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Congress should mandate minimum number of phone reps

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:49 PM

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I don't know if Mark Zuckerberg suffers from agoraphobia, but his company seems to have missed the jet age.

If you're like me, you travel a lot. And if you're on Facebook, odds are that you've been locked out of your account—even though you entered the correct password—because you logged in from an "unfamiliar location."

Facebook's test to make you prove you are who you say you are is bizarre: they show you randomly selected pictures of your Facebook "friends" and ask you to identify them. But most of my "friends" are readers and fans of my cartoons and books. I don't know their faces. Moreover, not all of my "friends'" photos are of themselves. One Facebook test—I kept failing—presented me with pictures of potted plants.

It's an idiotic test, one that trips up a lot of people. David Segal, who writes The Haggler consumer advocacy column for The New York Times, quotes Bryan Dale of Toronto: "Given that I use Facebook for networking and had never met most of my 'friends,' [Facebook's ID test] was difficult. It was made impossible, however, because most of my Facebook friends are connected with pit bull advocacy and many of their pictures presented to me were actually pictures of their dogs."

Why does Facebook freak out when I log in from San Diego while Citibank allows me to move thousands of dollars using no more than a password—from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan?

During my third week of Facebook Lockout Month I tried to call the company to ask that question and plead my case.

I couldn't.

Facebook doesn't have a customer service telephone number.

This, incredibly, is normal in the technology sector. A transnational corporation valued at tens of billions of dollars, with hundreds of millions of customers, has no way to get in touch with them in a hurry. Even if you're a would-be zillionaire investor, you can't call. You have to know someone inside.

What if someone is posting pornographic photos of your child via Twitter? What if someone has hacked into your account? What if you're in San Diego and can't figure out which of your Facebook "friends" owns that white pit bull with the black spot?

Some tech companies have phone numbers, but there's no way to talk to a live human being. "Twitter's system hangs up after providing Web or e-mail addresses three times," Amy O'Leary reports in The Times. "At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook's system explains it is, in fact, 'an Internet-based company.' Try e-mail, it suggests."

Tried it. Repeatedly. Never heard back.

This is standard practice with tech companies. I've left customer service request messages for Apple, Adobe, Google and countless other firms over the years. I heard back maybe one time out of ten.

"LinkedIn's mail lists an alternate customer service number. Dial it, and the caller is trapped in a telephonic version of the movie 'Groundhog Day,' forced to work through the original phone tree again and again until the lesson is clear: stop calling," writes O'Leary.

It was easier to get in touch with Osama bin Laden. Still is, probably.

This screw-the-customers crap began in the 1970s, when America began falling apart. First they made us pump our own gas. Then they made us bag our own groceries. The Better Business Bureau stopped accepting complaints. Finally, corporations started charging us for services—the phone company's automated 411 information, automatic teller machines, electronic airline tickets—that, even before fees, had saved them money, increased their profits, and put thousands of workers out of work.

Still, when tech companies worth $10 billion don't have a working phone number, you know they've taken "drop dead" to a whole new level.

"A lot of these companies don't have enough employees to talk to," Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, told The Times. "Facebook, for example, has just one employee for every 300,000 users. Its online systems process more than two million customer requests a day."

Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of the Internet revolution is that the new tech sector employs far fewer workers per dollar of capitalization than the older industries, such as manufacturing, that it is replacing. Big banks like Goldman Sachs may be profit-sucking vampire squids bleeding American dry, yet they're not nearly as destructive as high-valuation, low-payroll leeches like Twitter and Facebook.

General Motors, a company with $39 billion in equity value, directly employs 207,000 people, plus many more indirectly through its suppliers. Facebook has nearly twice the market capitalization ($67 billion) but employs a miserly 1,400 workers. On Wall Street, Facebook is worth more than GM. On Main Street, GM is worth 250 Facebooks.

It should be obvious to everyone that companies have a moral obligation to be responsive to the public, and that their duty to provide high-quality customer service increases exponentially as they grow in size. It should be equally obvious that companies that extract billions of dollars in profits from the American public have a moral responsibility to hire members of the American public. We're not talking "make work"—but the minimum number of employees needed to conduct business in a responsible, professional manner.

Clearly the big tech companies are refusing to meet these minimum standards.

We should demand, Congress should pass, and the President should sign a law that sets clear standards for customer service by large corporations. For every x number of customers and/or every y million dollars of capitalization, there should be one U.S.-based, native English-speaking, professional customer service rep waiting to take our calls and help us.

Right away.

No phone tree.

No waiting.

It isn't free speech, or habeas corpus, yet surely the Founding Fathers would agree: hard-working Americans have the right not to be driven crazy because boy billionaires are too cheap to hire some help.

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