Thursday, January 28, 2010

Following up my customer service call

So tonight, Etisalat and I danced some more.

It was not a beautiful dance. Elbows were thrown, toes were trod on. I think Etisalat might be hearing a totally different song than I am. And so on.

Basically, our Internet has X bandwidth. I want to up that to 2X. This should be a relatively simple procedure, considering it involves a customer (me) wanting to give a company (Etisalat) more of my dirhams. And yet. Oh, and yet.

I tried to upgrade in person last week and was told, after more than an hour of waiting in line, that the system was down and I'd have to come back later. (I have since realized that this is actually code for, "something unexpected has happened that I don't quite know how to solve, so I'm just going to pretend it's out of my hands.") OK. The next step was to call the company's "customer service" phone number, which I had used to upgrade our service the last time. I went through several operators before I finally got someone who said they could help me.

Oh, and as an aside--Etisalat, if you're reading this? Calling your number, then hitting 2-2-2 on the following menu does not get you to the sales department. It gets you to the e-Vision service department, who are not only unwilling to help a poor Al Shamil customer with his account, but apparently lack the capability to transfer a phone call. The only way to actually get to the sales department is to punch 2 (for English), 2 (for "other services") and 3 (for Internet), and hope your call is randomly picked up by the sales department. I will bet you every red dirham in my wallet that this is the case.

Anyway. The first person who said they were able to help me tried to upgrade the account, then told me that I could not upgrade over the phone. I needed to go to the Etisalat office. Well, fine. But I wasn't about to give up the telephonic fix so quickly. I called right back an got a different representative, who turned out to be the second-most helpful Etisalat employee I had ever encountered. He understood exactly what I wanted... tried to make it work... and apologized when he couldn't. He said there was a glitch in the system, and that he couldn't resolve it over the phone. I would have to go to... well, you know how this goes.

That brings us up to speed. Tonight I went to Etisalat. Not much of a wait at 7 p.m., which is good. The guy at my counter took my upgrade form, typed some stuff, took my ID, then asked me how long my account had been operational. Not a good sign. In fact, at that point, I was considering anything other than "It's done, sir," to be a bad sign. He sent me to his supervisor, a guy at a different counter, who typed some more, frowned at his screen, then said, "Is not possible, sir."

"What?" I asked.

"Your current speed is a promotion. You cannot upgrade. You must downgrade first."

Yeah. That's right. Apparently our current service, which we pay through the nose for, was a promotion. (I had no idea this was the case) And that, in turn, means that not only can I not change the account over the phone, but I can't change it AT ALL without downgrading to the speed I had before... four times less bandwidth. For crying out loud.

I saw a workaround. "Can you just downgrade me now, then upgrade me to the new service?" I asked.

No. Of course not. I had to wait for the lower speed to kick in--"after tomorrow," he said--and then go back to upgrade it. So four days of impossibly slow internet, then maybe I can upgrade. Assuming the system will work the way it's supposed to.

But, he said, maybe I could call customer service and they could fix it for me. But the best bet, he said, was to just keep the service I had now. "It is good," he said.

That's right. THEY DIDN'T WANT MY MONEY. Someone explain this to me. I left under a cloud of equal parts confusion, anger and despondence.

The epilogue is that I DID call customer service again, and after several tries got the right person on the line. He turned out to be the most helpful and, bonus points, apologetic(!) Etisalat worker ever. He tried the upgrade. Of course it failed. He saw it was a glitch. He said, "Everything is fine with your account. There is no reason it can't be upgraded. But the computer won't let me. I am so sorry, sir." And then, I swear, he said, "Please do not be angry."

A little contrition goes a long way. I wasn't angry, at least not at him. I don't really have a solution either, though. I'm open to suggestions.

Unless, of course, you work for Etisalat. In which case, all I ask is that you manage not to screw anything else up until I figure out how to help you do your own job in the way you're supposed to.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More on Etisalat

Charlie, a Friend of the Blog and Reporter of Interesting Things, wrangled a good story into the paper this morning about the customer service issues of what is essentially the only Internet service provider in the UAE.

It mostly focuses on long waits--which I have witnessed with mine own eyes--and the company's PR people say all the right things, but there is a lot more going on than just massive queues. In many ways, it's emblematic of how customer service is really kind of an afterthought in this part of the world, five-star hotels aside.

