Pandora’s Cable Box 

State-of-the-art customer relations.

In the great philosophical dispute of our time—cable or satellite dish?—a big plus for the satellite is that it allows you to live out one of humanity’s deepest fantasies: telling the cable company to go away.

It took three visits to get my dish installed, so I had plenty of time for anticipation. Starting cable service had also taken three appointments, with the difference that only the third had resulted in an actual visit. The first two were apparently just tests to see if I would really stay home from work when they asked me to. “Sit!” the cable company had commanded. And, like a dog, I sat.

But now I was through rolling over. No, thank you, I won’t reconsider—you see I already have installed the dish … Actually, I can get local stations on my dish (no thanks to you bastards lobbying to prevent it, I didn’t add) … No, I really couldn’t ask you to let me have a special “Return of the Prodigal Subscriber” rate … Yes, I certainly will keep you in mind if my future needs for cable require me to choose among the only company available. Farewell, then. Be good.

This was so enjoyable that I wasn’t even bothered by the news that I would have to return the cable box and remote control to the local cable sales office. (They may have offered another round of guess-if-we’re-coming-today as well, but taking the box back myself seemed the more promising method of exorcism.) I didn’t even bother to write down the address, figuring I could easily get it on the Web. And with that, the cable company’s wicked trap snapped shut. I defy anyone to find this basic piece of information—the address of the local cable sales office in Redmond, Wash., if it exists as alleged—anywhere on the vast Web site of the company that owns the system. I defy you to find it by any other conventional means, such as local directory assistance, the phone book. No doubt this address is actually hidden in plain sight somewhere, like Poe’s Purloined Letter. Perhaps it is scrawled above a urinal in the local bus station. But three hours of earnest effort, building to an Ahablike crescendo of obsession, could not find it.

Despair, O Wanderer Through Hotlink Hell. You are at the mercy of over a century’s experience in torturing the customer. Try “Help.” Try “Customer service.” Try “Search.” Try “Contact us.” You can even try “Contact your local [cable] office.” They laugh at your pitiful mouse clicks. A phone number with a local area code lifts the spirits, only to dash them again when it connects to the same national recording you can already recite by heart.

The cable company is not unique in all this. But it does seem to have mastered all of the state-of-the-art techniques for high-tech aggravation of customers. These include:

  • The phone tree. A high-quality phone tree requires a multiplicity of irrelevant options, offered by an e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y  s-l-o-w voice; pointless warnings to listen carefully, and especially enraging declarations—each as long as an act of King Lear—about how much the company loves you and wants you to be happy. The customer should have to make at least three choices, one of them completely at random, and should have to sit through the first level of options at least twice. Only sissies include a “zero option” to talk to a real human being.
  • Hold. This technique is as old as the telephone itself, and most of its conventions are well established, such as recorded messages timed to catch you dozing off so you don’t miss a moment of the on-hold experience. Historically, these messages have mostly been unconvincing reassurances that your call is being taken in order. The cable company’s brilliant innovation is to nag you to stop bothering them and go to the Web site like a grownup for heaven’s sake (or words to that effect). This is the very Web site that drove you to the phone number in despair.
  • Information imbalance. Before they’ll even consider giving you any information, you must punch in your phone number, a code or password or three, your Social Security number, and the year of your birth divided by 3. Then, if you’re lucky, a real human being comes on the line asking for your address, account number, and blood pressure. “But all I want is the address of your local office!” She insists that first you must give her all this information. So you do, and of course it’s a classic double cross: “Sorry, sucker, I don’t have that information. Try the phone number you’ve already tried eight times. Or be a man and go to the Web site.” (Or words to that effect.)
  • Scripts and upselling. One voice ran me through a 10-minute sales pitch before admitting that she didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to know. They’re obviously under orders not to depart from the script. You could be calling to say their building’s on fire and they’ll linger to tell you about their limited-time offer of HBO plus three channels of yoga for just $8.95.
  • Human shields. Phone representatives are instructed to read from scripts because this is cheaper than paying and training them better. But their ignorance and powerlessness are actually a plus for the company. “Sir,” they say at any hint of impatience, “I am doing my best to help you.” And that’s true: There’s no point in picking on them. At the cable company, there’s an office called “Consumer Complaints,” where skilled experts can take any complaint and explain with genuine remorse that they’re not authorized to do anything about it.

Anyway, I’ve got the box if anyone wants it.