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Yarbrough: Voice of the ‘new’ AT&T is a clueless robot

POSTED: September 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.

When my alma mater, BellSouth, was absorbed by Southwestern Bell, aka the "new" AT&T in 2006, then-BellSouth CEO F. Duane Ackerman said, "Technology changes and convergence are shaping a new competitive dynamic and creating tremendous opportunity."

Even my friend, the omniscient Skeeter Skates, owner of Skeeter's Tree Stump Removal and Plow Repair in Greater Metropolitan Pooler wasn't sure what all that meant, but thought Ackerman was saying the takeover was a good deal.

It certainly was for Ackerman. According to the AT&T-BellSouth proxy statement, he got $9.2 million in severance pay, plus some $37 million in restricted stock, restricted stock units, stock options and performance shares.

My experience with technological change, convergence, competitive dynamics and the like in the "new" AT&T hasn't been quite as positive. To wit: On the Sunday before I was to leave for Scotland, I discovered my home telephone deader than a doornail. After a check of the neighborhood, it seems I was the only one without phone service. The matter was made a little more urgent by the fact I was scheduled to appear on a local radio station the next morning via ­-- you guessed it -- telephone.

In the old AT&T, I would have called repair service and negotiated with a human being on how and when I could get my phone fixed. Not these days. This is the "new" AT&T. I got a robot. A friendly robot, but a robot nonetheless.

She told me cheerily that together we would find out what was boogering things up (or words to that effect) and get it fixed. She began asking questions and I tried my best to answer them correctly. Still, all I could tell her was my phone was dead. Just dead. As in no dial tone.

When the magnitude of my dilemma began to sink in, Rosie the Robot admitted I had stumped her. (Robots, despite their reputation, aren't the geniuses they are cracked up to be. If they were, they wouldn't be working on Sundays and dealing with people like me.)

She said it might be better for all concerned if she handed me off to the "next available" attendant. In the meantime I could listen to some really annoying music.

After 31 minutes -- enough time to carve a totem pole with a butter knife and for my cell phone batteries to start gasping for air -- Chet came on the line. Chet was a human but, alas, Chet didn't have a clue what was wrong with my telephone service either, but assured me someone would be by Tuesday to get it fixed.

I told Chet that nobody would be home; we would be in Scotland. And how did he know he could fix it if he didn't know what the problem was? I don't think Chet had considered that.

But he still wanted somebody at home Tuesday. Maybe Chet had never been out of the country and didn't understand how inconvenient it would be to have to fly back and sit around the house for just one day to get my phone fixed. Or, maybe Chet didn't give a rat's hiney.

Later that day I talked to another robot (I assume Ms. Android was taking an oil break) who informed me there had been a bad storm in my area and all the phones were out and would be restored -- guess when? -- Tuesday. I figured it would be useless to tell him/her/it that everybody in our neighborhood had service but me and that I wouldn't be here -- guess when? -- Tuesday.

The next morning, I called one of the few people I know who still works at my old company and she got the phone fixed in less than 10 minutes. I didn't have the heart to call Chet and the robots and tell them I now had dial tone, no thanks to them. Besides, I suspect they had had enough of me for one millennium.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm not overwhelmed with the "new" AT&T in spite of their convergences and competitive dynamics. I want my old AT&T back. And, yes, next Tuesday would be just fine.

Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on gainesvilletimes.com. You can reach him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; Web site.



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