Urban stories


By Andrej Mrevlje |
Photo Andrej Mrevlje

Last week, my internet connection became terribly slow. There were moments when it needed a full minute to open a page, or took its sweet time to download material that I needed for work. In the past, if this happened when I was working on a deadline, I would start to panic, knowing that customer service from an internet provider is not an easy thing to get. This time I took it easy, because in spite of being slow, the internet was still working. But there is always a slight anxiety about the unknown, since you never fully know what to expect. Internet providers are always good to sell you a service, but on the other hand, they give you impression that maintenance or repair is not part of their job description. It is for this reason that some folks install two internet providers in their homes or offices so that when Verizon goes down, they can switch their machines to Time Warner, or vice versa. But our dependence on the internet is a different kind of story. What I want to tell you here is about outsourcing.


It is no secret that big American companies are outsourcing their customer services to other countries. A couple of years ago, I got to chat with operators in India, who after they were unable to help me offered me extra services for extra money. This time, I talked to somebody from the Philippines. So when I called Time Warner’s customer service to ask them to reboot my modem, which was down to 2 Mbps from 200 Mbps, I had to go through a quite long, automated procedure for identification, and then through a phone tree in order to locate the right service for my problem. Then, when I finally heard a friendly human voice, I was in the Philippines. I had to spell my name first – an attempt by the technician to establish a more intimate relationship with his customer. With a last name like mine, it rarely works out that way. So, just to save some time and avoid tiring phonetic, geographic and historic discussions, I prefer not to give last name and to instead tell everyone to call me by my first name. So, with pleasantries behind us, I was finally able to tell what was bothering me to someone sitting in the tropics. In spite of his speedy talking probably just to appear more efficient my new friend’s diagnosis seemed to be right to point. We agreed that he would close down both Wi-Fi channels of the modem that a Time Warner technician had installed for me several months ago, when the company decided to replace my old modem with a new one that has routing capabilities. Following the instructions of my friend from Philippines, I started to do the usual gymnastics plugging and unplugging various cables, closing down and restarting the computer, rebooting the whole system and the two Wi-Fi channels on the Time Warner modem finally went dead. My Apple router was happy, with its green light on, but it could not talk with any of my devices. After over an hour of more gymnastics, I got connected to a strong Wi-Fi signal coming out of my Apple router. I was happy in spite of all the wasted time.

But 10 minutes after this long call, I realised that my laptop was the only device in the house that could connect to our Wi-Fi. So I picked up the phone again and called the Philippines. I was convinced that this was the destination I was calling to from the middle of Manhattan. The guy who answered me this time was even happier than the first one.

“I am the best man to resolve your problem,” he said, after telling me that the previous technician had made some mistake. So, more gymnastics followed (God, I hope these people at least enjoy imagining customers pushing their furniture around, diving into a nest of cables and trying to figure out the right one, or trying to find their contract), with slightly different instructions. But after an hour, the thing got even worse. The internet was down, there was no Wi-Fi signal in the house, and my Apple router was accused of interfering with the Time Warner modem. So I should call Apple, he told me, while I insisted on talking to a supervisor. No supervisor, my guy said – he was the best man: he killed my router and made my modem work worse than it did before. And from a distance, too, like a real hacker. But in the end he said that he was sending me a technician with a new modem. I was afraid that someone would have to sit on a plane all the way from the Phillipines.

However, one day later, a chubby Time Warner man, heavily loaded with equipment, appeared at my door, carrying a new modem and some cables. There was almost no talking. The Time Warner technician had gotten the request from Philippines, but while he was at my house, he was in constant phone contact with a controller from his office in Manhattan. After 20 minutes, the job was done and he was gone. My internet was rocking, but after spending so many long hours talking on the phone, I still think that perhaps the idea of having two internet providers in the house is not bad at all.

Later, while fiddling around with credit card account, I saw that Barclay Visa charged me a late payment fee. I had been outside of the city for a few days when I tried to pay my Barclay Visa bill with the help of online transfer from my bank, as I’d always done it. But this time, the Barclay Visa site told me that it did not recognize my IP number. Would I mind answering some security questions, my monitor asked me. There were something like 25 of them. But aside from my mother’s maiden name, I did not recognize a single one. So in order to avoid getting my account blocked and creating more problems, I decided to pay my bill two days later, after I got back home. But Barclay had already charged me with the penalty.

