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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Please Hold

I'm still recovering from the two days school was closed for President's Day. Between the holiday and a long list of exasperating chores, I haven’t had time to write in a week. This state of affairs has made a few things clear: 1) If I don’t write, I get cranky (a fact I’ve observed before but periodically forget); and 2) Computerized corporations will be the downfall of humanity.

First, I have to complain about the corporations that are using computers to replace common sense. Let me preface this by saying that I am not a Luddite. I love laptop. I make use of many modern conveniences, including automatic deposit of my paycheck and automatic withdrawl of my phone bill. My mother also appreciated these services, correctly foreseeing that she might get sick someday, and that things would be easier for her (and me) if her phone bill, energy bill, and Blue Cross bill were all paid every month, whether she was up to writing a check or not. I appreciate her foresight, but here’s the problem. Getting these three companies to stop, withdrawing her money every month has reminded me of Satre’s No Way Out.

Let me just give Blue Cross as an example. I called them at the beginning of January to notify them of my mother’s death. After pressing 1 for current accounts and entering my mother’s account number, I was greeted with a message that began, “Due to higher than anticipated call volumes…” In early January there probably was high call volume due to all the new customers trying to sign up for the gym discount, so I dutifully held until I got a real person who assured me she would take care of everything. I was, therefore, surprised when I found on mom’s next bank statement that Blue Cross had withdrawn $171 on January 6. After calling back, entering the right numbers, listening to the “higher than anticipated call volume message” and waiting on hold again, a real person finally came on the line to say that they were so busy they would have to take my name and number and call me back within twenty-four hours. Ten days later I got the call on my cell phone while driving. A very nice woman assured me that my mother’s death was noted on the computer and that she would make sure I was reimbursed for the January payment. I told her I was planning to close my mother’s checking account at the end of the month, so I wanted to be sure they would not to try to withdraw in February. She assured me she would take care of it.

Imagine my joy last week when I got a notice from my bank that the account I thought I had closed now had a negative balance due to the Blue Cross withdrawl and the $35 bounced check fee the bank had slapped me with. After calling the bank, entering the account number, and waiting on hold, a woman explained that closed accounts aren’t really closed right away, just in case there are outstanding checks or automatic withdrawls. She said I could negotiate for a waiver of the bounced check fee, after Blue Cross refunded the money, which they said they were going to do, but haven’t done yet. When I called them again yesterday (for at least the fourth time), I noticed that they are not very good at anticipating their call volume which always seems to be higher than usual. The cheery message that repeated while I was on hold told me I could be a better parent on Valentine’s Day by giving my children positive feedback instead of candy. The mousy woman I finally reached said there was a note on the computer that my claim was being processed, but she couldn’t tell me if they would be putting the money back into the bank account or sending me a check. (It was apparently impossible to speak to the people who actually handle the reimbursing.) It wasn’t until after I hung up that I realized I still haven’t been reimbursed for the January payment.

Similar scenarios have played out with all three of the companies that had their tentacles in mom’s bank account, as well as the company that had her pension annuity. Some companies ask you to give the last four digits of the account owner’s social security number as confirmation, which always sends me scrambling for the piece of paper where it’s written. One company has voice recognition software that doesn’t recognize “death” as a real problem. It also doesn’t work right if there are children yelling “No” and “Stop it!” at each other in the background.

I should add that every real person I have dealt with was polite and sympathetic, if not always well informed. The problem is that the information these people type into the computer doesn’t translate into action, or when it does, the person taking the action doesn’t understand what is needed from the short note on the computer (This has been the problem with the annuity company.) At first I thought the companies were just inefficient, but now I’m getting cynical. I suspect Blue Cross wants to earn interest off my mom’s money for as long as possible. More importantly, they want us to feel disempowered and intimidated so we’ll think twice about challenging them when they refuse to pay a claim.

This bit about feeling disempowered feels related to The Wisdom to Know the Difference, though I haven’t sifted it all out yet. It seems that the more control we give large institutions, the less we have ourselves. I certainly have felt disempowered several times during this process, helpless to solve a simple problem or even speak to the person with the power to solve it. It makes me wonder how our globalized economy affects the way we see our ability to “change what can be changed.”

I’m still sitting with the book idea, but this week has reminded me how much I miss writing when I don’t get to do it. I like teaching, and I do miss it, but I don’t get cranky after a week of not teaching the way I get cranky after a week of not writing. This should tell me something about how I want to prioritize my time and give me the courage to focus on writing again, even as I finish sorting out my mother’s affairs.


Blogger elise said...

I can feel your pain! Once in a discussion with a customer service representative I asked why I owed a certain amount of money, and she told me because the computer said that was the amount I owed....
I've heard of a parent saying "because I said so" but never "because the computer said so"! Annoying and a bit scarey!

6:47 AM  

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