@internet -- Second Impressions

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven

In 1985, when I was a much younger and more foolish man, my friend Geoff Nathan invited my fiancé and me to his graduation ceremony. Because I've known Geoff since he was 14 years old, I'd've been pleased to accept in any case, but when he told me that his class (he matriculated from the history department at U.C. Berkeley) had arranged for Gary Larson -- whose theme was "The Importance of Being Weird" -- to be their commencement speaker, well, wild horses would've needed automatic weapons to drag me away.

Larson has been one of my heroes, since shortly after The Far Side, his bizzare and hilarious brainchild, began appearing as a regular feature in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle.

We thoroughly enjoyed Larson's sidesplitting speech, which was long on anecdotes about how his older brother had terrorized him as a boy and notably short on the kind of cliche-ridden counsel that typically afflicts such addresses. Afterwards, at the wine-and-cheese reception, he was, of course, immediately mobbed, but only a short time later, there he was, all alone, looking kind of lost, with an untasted glass of bulk-purchase white in his hand.

So, what the hell, I walked over, introduced myself, told him that I very much admired his work and asked for his autograph.

He seemed genuinely glad to be rescued from his isolation and, with pen poised over the commencement program I'd handed him, inquired whether I'd like him to inscribe it with a personal salutation -- "To my good friend," for instance.

I was horrified to hear myself respond, "Nah, that's okay. After all, those things are never sincere, are they?"

He looked at me for a long, long moment. Then, quietly, he replied, "No. I guess they're not."

And then he signed my program and I slunk away, feeling about two centimeters tall; knowing that I had acted a prize idiot in front of a man whose respect I desperately craved.

It was not one of my finer moments.

Those of you who were once subscribers to the now-departed CLEC Magazine may remember that, in the final edition of my column for that title, I related the tale of how Sierra Telephone, our local iLEC here, installed ISDN service at my new home in Mariposa. If memory serves, SierraTel made a much better first impression on yours truly than the one I made on my favorite cartoonist, 16 years ago.

What a difference a billing cycle makes.

At Your Service?

When I received my first ISDN invoice from SierraTel, I was a little taken aback by the size of the thing. It wasn't so much the $125 installation charge that surprised me, nor was it the four or so hours of daytime usage -- after all, I'd agreed to the one and knew that the other was a result of having to set up my Cisco 804 router and troubleshoot the connection during regular business hours.

No, it was the 2273 minutes of off-peak connect time at which I looked askance.

SierraTel's Home ISDN tariff includes 200 hours of off-peak connect time in its monthly fee -- which is to say 100 hours with both bearer channels up. And, while I'd spent a fair amount of time online in the preceding month, I didn't think I'd burned up more than 233 evening hours -- after all, I'd been mighty busy getting moved in. But I hadn't actually kept a log, so I simply paid the bill.

Then I called my friend Chairman Ted from Williamson Research Services and had him crank up the threshold for my second B line, so it'd only come up under extremely heavy, sustained demand.

Came November's invoice and -- surprise! -- there was another 789 minutes of night and evening connect time. That definitely seemed fishy, so I called Cindy Huston at SierraTel Customer Service and asked that she recheck their billing.


It turned out that they'd been dinging me for connect time at their Business ISDN rate, for which every minute is billable. And, somehow, I'd been entered into their accounting system at both rates.

Of course, I just had to find out how that had happened -- after all, I had warned them that I'd be writing about my experiences with them. Since they knew -- or should have known -- they'd be under my microscope, the fact that they'd screwed up my account brought up the question of how many of their other customers were being mis-billed.

Cindy assured me that they'd audited all their other customers' accounts and determined that mine was a unique problem -- but, as the saying goes, verbal guarantees aren't worth the paper on which they're printed, so I asked for written documentation to that effect. I also requested that their General Manager call me.

It took three such -- increasingly insistent -- solicitations before Harry Baker, SierraTel's 74-year-old Chairman and General Manager finally rang me up. We had what I thought was a fruitful conversation about the issue, in which I outlined for him my concerns -- and my conviction that his billing and accounting database application had gaping holes in its referential data integrity checking.

I asked that he supply me with a written response to several questions: What steps had his company taken to determine how many customers had experienced similar problems? How had any billing errors had been corrected and were appropriate refunds issued? And -- the biggies -- what remedial actions were planned and when were they scheduled to be implemented?

Six weeks later, I still hadn't received the response for which I'd asked him. So I called and left messages for Baker and for Sherry Colgate, SierraTel's Customer Service Manager, warning them that the deadline for my column was fast approaching and that time was running out.

In perfect accordance with Murphy's Law, both were out of town on business at the time, so it was the day after my deadline that Colgate finally returned my call.

Colgate confided that the errors in my bill were an artifact of SierraTel being forced to maintain separate databases for tariffing and billing -- and that they hoped to integrate the two sometime in the fourth quarter of 2001. We swapped war stories for another hour and parted with her promising that Harry Baker would send me a formal, written response later that evening.

Which he did -- and that's when things got ugly.

The System has Stopped Responding

Baker's letter was a classic stonewall. In reply to my question about what SierraTel had done to find out whether any other Home ISDN customers had been misbilled in the same way that I had, it stated, "All ISDN accounts are continually audited for billing accuracy," ignoring the fact that it was not them, but I who had discovered the problem with my account.

Things went generally downhill from there, with Baker closing by essentially challenging me to make an issue out of what he insisted was "a solitary, unique human error."

Not a good idea -- especially in view of the fact that I had, in the meantime, discovered yet another ISDN billing problem, which SierraTel's "continual auditing" had, once again, somehow failed to catch. And this one was a doozy, since it magically added over 4 hours of daytime connect charges to my invoice -- despite the fact that I had been online during peak hours for not one single, solitary minute in the preceding 60 days.

I pointed out both things -- and observed that challenging a journalist to make a story out of an error he had discovered was perhaps not the wisest strategy in the playbook -- in an email reply to Colgate that Saturday. Murphy was apparently putting in serious overtime and, with one thing and another, it took until the following Wednesday before Colgate was able to come up with an official response.

In it, she confirmed that a "data control clerk" -- she declined to name the individual responsible -- had, indeed, conducted a manual audit of all SierraTel's Home ISDN accounts, just as Cindy Huber had told me four months earlier, and that mine was the only one that was being mis-billed under the Business ISDN tariff. She also admitted that the new error I'd discovered affected all their Home ISDN customers and blamed it on their billing contractor, Mid America Computer Corporation.

And that's where things stand.

Sherry Colgate undoubtably hates my guts. That's okay. She's doing her job and I'm doing mine.

As for morals in this story, there are, I think, two:

First of all, while it's true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, if you're lucky, you'll have plenty of opportunity to make second, third and subsequent ones. Each of them represents a new chance to excel -- or to crash and burn like the Hindenburg.

Secondly, Murphy rules. Try and wave a problem away and he'll make sure you learn that ordinance the hard way.

If I ever get a second chance to meet Gary Larson, I'll keep both lessons in mind.

(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)