March 7, 2013

The Rose-Tinted Glasses of Hindsight

The other day I had to cancel a bunch of services. Electricity, gas, water, that kind of thing.

And no, not in South Africa, but right here in the USA. We had - finally - sold our old house in Kansas, and Noisette gave me a list of places to call to cancel all the utilities.

I groaned. I do not like calling places, let alone the type of places that in the past three years have made me want to pull my hair out, like Eskom and Telkom and the City of Joburg. And I had just gone through having to cancel all of those.

But, those were South African services. And not American services. American services, I learned in about 12 minutes last week, are absolutely AWESOME to cancel.

If you live in South Africa, you might want to stop reading right here, or you might suffer a severe case of customer service envy and want to throw up in disgust.

Because this is what happened. I dialed the first number, got a real person on the line, was asked for my address, and was informed that a person would be sent there the next day for a final reading, after which a final bill would be sent (to the new address I provided right then and there) to close out the account.

Wow.

I mean, was this for real? No endless voice mail loop playing the same song over and over again, and making me enter my account number countless times, only to be thrown out and disconnected as I had finally approached the holy grail of a real person? No reference number for me to note down and call back sometime next week? No "so sorry but to cancel you will have to dial this other number?" No "we need a thirty day cancellation notice?" And, most important of all, no "sorry, you are only the spouse, please have the account holder call back."

Maybe it was a fluke. So I dialed the second number. After all, I had set aside all morning for this task.

But, lo and behold, the second service was just as easy to cancel and followed the same procedure. Same thing with the third and fourth, and after said 12 minutes I was all done, wondering what to do with the rest of the day.

I felt like I immediately had to share this unbelievable story. So I called up Noisette to report my success.

You know what he said?

"I kind of miss all those South African inefficiencies."

Hmmm. Really?

The rest of that day, I was pondering my feelings vis-a-vis South African inefficiencies. After all, it was I and not Noisette who had to endure most of them over the course of our life there. But, surprisingly, I found that I had to agree with him. From the safe quarters of hindsight, it all really seemed very quaint and endearing and not at all as annoying as I made it out to be at the time.

My rose-tinted glasses of hindsight - like my artwork?

Nothing like an email of utter frustration from a friend in South Africa to tear me out of my rose-tinted reverie.

Without going into too much detail, this friend was trying to purchase a phone plan for her child from MTN, who she already had a contract with, and spent the better half of a week going through the motions we all know so well. Going there in response to an ad and finding that the phone in question was out of stock. Ordering it and going back a week later with the required paperwork, only to be told that more paperwork was needed. Including a brand new visa from her husband valid for two years and not "only" 6 months. (I now admit that I may be the culprit of that - maybe word got out around Joburg that I bailed and left the country without paying the remaining contract fee to Vodacom; though I could have done that with or without visa, to be honest).

I must admit I was feeling very smug after reading this. I instantly felt a whole lot better about living in the U.S. again.

Because do you know how long it took for me to get phones for the entire family?

A half an hour. At the AT&T store. We settled on a plan (which wasn't hard because there is pretty much only one plan*), selected the phones, showed a driver's license (which wasn't even an in-state one), gave our social security number, and bingo, we had ourselves our phones. We even got some credit for trading in our old ones. No contracts to fill out, just one signature, and that was it.

Had we needed the in-state driver's license, that would not have been much of an issue either. THAT errand took me about 45 minutes. Got there, filled out a form, looked through the eye thing, smiled for the picture, forked over a bit of money, and bingo, had my Tennessee license. And not only that, Zax took is test at the same time and got his limited permit as well. If I think back to my early efforts in South Africa to obtain a driver's license, I can only laugh.

I realize that having a social security number makes things easier. Back in the day when we didn't have one of those, some things were more complicated. But it's very easy to get something called a tax identification  number here (they DO want your taxes, after all), which has the same exact format as a social security number and works like a charm. Just thought I'd mention that as gratuitous advice to all prospective expats in America.

Oh, and then we had an issue with AT&T regarding our bill. One of our kids, it turns out, had called a friend in South Africa as soon as the new phone was in hand, and chatted for 39 minutes. 39 minutes, guys! Do you have any idea what kind of money that costs?

One hundred eleven dollars. That's about nine hundred South African Rand! Which I had almost resigned myself into paying and then making the errant kid pay back over time.

But it just so happens that here in the U.S., you get customer service for that kind of thing too.

I called them up, just to ensure that international calling would be taken off the kids' phone plans, with just a hint of annoyance in my voice over the fact that the option was even ON their plans, when the customer service rep I spoke to detected my annoyance and offered to wipe the entire charge off our bill.

The entire charge!

There wasn't even any supervisor involved. Just some call center lady was able to make that decision right then and there.

I almost cried. Not so much with relief, but over the fact that in three years I had not been able to get my unjustified ZAR 495 reconnection fee back from Eskom, though God knows I valiantly tried. And here, without any effort, they gave me something I hadn't even asked for.

By the way, do you want to know what else my South African friend had to deal with that same day MTN was throwing her for loops with additional paperwork?

She was trying to pay the fine for a speeding ticket incurred in a rental car. But the website in question wanted a SA ID number, as is so often the case, and if you didn't have one of those, you needed to scan a copy of your passport. Except when the copy was scanned and duly sent, she was informed that now her "application" needed to first be approved before the fine could be paid.

An application process for the right to pay your speeding fines.

Only South Africa could think that one up.

* I remember spending weeks in South Africa trying to analyze all the different phone plans and associated costs, agonizing over which one to pick, and reading all the fine print (because you can't downgrade once you've settled on something, you better start low and then up your minutes versus the other way around). It drove me absolutely crazy, but in hindsight I do admit there was one major bonus of that approach: You got to pick exactly how many minutes you actually used in a month. Or you could even do a complete pay-as-you-go, topping up your airtime whenever needed. Here in the U.S., that is no longer an option. You are more or less forced to pay an ungodly sum for a plan that gives you more data than you can ever use, plus unlimited nationwide minutes and texting. No option whatsoever for the kid who just needs a phone for emergencies and could probably get by with ten minutes a month. In that respect, my hindsight is indeed correctly rose-tinted.