It's a matter of attitude. If a customer faces a counterintuitive situation (for instance, is told that an account change can't be made over the phone, even though the exact same change was done, over the phone, a week earlier), explain it. Don't just say "It is not possible, sir."

If a customer (or millions of customers) face service outages, don't pretend that all is well. Admitting a problem is, I'm told, the first step toward recovery.

If a customer has a problem that should be easily solved, but isn't, try this novel approach: apologize. (alternatively, take a logical approach to solving it. I'm thinking mostly of a problem that struck the Guy [still] Sitting Next to Me, in which he had a week-long running battle of phone calls and e-mails simply to find out if his building had been wired with high-speed fiber optic cable. Etisalat's solution was to ask him to figure it out.)

It all adds up to a big bundle of overpriced annoyance. Unfortunately, there isn't anyplace else to turn. And so I hope that when I head over there tonight, to upgrade our service in person because they won't do it over the phone, it will be a smooth, quick and comfortable experience.

I also hope I can ride home on a gold-plated unicorn.

Monday, January 25, 2010

You've heard of death by a million paper cuts?

Sometimes, Abu Dhabi is death (or at least minor discomfort) by a million daily annoyances. I won't run through the peaks--high!--and valleys--subterranean!--of the last few days. They have, at least in terms of cultural events, been summed up aptly at this well-designed blog.

But you know, this city does things that gets your hopes up. You go to a shiny, new museum and see a well-curated art exhibit as the sun sets over a slowly awakening island called "happiness." You think to yourself, "Self, Abu Dhabi is figuring some stuff out."

Then you try to get your Internet service upgraded to a higher speed, and you think that, no, ain't no one figured out nothin'.

The week so far has been a maze of unexpected setbacks, confrontations and frustrating customer service experiences. But I guess on some level, that reflects the reality of a country still trying to figure out what it is. Stuff doesn't run smoothly. Big ideas sometimes turn out small, or not at all. Unnamed internet service providers send you your bill two days after it is due and won't let you sign up for a more-expensive service over the phone.

I learn to deal with it. Ideally, the city is learning a few lessons too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Unexpected side effects of living abroad

Let me tell you about cooking.

When I was a kid, my parents, at one point--I was somewhere between 8 and 12, say--had me cook one meal a week. Ostensibly to teach me how to cook, and make me understand that the hot food on the table didn't magically appear from the kitchen sometime between after-school cartoons and bedtime.

When I went to college, cooking became a necessity. As a schol-haller, it was occasionally part of my duties. As a roommate in a dilapidated student ghetto house, it was that or starve. And of course, who hasn't fixed themselves a cheese-and-thousand-island-dressing sandwich after a night at the bar?

Post-college, I experimented with more complicated dishes. Sometimes it was out of boredom, as I looked for ways to expand my culinary horizons beyond soup (canned), sandwiches (cold) and chips (potato). Other times it was because I wanted to impress someone with two X chromosomes and a taste for the finer things.

But it has never been anything I did regularly... until I arrived in the Dhabs.

Witness. Yes, this was more complicated than it looks.

I find myself cooking--really cooking, with ingredients and a plan and stuff--about three times a week, which impresses me, if nothing else. Most of the time I turn out something pretty good too. I think that has to do with practice and lack of pressure. A notable example of the pressure getting to me: I tried once to do something German for Mrs. Blog, who is Krautish, and wound up buying spaetzle, cabbage, sauerkraut and some other starch that I can't recall at the moment. Despite being seasoned by a ton of good intentions, a tasty meal it was not.

Here, for the most part, I'm cooking a meal simply so we can enjoy something nice to eat. Hunting and gathering. Stuff that is in my genes. (plus, we have a barbecue grill, which I'm always comfortable using unless I'm stuck with that awful Saudi Arabian charcoal)

So here is the point, and thanks for waiting around for it. I have moved to the Middle East, and because of that, I cook more often and am better at it. As far as side effects of expatriatism go, that is one I would have never expected.

And it tastes... it tastes like success. With barbecue sauce.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Your insurance covers terrorism and war, but not nuclear, biological or chemical attacks

Busy day.

I woke up to see, like most of the world, that a massive earthquake had struck Haiti. The country was in flames, shrouded in dust, without electricity or telecommunications. The picture that might sum it up best:

Presidential palace laid low.

Being a journalist, the question quickly turned to, how can we cover this? There were other stories closer to home that needed covering too. How do we get it all in the paper? What happens next?

