Just Saying `Tanks' To Customer Service

TODAY'S CONSUMER TOPIC IS: How to resolve a dispute with a large company.

If you're a typical consumer - defined as "a consumer whose mail consists mainly of offers for credit cards that he or she already has" - chances are sooner or later you're going to have a dispute with a large company. You're going to call the company up, and you're going to wind up speaking with people in a department with a friendly name such as "Customer Service." These people hate you.

I don't mean they hate you PERSONALLY. They hate the public in general, because the public is forever calling them up to complain.

I know whereof I speak. I used to be - I am not proud of this - a newspaper editor. This was at a paper in West Chester, Pa., called - I am not proud of this, either - the "Daily Local News." We came out daily, and we specialized in local news. For example, if Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency, we'd send reporters out to the shopping mall to badger randomly selected shoppers into having an opinion about this, and our big headline would be LOCAL RESIDENTS REACT TO NIXON RESIGNATION. As though they really were reacting to it, as opposed to trying to find the right color bedsheets.

So one spring day I made the editorial decision to put a photograph of some local ducks on the front page. At least I thought they were ducks, and that's what I called them in the caption. But it turns out that they were geese. I know this because a WHOLE lot of irate members of the public called to tell me so. They never called about, say, the quality of the schools, but they were RABID about the duck vs. goose issue. It was almost as bad as when we left out the horoscope.

I tried explaining to the callers that, hey, basically a goose is just a big duck, but this did not placate them. Some of them demanded that we publish a correction (For whom? The geese?), and by the end of the day I was convinced that the public consisted entirely of raging idiots. (This is the fundamental assumption of journalism.)

This is what people who answer the phone at, for example, the electric company, go through every day. I don't mean that they get calls about incorrectly captioned goose photographs, although this would not surprise me. I mean that they get an endless stream of calls from people who are furious that their electricity got turned off just because they failed to pay their bill for 297 consecutive months, or people asking questions like is it OK to operate a microwave oven in the bathtub.

So let's say that you have a genuine problem with your electric bill. The people in "Customer Service" have no way of knowing that you're an intelligent, rational person. They're going to lump you in with the whining non-rocket-scientist public. As far as they're concerned, the relevant facts, in any dispute between you and them, are these:

1. They have a bunch of electricity.

2. You need it.

3. So shut up.

This is why, more and more, the people in "Customer Service" won't even talk to you. They prefer to let you interface with the convenient Automated Answering System until such time as you die of old age (" . . . if your FIRST name has more than eight letters, and your LAST name begins with `H' through `L' - press 251 NOW. If your first name has LESS than eight letters, and your last name contains at least two `E's, press 252 NOW. If your . . . ").

So is there any way that you, the lowly consumer, can gain the serious attention of a large and powerful business? I am pleased to report that there IS a way, which I found out about thanks to alert reader Jim Ganz Jr., who sent me an Associated Press news report from Russia. According to this report, a Russian electric company got into a billing dispute with a customer and cut off the customer's electricity. This customer, however, happened to be a Russian army arsenal. So the commander ordered a tank to drive over to the electric company's office and aim its gun at the windows. The electricity was turned right back on.

On behalf of consumers everywhere, I want to kiss this arsenal commander on the lips. I mean, what a GREAT concept. Imagine, as a consumer, how much more seriously your complaint would be taken if you were complaining from inside an armored vehicle capable of reducing the entire "Customer Service" department to tiny smoking shards. What I am saying is: Forget the Automated Answering System. Get a tank.

Perhaps you are thinking: "But a tank costs several million dollars, not including floor mats. I don't have that kind of money."

Don't be silly. You're a consumer, right? You have credit cards, right?

Perhaps you are thinking: "Yes, but how am I going to pay the credit-card company?"

Don't be silly. You have a tank, right?

Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.