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  • Does Anyone Remember Competence?

    December 21st, 2010

    So moving day came for the Steinberg family, but it wasn’t a major change. Our new home is about a six-minute drive from the old one, and moving our Internet and cable services should have been a pretty straightforward affair. After all, it was the same company, Cox Communications, and our service bundle was identical. Indeed, our new dwelling is prewired for cable, so what could possibly go wrong?

    Well, my friends, the problem here is that cable, satellite and telecom providers don’t have to offer a guaranteed minimum level of service, nor do field technicians have to demonstrate basic skills of competence, apparently. There is no written test for cable TV service people administered by the state governments. If few customers complain, and profits are good, the corporate masters are happy.

    The only fly in the ointment, evidently, was my request to keep the service at the old home active for a day after the new service was opened. I merely wanted to be able to stay online in both locales. Silly me.

    On Sunday, the day I was supposed to meet the installer at our new place, I lost Internet although, peculiarly, TV service wasn’t impacted. Fortunately, customer support realized the problem and reprovisioned my cable modem within a few minutes. But it went downhill from there.

    Just as my wife and I were en route to the new location, I got a call from the Cox installer. This particular individual, and this is true for many of Cox’s field technicians, was a contractor, working for one of several firms Cox selected, rather than hire extra employees. Not that it should make a difference, but maybe it did.

    The tech arrived minutes after we did, and it was clear there would be problems. His task should have been simple — set up telephone service (I retain one landline with minimal options for faxing), and make sure that all the connection jacks were active with proper signal levels. But what seems simple on paper is sometimes fraught with trouble.

    The installer insisted he was tasked to install all new hardware, even though I planned to bring the old equipment the very next day. I had to explain this several times before it sunk in. Worse, it appeared, at least according to the technician, that he didn’t have to install any new hardware to activate Cox’s “digital phone” service, even though Cox said otherwise when they wrote up my order.

    Over the next 15 minutes, I witnessed the embarrassing display of incompetence as the tech searched every nook and cranny of our apartment in search of a connection panel that contained all the cable wiring, so he could make sure everything was activated. He telephoned his dispatcher, and there were lengthy back and forth convesations trying to make sense of this dilemma.

    In the end, he said everything was operational, and all I had to do was a “self install” the next day, meaning I call Cox, give them the serial and network numbers of the hardware (they are clearly affixed to the bottom or rear of the enclosures), and I’d be good to go. Of course, whenever I hear “good to go,” I know I’m in for trouble.

    Segue to Monday. Once the moving men had departed, I set up my Mac, attached the TV to the DVR set top box, and dutifully telephoned Cox from my iPhone to complete the self installation. Guess what? They had me scheduled for this “self install” the following day, meaning I wouldn’t have TV reception or Internet until then.

    It took several minutes of complaints, transfers to other departments, and finally an “executive escalation” from the regional General Manager’s office before they gave in. Only they still had to visit my home to install a hardware interface for their phone service to operate. This was entirely different from their former installation strategy, which used an outside tap to a home’s internal telephone wiring.

    Regardless, the installer arrived a couple of hours later. This time they sent a “lead technician” from the same independent contractor. Once being apprised of the problem, it took roughly 30 minutes for him to actually make my services function. And, yes, he found the patch panel, opposite the water heater in a tiny storage room. His predecessor went there and saw nothing.

    In the end, Cox did promise some service credits to compensate me for my inconvenience. But it was all so unnecessary. If the original order taker had actually done the proper job and recorded the simple instructions I gave accurately, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time struggling with their support people.

    Worse, I wonder about customers who aren’t tech journalists or otherwise aware of some of the fine details of the cable installation process. I have heard horror stories about most of the providers in this country, about support that fails to get the job done, incompetent field technicians, and sometimes days of lost service for problems that ought to be solved in minutes.

    It’s not as if you can call the competitor down the street and get a better deal. Quite often, there is no competitor for broadband Internet. And the choice between cable and satellite for TV is often no choice at all. I ditched Dish Network when they couldn’t even figure out why I was unable to get their On Demand programming operate on my TV, a very conventional Panasonic, and please don’t get me started on DirecTV’s failed installation attempt.



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