elegantsia.  A little before 2 am, they were feeling good but exhausted, and ready to call it a night.

“Jim, I had a great time.  Listen.  I’m staying on the other side of town from you.  I don’t feel like driving the whole way back.  Can I just spend the night at your place?”

Spend the night she did.  Not that they slept very much.  They seemed to be made for one another.  He felt so comfortable with her.  She was so affectionate.  It was as if they had been dating for weeks or months.

Danielle whispered in Jim’s ear just as they closed their eyes to catch at least a couple hours sleep.

“You’re so great.  I can’t wait to see you again.”

Thrilled and exhausted he was asleep before he could even reply.

Jim awoke to the sound of a car horn.  His digital clock said 5:24 am.  Over two hours before he had to leave for work.  No problem.  He rolled over and went back to sleep.

Minutes later he heard pounding on his front door.  The clock still said 5:24 am.

Wait!  Something was wrong.  Actually, a lot was wrong.  The sun shone brightly through his east-facing bedroom window.  Danielle wasn’t there.  He was wearing pajamas.  His really stupid pajamas which his mother had given him on his last birthday.

He slipped on a pair of jeans and went downstairs.

“Coming coming!  Don’t break down the door.”

He could see it was Don, the guy he carpooled with to work.

“Jimbo, what are you doing, man?  We’re going to be late.”

Jim opened the door and let Don in.

“Give me five minutes.  Sorry.  My clock stopped or something.  I don’t know.”

As they walked from the foyer to the living room, that’s when Jim spotted it.

There ready to take to the shop where he had purchased it, either to get his money back or get a replacement unit, was the box containing the Pulsar Ionics Blue Ray Multi-Format Combination DVD, CD and MP3 Player.

Had it all been a dream?

Impossible!  It seemed so real.

It couldn’t have been a dream.  No way.

Danielle.  What a total fox!  And that Matt guy.  He was so helpful.  They were buds.  That’s what he said.

It took Jim ten minutes to brush his teeth and change into his slacks and Van Heusen shirt.  As he walked out of his bedroom, he noted that his digital clock still said 5:24 am.

“Piece of garbage!”

“What did you call me?”

“Not you, Don.  My clock.  It stopped.  I’m going to give them a piece of my mind, that’s for sure.”

“Them?”

“Exactly!  Wait.  Only one more minute.  Promise.”

He ran back into his bedroom and found the box that the digital clock had come in.  Right under the bed.  For once it paid off being such a slob.  The warranty card was there in the box and he slipped it into his shirt pocket.

On his way through the living room, he also grabbed off the coffee table the slip of paper that had the Customer Service number for Pulsar Ionics.  That would be his first call!  He sure wanted to thank Matt for everything.

They arrived at the office and scrambled to their cubicles.  The clock said 8:13 am.

Jim felt certain that his late appearance went undetected.  He sat down at his computer, put on his headset, and glanced at today’s call sheet.  Over 200 names.  Poor unsuspecting fools who he would be trying to sell bathroom and kitchen renovations to over the phone before he packed it in at 5.

But first things first.

He immediately dialed the Pulsar Ionics customer service toll-free number.  It picked up on the first ring.  Weird.  The menu options had already changed.

Your call is important to us.  Please listen carefully to the following set of options.

If you would like our automated Help Line, which answers most technical questions about out entire product line, please press 1.

If you would like to return an item for service, please press 2.

If you want to request a catalog of our entire line of consumer home electronic products, please press 3.

If you would like to speak to a customer representative, please press 4 or stay on the line and someone will be with you shortly.

He hit four.  Two rings.  A recorded voice.

Welcome to our customer service live hotline.  Due to an unusually heavy call load, all of our service representatives are busy with other customers.  Someone will be with you shortly.  The estimated wait time is (bleep) 17 (bleep) minutes.

Then he was put in a hold queue and assaulted with distorted honky tonk piano music.

Obviously the ’17′ was some automated insert which varied with the estimated wait, sounding like a robot or someone without a larynx using one of those buzz boxes they held up to a hole in their throat.

Jim tried to look productive as he waited.  The piano music was really annoying.  Finally, a live person came on the line.  In the background, it sounded like there were fifty people talking at once.

“Pull Sore Eye Own Ux.  How may I help you?”

It was a male with a thick accent.  He sounded like his mouth was full of cabbage.

“I am trying to reach the Portland technical assistance team leader.  His name is Matt.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  We don’t use our real names here.  Even if we did, confidentiality would require that I keep his identity secret.  Besides, we have no office in Portland, Maine.”

“This is Portland, Oregon.”

“Whatever.  You have reached our technical assistance center in Mumbai, India.  Now what can I do to help you?”

“Please.  He has a sister.  Here name is Danielle.  She’s beautiful.  And—”

“I’m sure she is.  But this is not a dating service.  Do you have a technical question?”

