Process Fail

Over the weekend, we attended a very good Linux conference, the annual LinuxFest Northwest, where one of the presenters’ topics centered around the need for a systematic approach to systems and network administration–putting in place a process and following it.  But, what if the process is flawed or incomplete?  The ensuing week has been a real lesson in the frustrations of failed processes: corporate policies and procedures that simply do not address the atypical problem, or that have glaring omissions of solutions to obvious issues.

As frequent readers may know, we’ve been ranting about degraded to unavailable ADSL service for a couple of months now, as our Internet access has effectively deteriorated to a few hours of useful access between midnight and 8:00am.  During this time, Qwest has progressed from “it must be your problem” to “try a static address–it’s only $25 plus $7 a month” to “we acknowledge there is a problem” to “the equipment will arrive in two weeks” to “yes, it’s here, but it will take a few weeks to install” to “not yet, but you are on the priority list.”

Well, we depend on getting connected and staying connected to make a living.   Other customers in “our fair city” may be miffed at not being able to watch streaming movies or play multi-user online games for a few weeks, but getting cut off in the middle of a software upgrade or unable to connect at all to a customers’ remote server 600 miles away is a real business killer.  We waited.  April 15 (the date I was quoted around the first of April) came and went, and the service got progressively worse.  May 1st came, and it got still worse.

I think I’ve been patient, in the hope that a corporation as large as Qwest has some sort of survival instinct and is capable of making decisions and taking action to correct service issues.  But, patience only goes so far.  Finally, on May 2, on the advice of other IT professionals and my daughter, who home-schools the grandchildren and also depends on reliable connectivity, we decided to abandon ADSL and ordered a switch to cable internet and phone service, which will take about a week to switch over.  Not surprisingly, two days later, we noted an uncharacteristic session reset early in the morning.  Hmm.  Sure enough, seven hours later, the internet speed is staying up near the 70-80% of max (7Mbps) we would like to see.  The signal-to-noise ratio, which had been hovering between zero and 8, averaging 2, is now some astronomical number, which I looked at closer, and realized is actually a negative 32-bit signed number, which is worse than I have seen it.

Thanks, Qwest.  You finally came through.  But, too late, and not enough–by mid-afternoon, speed dropped and sessions started resetting, probably due to the low SNR. You have lost a customer.  Your customer service process and network provisioning policies have failed.  You failed by not addressing the concerns of technically-knowledgeable customers,  by not following through and responding appropriately to trouble calls, and by failing to plan capacity properly for network demand.  It is infuriating to watch bandwidth on a “standard” line drop to zero while trying to bring up the customer support screen on the corporate web through all of the advertisements for much higher bandwidth service–which we know you can’t deliver anytime soon. We also suspect that you aren’t really concerned with fixing the current service: the “new equipment” that you are provisioning is really planned to support the higher-bandwidth service, which will be quickly consumed when customers opt-in for the higher rates, and the cycle will start over.

But, Qwest, you are not alone.  The entire communications industry customer-service process is in a failed state.  When attempting to switch over to cable service, the phone number to call for installation wasn’t the “right” one.  The next call went to a call center half-way across the country, which, after getting disconnected in a transfer and calling back and giving all our information, turned out to not be the right one, either.  Yet a third number (not listed anywhere) started the process from the beginning, cancelling our original service order, which had been set up through a retail agent.  Going to the store added no value to the on-line order process except for the fact that their Internet connection actually worked to complete the transaction, which was of no importance, which leads us to believe that either the retail store is going to be stiffed on their order commission or they get paid a flat rate for writing orders whether or not the customer actually gets service or not.  Another process failure point.  But, finally, we have a tentative installation date and a plan, but a sinking feeling that we may be trading one failed support and provisioning process for another.

The third thing that happened this week to trigger the title subject of this post was instigated by text message that popped up on our Montana cell phone, which we keep active for the benefit of our many customers in our previous location.  The message stated that our cell provider was merging with another carrier and we should visit the new carrier’s store in person to effect migrating service to their network.  So, we did as requested.  Unfortunately, carrier number one did not have any stores locally, so carrier number two’s local stores, with no local customer base to draw from, have no process for doing this.  We stood at the counter in the store for an hour and a half, for the purpose of transferring $75 worth of prepaid cell time to a new $10 phone, which we will probably not renew.  The store agent was very resourceful, dedicated, and diligent, calling one customer service number after another–some of them twice–and getting forwarded in circles, to no avail.  Calls to supervisors yielded helpful but ultimately not useful suggestions.  Meanwhile, other customers came and went, spending hundreds of dollars on complicated new smart phones and expensive service plans, having to wait for other agents while ours patiently endured dead-end after dead-end trying to bridge the disconnect in the transfer process.  Cell provider number one said we should have received a new phone  “in the mail,” but, with a pre-paid account, we never get a paper statement, so they had no idea where we lived, having moved so long ago that the forwarding has expired.  It appears the process in this transfer encompasses, but does not provide for prepaid accounts that have no paper trail.  Process fail.  In this case, after tying up three people–ourselves plus the store agent–and the time of a countless parade of customer support technicians and supervisors for 90 minutes, we were told to come back in several days, after they had resolved the process issue.  Well and good, but the nearest service store is 20 miles away.  Recovery of $75 worth of cell phone minutes that will expire in six months (or in one week, if we aren’t successful) somehow doesn’t seem worth $16 worth of gasoline, four or five hours of our time, and the cost of a new phone to replace one we were planning to throw away in six months anyway.

So, Chaos Central is in full duplex mode this week, creating and absorbing the chaos that results from poorly planned and badly executed processes, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and blindly stumbling one way and then another, through–as the classic computer adventure game says–“…a maze of twisty little passages, all alike,” from which there is no exit.