What happened next was, I remembered that we had done a story last week about the UAE's Urban Search and Rescue team. Their job--and they are United Nations-certified!--is to respond to global crises and extricate people from buildings. It seemed obvious: They would be headed to Haiti.

Several calls by one of our plugged-in reporters confirmed this. And the story widened... why not send a photographer with them? And why not a reporter? Why not, indeed. And the team said our people could ride on their plane.

Suddenly, we would not only have an exclusive story, but we would have people on the ground in Haiti... something no other news outlet in the region (and maybe even the continent) could say.

Much had to be done! We chose the reporter and shooter who would go... a difficult process, because who doesn't want to go to an earthquake-ravaged, poverty-stricken crisis zone? I'm not being sarcastic here, either. Everyone really did want to go.

The next step was getting them insurance. I handled that one, and that's where the subject line came from. For a few hundred pounds a week (per person) you could be insured against loss of life or limb... as long as you weren't getting dismembered or killed by the aforementioned weapons of mass destruction. Seems like a pretty sweet deal to me.

The folks we were sending had all the relevant inoculations, but we scrambled to find them some malaria pills too. (although, evidently, Haiti has zero malaria. Oh, well.)

Meanwhile, page editors were planning for the weekend. Our coverage would be big.

And then... then it all fell apart. The rescue team wouldn't be going after all, we were told. So neither would our reporters. Our readers wouldn't get to see any of this. And all the vicarious excitement about heading to a big story in the midst of a crisis, well, it ebbed big time.

Maybe next time. And, one hopes, we won't have to spring for the truly comprehensive coverage.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Smokey, this be not the foul jungles of the darkest East Orient. This be ninepins. We are bound by laws.

You know, sometimes I think I'm a good writer.

And then other times, I discover that someone has rewritten the script for "The Big Lebowski" in the style of Shakespeare. And lo, I am humbled.

[Outside LEBOWSKI’s castle. Enter THE KNAVE (with a Persian rug) and BRANDT]

I pray you, Knave, remember us in future visitations.

Faith, surely when next I travel in this neighbourhood, I will call upon his lordship’s good honour, and beseech his refreshment.


“With toe-nails of verdant and forester’s green
With a hey-nonny-no and a hey-nonny-nonny
Blow thrice on my toe-nails and I’ll be thy queen
And ever preserve me as thine, blithe and Bonnie.”
I pray you, sir, blow.

Marry! But here’s a lady of good interest, whose toe-nails are the very green of the common hump, where grass doth grow and where country lovers do foot. Whither shall I blow, maid? For I am but a traveling tumbleweed, and may well be carried by any wind, e’en south.

I mean only the wind in thine own maw in this case; blow, then, serve your turn and cool my hot temper.

Sayst thou that I must blow upon thy foot, painted lady?

I ask this deed of you thrice now; and that which a damsel craves constantly is the service of a tongue most moved in capability. Look to my foot; I cannot reach that far. Blow, wind!

I fear thy charms. Will not thy consort mind
If I bestow his lady fair my wind?

Nay, there’s naught for which Oliver carest;
He mindeth not, for he’s a nihilist.

Our court’s noble guest must not tarry, Lady Lebowski.

Lady Lebowski? Then thou art Bonnie? A merry wife indeed!

And a lady of good housekeeping and agriculture besides, minded to economy and all practicalities. Were thou to bring a gentle cock to mine bed-chamber, I might help him to success for ten shillings.

Such a lady of talents I have scarcely seen.

Yes, a most forthright jest! Free of spirit and good generosity, she is the nimble nymph of Neptune, and we mark her with good humour.

Free of spirit but ne’er free for flesh. Were I to regale thee with parts of my humour, I would not bid Brandt hear the play ere he paid a shilling himself.

Hark, a marvelous jest; but, I pray you, we dare not tarry. Come, Knave.

Yea, I shall come, and then return with money,
Or lose the labour’d love of fair Bonnie.


Read the whole thing here, and wonder at the joys of iambic coenameter.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Remind me never to get arrested

I spent yesterday in two courtrooms: One in Abu Dhabi (the city) and one in Al Ain. The afternoon case, in Al Ain, was speedy and well-organized. In hearing that took less than 10 minutes, a panel of three judges pronounced a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family not guilty.