“Uh . . . no . . . never mind.”

Click.

Whew!  That was a dead end.

Wait!  He remembered Matt had given him a business card.  He would just call him direct.  Now where was it?

Jim looked in his wallet.  Not there.  Hmm.  Must be at home.

“Mr. Calder.”

Jim started, nearly falling out of his chair.  He turned to see his boss standing at the entrance to his cubicle with his arms crossed in front of him.  He didn’t look too happy.

Jim smiled his best intra-office tension-defusing smile.

“Mr. Hansen!”

“Mr. Calder.”

“Mr. Hansen!”

Obviously, the smile was not working.  Hansen looked grim.

“I’ve notice you have been making a habit of being late.  Consider this a final warning.  You do value your employment here, don’t you?”

“Absolutely, sir.  A real dream job.  Sorry about that.  My clock stopped.  And—”

“Whatever.  Just be here on time.  We start at 8 sharp.  No excuses.”

Mr. Hansen marched off like a conquering gladiator.

The clock!  It had nearly cost him his job.  His sales calls could wait.

He pulled out the warranty card.  There was a toll-free number on the back. He dialed.  Surprisingly, after only three rings, a live person came right on the line.

“Customer Service.  How may I help you today?”

“Listen.  I don’t have much time.  But I bought one of your clocks.  And it froze up.  It’s a digital clock which I just bought this past February.  It just stopped working.  I almost lost my job because of it.  This card says there’s a limited conditional warranty on this item.”

“Please tell me which of our excellent products we are talking about here, sir.”

“This is your Pixie Dust Time Machine model with snooze alarm and Gregorian chants.”

“Oh yes.  A very popular model.  Now in order to determine if the warranty applies, we have to determine the conditions under which the alleged failure took place.  Temperature of the room.  Position of the device in relation to other electic appliances.  Whether you have any high tension wires in the area of your home.  If you have a magnetic resonance imaging machine on the premises.”

“A what?”

“You know, an MRI machine.”

“Are you crazy?  What would I be doing with an MRI machine in my apartment?”

“Only you could answer that, sir.  Anyway.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  The level of sunspot activity at the time of the alleged failure.”

“Will you stop saying ‘alleged failure’?  The damn thing lost over two hours and made me late.  It screwed up!  And got me in trouble.”

“I’m sorry you were late.  But with all due respect, sir, this device is incapable of inaccuracy.  It is base on an—”

“I know.  I know.  An atomic clock.  Accurate to within one second in 11 gazillion years.”

“That’s 11.7 million years, to be exact.  Anyway, let me get to the heart of the matter.”

“My refund?  A replacement unit?”

“Not so fast.  I need your last name.  What’s your last name and year of birth?”

“I don’t see what—”

“Please.  I’m trying to help.”

“Calder.  James Calder.  1976.  I’m 33.”

“I don’t need your age.  But thanks anyway.  Uh-oh.”

“Uh-oh?”

“Well, apparently you didn’t read the Warranty Agreement very carefully, Mr. Calder.”

“Why is that?”

“In Section 12, subsection 3, paragraph b.  Under Suspensions and Exceptions.”

“What?  What are you talking about?”

“I think you said you bought this in February.  Is that correct?”

“I did.  So what?  The warranty is for two years.”

“Yes, but in Section 12, subsection 3, paragraph b, it specifically says that the warranty is subject to truncation for all purchasers whose surnames fall between A and M who were born before 1984.”

“Truncation?”

“Truncated means abbreviated, pared down, shortened.”

“I know what truncated means.  I just don’t see how—”

“It’s right there in black and white.  Six months.  That is the duration of the warranty on this particular model of digital clock.  You bought this excellent digital clock seven months ago.  There is nothing I can do on this.”

“I don’t believe this.”

“You were actually one of the lucky ones.  If your name had been in the last half of the alphabet and you were born after 1984, the warranty would only be 30 days.  Anyway, that’s it.  My supervisor is giving me the TCI signal.”

“TCI signal?”

“Terminate Call Immediately.  I have to go.  Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“I really can’t think of anything.  Wait.  I know.  Do you happen to know what time it is?”

“That is very funny, Mr. Calder. Thanks for calling. We appreciate your business. Have a nice day.”

**This short story first appeared online in the August 2010 issue of Media Virus Magazine.

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John Rachel has a B. A. in Philosophy, has traveled extensively, is a songwriter and music producer, and a left-of-left liberal. Prompted by the trauma of graduating high school and having to leave his beloved city of Detroit to attend university, the development his social skills and world view were arrested at about age 18. This affliction figures prominently in all of his creative work. He is author of two full-length novels, “From Thailand With Love” and “The Man Who Loved Too Much”. He is currently living in Japan.

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