So I called Barclay Visa’s customer service. They were nice and efficient. They told me yes, that this security is a new thing, but that in my case they will cancel the late payment fee, because I am a good customer. I wondered what defines me as a good customer, since I don’t use Barclay’s Visa very often. But since the lady on the other side was an actual bank employee, and very nice, I asked her if, for future reference, there was a way to avoid their security system, which forces me to transfer online payments exclusively from my IP address that is, from my home. She said she would pass me to the website department, because she didn’t know about these things.

So I was back in Philippines again. But this time, I said no. I asked to talk to a supervisor in the U.S. immediately.

“Good day, this is B, how can I help you,” a reassuring voice said seconds later.  I told him. Because B had come to work for Barclay recently, after several long years working with computers, he was flexible. I was lucky. He first told me that I could call Barclay and pay my bill over the phone.

“What happens if I am travelling, getting on the plane, have no time to do long phone calls, or I’m not carrying any of the numbers you need for identification?” I asked in return.

“Then perhaps you are in trouble,” he said, telling me that it had happened to him, too. The new security system consists of a series of questions based on the public data Barclay collects about every customer. So Barclay knows about things we may have long forgotten. Or even have data that we don’t even know exists as has happened to me. And as has happened to B: they asked him his first boss’s name. He was 10 during his first job he was working on a farm, and he only remembered that his boss’s name was Tony. Not enough.

The way I understand this, the problem is twofold: Barclay disposes of the data on me that even my wife does not know or better, the data that I ignore, since it is no longer relevant to me. But in that split second, when you try to connect to Barclay and you are perhaps just across the street from your home, Barclay pretends that you know every little detail of your life. It is insane. How can one remember all the trash one needs to go through in a lifetime? Has anybody at Barclay ever heard about the selective memory? This is how we keep ourselves normal and sane. Not for Barclay. In a matter of a few seconds, I am supposed to answer questions based on information that I eliminated from my memory, or even simply forgot information that might be part of my birth certificate, or some article I wrote long time ago. This is scary, since we are forced in a position of competing with huge data banks and computers. We are questioned by them, but we have no way to answer.  

So, has Barclay installed this evil system in order to force us to do online banking with them exclusively from our permanent IP address? Think of the consequences: what if other banks, health insurance companies, Amazon – any number of influential corporations – apply the same system to their customers? You can lock the doors of your house and throw the key out of the window. No need to go out anymore.  

But perhaps this whole thing is just a banal way of sucking more money from customers. I imagine that very few people only pay Barclay’s bills from their home. And since they don’t always pay from home, a lot of people must also be paying the late fee and, as a result, increasing Barclay’s profits.

 But let’s go back to Philippines, where all this started. I do wish that companies would stop outsourcing customer service jobs. I can’t help but think how nice it would be to talk to people who understand more than the basic, often inane protocol of the American corporation that they’re working for. I have never I say I never resolved anything with an overseas operator. This is probably because U.S. corporations do not give them enough authorisation to be more helpful. So why are they there? To makes us waste our time? Because nobody would do these kinds of jobs in America? It is my impression that Americans would take these jobs, if available.

Aside from the benefits it presents for the American economy, getting those jobs back would also take away some of the arguments regarding outsourced jobs that Donald Trump seems to have a monopoly on. Liberals let him dominate that conversation. But they don’t need to. While it’s true that Indians and Filipinos need jobs in the same way as the Americans do, the question in this case is not political or ethical. It is a question who is pulling whose leg. While risking sounding like Donald Trump, I hope to illustrate how big corporations outsource call centers and customer service jobs because they consider them useless and dysfunctional. By doing nothing other than existing, these outsourced services are less accountable than they would be if they were in the U.S. that is, in the homeland of the corporation that created them. Is that the trick? If so, then Donald Trump, being what he is a corporate man would never do anything to resolve this problem. He uses this argument to manipulate Americans and to achieve his dangerous political goals. I just wanted my Wi-Fi back.

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