Viewpoint

Working without a phone in a wired world.

Imagine a day at work without a phone, and the silence, the beautiful silence that the noisy contraption on your desk fails to shatter. Now imagine two days, and more silence. You begin thinking about the way a peasant in Kunming province or another remote part of China must live. At three days, the silence becomes unnerving. Concerns creep into your head: Where are those complaining customers, and analysts, and headhunters that seem to buzz every 10 minutes? On the fourth day the silence becomes deafening. Now you're losing business. I don't need to imagine any of this because it actually happened to me, and at least 35 others who share my office. That's right, we lost the phone service that drives much of our high-tech world, and AT&T, the company primarily in charge of providing it, didn't seem to care enough to fix the problems or to ensure that we didn't lose our service again. Maybe my expectations run too high. When my company pays for a service, I expect to receive it. But perhaps that's an old-fashioned notion in this New Economy. After all, service seems dead or dying in many industries. Try to find a bellhop in a Manhattan hotel. It's faster just to lug your bag upstairs. Want to learn why an online trader failed to process your hot stock tip? Dial into the Web broker's customer-service center, and plan to wait on hold for hours. Telecommunications companies are notorious for slow and cumbersome service. Scrolling through the Denver Post, I came across a column highlighting readers' complaints. Griped one: "I moved back to the Denver area a little more than a year ago, and I have lost count of the number of times I have had to call US West 'customer service' because my phone has stopped working. They should use all the money they spend [advertising] to get customers to sign up for new services . . . on simply providing what people want -- a telephone that works!" At least my colleagues and I were not alone. Misery loves company, and we were pretty frustrated after losing our phone service twice in January and twice in February for a total of at least 10 working days. Here's what happened. In January we moved to a new office, and the technicians in charge of installing our service somehow installed it at the wrong address. Our phones only began to ring after they managed to put it in at the right address, which took several days. That marked our first time in the new millennium without phones. Then we were hit again when we lost service due to a problem within the network. That problem cleared up, but February brought more sounds of silence. Loose wires apparently disabled our lines for several days in the early part of the month. Just after we recovered, our service died again -- apparently due to a reengineered switch. In all honesty, we didn't entirely lose our phone service during those four separate occasions. A few of us could call out, but no one could call in. When customers, for instance, tried to reach us by phone they heard a fast busy signal, or a recording stating the call could not be completed. Our fax machines could send out, but refused to receive. At first friends and family were envious of the situation in my office. They talked about completing projects, and fantasized about brainstorming new ones. "I want your job -- you have an office where no one can reach you," quipped one out-of-town colleague who reached me at home, where I finally moved my office. Indeed, the first 12 hours were nice. But then people started raising questions, and then they started raising their voices: "Where's that purchase order?" "Everybody thinks we're dead." "We're losing so much business." One manager, who kindly served as the point person for our telephones on the blink, took to calling AT&T on the half-hour for updates, and worked with technicians into the early morning hours. The company upgraded our problem to a "Level Five," which apparently put us in touch with AT&T's senior complaint takers. I proposed a sit-in at the office of the CEO of AT&T. Surely he would lend us a working phone. That suggestion was turned down. Those of us who owned cell phones used them until they ran out of juice. Many of us, who did not own them, bought them. AT&T never offered to lend us cell phones. We arranged to receive faxes at the print shop downstairs. Some of us setup more face-to-face meetings. When I explained over coffee to an executive at networking giant 3Com Corp. that we hadn't had phone service in four days, his jaw dropped open. He looked astonished. Most people understand an afternoon without a phone, but hardly anyone could believe we had lost service for more than a week. Fortunately, e-mail at my office remained working. Unfortunately, my mailbox filled with complaints: "I tried to reach you, but the phone was busy all day!" "Do I have the right number?" "Are you still there?" "Do you still have a job?" It's been more than a month since our last outage. We're trying to gain some form of reimbursement from AT&T for all the business we lost during two weeks without phone service. The phones are ringing a good deal again, but until recently none of had received an apology from AT&T. A call to the company's media affairs department for this column prompted a response: "We're sorry for the service disruption, we don't like anyone to be without service, but before further comment, we would need to look into the root cause of the problem," says a spokeswoman. Maybe our expectations of service are too high, and we're asking for too much in the New Economy. Weld Royal is an IndustryWeek senior editor based in New York.

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