Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Deutsche Telekom, Minion of Satan

More sauerkraut today, but I have a right to it. It's been over a week since I posted here, and that's because it's been over a week since I could post here. I mentioned a couple of posts back that I'd gone and spent some money I'd gotten that probably should have gone to the phone bill, but I was sure I'd have it made up in time. I was wrong: the guy who owed me the crucial dough vanished over the weekend. Tuesday everything was back in order, so, after doing some stuff that needed to be done, I walked down to the bank, deposited the cash, dumped the transfer order into the appropriate slot, walked back, and...I'd been turned off.

Oh, the phone was already off for outgoing calls. That had happened earlier. But, from another poverty-stricken friend here, I knew that the DSL was owned by a different wing of Telekom and they rarely turned it off. It had been a lifeline for this friend, who used e-mail to raise money to get the phone back on. So I blithely assumed that was the case.

It took me 48 hours to get to a phone where I could call Telekom, and on Thursday I did. The first call, the recording told me to hold for the next available operator and then cut me off. The second call said the lines were all busy and I should call back later. (Feeling confident about this company's technology?) The third time was the charm. I got a nasty-sounding woman on the other end and asked her if there were any English-speaking employees I could talk to. I'm very, very bad at conversing over the phone, because my German's just good enough that I can put over some more complex points with body language, but I stumble and sweat on the phone.

"Nein!" she snapped, impatiently. Okay, I explained, I've found that my DSL was cut off, and... "Customer number!" Oh, and I read it off the bill. "Don't go away!" Sound of keys tapping. "Yes, you've been disconnected for not paying your bill." Well, actually, I did pay my bill on Tuesday. "No you didn't." Uhhh, but I did. It's been taken off my account: I checked before I called. "It says here you haven't paid your bill." Well, I'm sure it will show up. When can I get my DSL turned back on? I'm a foreign journalist and I'm on deadline. "This isn't our problem. You should pay your bill. If you're not lying to us about having paid, and we see the payment tomorrow, it should be within 48 hours. Of course, not the weekend, so you should have your service on Tuesday." And she hung up. Funny, they have no problem cutting the phone off on weekends.

German charm and German efficiency, all in one swell package: that's Deutsche Telekom. There isn't a single person in this country who's had phone service who doesn't have a story about them, and there's not a single positive story in the bunch. They're the most mean-spirited, customer-hating company I've ever encountered, and the most amazing thing about this is that when I first started having troubles with them -- almost immediately after I had service with them, needless to say -- the head of the company was a man named Ron Sommer, who was either American or had been educated there.

Not speaking foreign languages is a point of pride with them. I once got a questionnaire about Telekom's service, which I filled out with incredible glee and I sure hope got read. One of the questions was "What other language, besides German, would you like to see Telekom information in?" The choices were: Greek, Turkish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, and Polish. The official language of the EU was, ahem, conspicuously missing. Not that I'm a language asshole: I fully admit that my bad German is my own fault, largely due to my having been 40 before I even attempted to learn and compounded by not studying it in a systematic manner once I landed here because I couldn't afford classes. I'm just saying, this smacks of provincialism.

So, in fact, does my favorite Telekom story of my own. Early in my stay here, I was being evicted from a sublet because the landlord had to renovate. No hard feelings on anyone's part, but I just had to go. A guy I'd worked with was being transferred to Hong Kong, though, and was looking for someone to take over his huge apartment in the dreary Wedding district -- a whole story in itself. Anyway, this was good for a number of reasons: It was a big place, the telephone number was one a lot of folks knew because it had been the SXSW Europe number for years, and the rent was ridiculously low because he and his wife had been there for ages and ages. They'd had their phone shut off in preparation for the move, but it just made sense to see if I could get it transferred to my name, both because it was familiar and because this was soon enough after unification that there was an 8-week wait just to get a number.

Anyway, the guy's wife, knowing my German was bad, took it upon herself to go to the Telekom storefront, back when they were actually doing that (you could pay bills, set up accounts, do all kinds of things at them, but they were discontinued when the company became private), and see to the transfer of the number. The lady there asked why I hadn't come along, and she explained that my German wasn't up to it, that she'd take the papers and help me fill them out, and then I'd be back with them so they could make the transfer. "Oh," the Telekom lady said, "he's a foreigner?" Yes, the wife said, he's an American. "Oh, wait: is he black?" No, he's white. "Oh, well, that's good," she said. "Black Americans don't pay their bills, after all. Let's get those papers ready."

I should add that the wife saw nothing at all odd about this exchange.

But Telekom is doomed: since it went private, it's done all sorts of underhanded things to hobble the competition, mostly having to do with the fact that Telekom does, after all, own the infrastructure. Fortunately, it's been caught. Part of the deal I have for this DSL line is that Telekom loses money on it. They posted an insanely low rate to undercut the competition, and those of us who signed up early get to keep that rate as long as we keep the service. Every month, Telekom loses money on me, and that just warms my heart. Because of the labor laws here, it also has about 20% more employees than it needs, so that costs, too. Someday, somehow, its evil customer relations, better deals from the competition, and trogloditic business practices will bring it down.

I hope I'm not here by then, but wherever I am, I'll raise a toast to its crash.

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