The morning hearing was longer and more tumultuous. It also made me think that if I ever found myself in the hands of the justice system here, it would be very hard to get me out. I guess having a translator would help, but shouted Arabic from a judge is just intimidating, no matter what is being said.

The room was laid out like just about any courtroom, with a gallery for visitors, a raised platform for the judge and some desks for the lawyers. One main difference I noticed right away, though, is that all the suspects sit in the gallery. Yeah. A bunch of guys in baggy blue outfits ("the ones with yellow stripes face life sentences; the guys with red stripes face death," said the reporter sitting next to me) were slouching in chairs about 10 feet away.

There were three types of guards present: regular police, federal police and soldiers. The soldiers were all women, and were wearing purple camo. The federal police had light green jumpsuit uniforms. The regular police had blue unis. One of the officers had a gun, but, the same reporter assured me, it was not loaded.

And finally, all the arguments are made via paperwork. The prosecutors hand the judge some papers. The defense lawyers hand the judge some papers. And then the judge tells them when he will issue a verdict. (The day I was there, however, both the defense and prosecution made oral arguments in a major human-trafficking case, which was both rare and entertaining. And yes, I had no clue what anyone was saying.)

So, yes. In a court where the rules seem to be made up as the go along--at least as far as I could tell--I'd be in big trouble if I find myself in a baggy blue prison outfit. If nothing else, I doubt the prison-issue flip-flops would fit my feet.

Friday, January 8, 2010

He said his name was Rupaul

He wasn't a drag queen. He was the Bangladeshi equivalent of a CPA. And before I met him, my toaster caught on fire.

Yeah, it's been a weird day.

We returned from Britain and discovered that our Audi's battery was deader than the Chiefs' playoff hopes. And, as is tradition here in the UAE, there was no easy way to go about getting it taken care of. Call a tow truck? Sure... and then spend a half-hour just reciting landmarks to try to get the driver in the vicinity of your car.

Buying a battery seemed the easier route, but there was a catch: The car had some kind of fancy anti-theft system built into it that made the radio inoperable if it were disconnected from the battery, even for a short period. To reactivate it, you had to enter a four-digit code. This code was conveniently stored in the car manual... or it should have been. None of the previous owners had written it down.

Tough choice. But we needed wheels. And that's how I ended up talking to Rupaul.

He works at the stationery shop next to the place where I bought the car battery. After haggling for a throw-in oil change, I was stuck there on foot for a bit and he came out to see what was going on, stapler sales apparently being pretty flat.

Interesting guy. Kind of a study in capitalism. His uncle works in Italy; his brother works in Germany; he has a cousin in Chicago. He was an accountant back home and has a degree in business. But, as he pointed out, he could come here and make 17 times more than he could back home. So he has committed to a three-year plan: Sell paper and file folders, send most of the money back home to his wife, and count the days.

In the meantime, he said, "I watch expensive cars go by."

Not a bad attitude. And maybe his positive outlook rubbed off on me--when I restarted the car, the stereo clicked on too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Grammar can be fun

Just kidding. Grammar is not fun. But making fun of common spelling mistakes is!

This is actually one that trips me up a lot more than it should. Who knows why. And I feel awful about all the dolphins I have inadvertently slaughtered over the years.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The words to "Auld Lang Syne"

... and I'm only about 90 percent sure I spelled everything in the title correctly.

Last night, at midnight Edinburgh time, I witnessed this:

Big castle go boom.

That's the Edinburgh Castle there on the hill, with fireworks exploding overhead. Something like 200,000 people attended the street party below with me, all good natured, drinking heavily, wishing each other a happy new year and singing the song mentioned above.

They put the lyrics on a giant TV so everyone could understand them. As best I could tell, it's about 30 repetitions of the words "auld lang syne," with a few "my dears" and "lest old acquaintance be forgots." It's the last part I want to focus on.

In years past--and mainly I mean after I got a cell phone, sometime around age 24--I would call close friends after midnight to wish them a happy new year. But life, as we all know, gets complicated. This year is more complicated than most: Not only am I living in the Middle East, but I'm vacationing in Scotland. That makes a phone call difficult. In other years there have been other complications.

But here's what I want to make clear to everyone to whom I have called and texted over the years, party sounds in the background, sharing a long-distance moment of reminiscence and well-wishing. Geography changes, but the important things don't. You're all very dear to me. And have the happiest of new years.