Our corporate city; our corporate world

Corporations, with glee and a sneer, are giving us all a run-around. I'll start with a generic example: You call your banker about a mortgage problem. You reach a digital menu of seven choices, none

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Corporations, with glee and a sneer, are giving us all a run-around. I'll start with a generic example: You call your banker about a mortgage problem. You reach a digital menu of seven choices, none of which get you directly to your contact. Two more calls get you your banker's extension, where a voice mail says she's out for the week.

If you need assistance, press 666. That gets you the assistant banker's voice mail, stating she's on the phone or away from her desk. If you need immediate assistance, press 6666 to reach the office specialist. That gets you a voice mail stating 6666 is away from her desk. Please leave a message or, if this is an emergency, call her cell phone.

The cell phone transfers you to another voice mail.

The assistant calls back in 10 minutes, somewhat annoyed with you for using her emergency line simply because you're concerned about $150 worth of fictitious late-payment charges.

We need to stay somewhere while our house is fumigated. On Wednesday, the Westin downtown is booked. "In fact, sir, we're overbooked. We're hoping to get a few cancellations to come out OK." Hoping for cancellations at 4 p.m.? Isn't that check-in time?

On to the Red Roof Inn. I call the Westin early the next day, booking a room, leaving a credit-card number as a guarantee and saying I'll arrive late in the evening. Assurances of a room and a confirmation number reassure me.

We show up at 10:30 p.m., kids and wife especially tired. The room isn't ready because it's being cleaned. We'll have to wait an unspecified period of time or go to the Omni at a reduced rate. I hold my ground as my kids begin to spread out on the lobby furniture. Again the thought occurs: Isn't check-in time 4 p.m.?

At 11:15, I watch three rooms go to corporate customers checking in. I talk to those customers, two of whom have been waiting two hours for their rooms to be cleaned. One guy somehow gets a room right away. I talk to the clerk and assistant manager.

"Sir," she says, "we don't have the room you requested."

"But," I point out, "your clerk here said the room was blocked out for us on the computer and that we'd have it as soon as it was cleaned."

My kids, on cue, begin either snoring loudly or grabbing their stomachs, crying, "Daddy, I have a bellyache!" The hapless clerk denies ever promising us a room, at which point my family of five begins repeating what he said, in effect chanting it, until he has a minor nervous breakdown, calls himself a liar, bursts into tears and runs to the storeroom. We receive a free room at the Omni, but get into bed at 12:15 a.m.

My wife attempts to buy a TV at Sears. A friendly young clerk, who seems to know nothing about the product, says my wife can buy the floor model at a discount. The clerk enters the sales information into his computer and sends her to another location to pick up the machine. The machine is without box, instructions, remote or other accessories. The pick-up assistant appears lost, not knowing where the box is or, for that matter, where he is.

On my wife's insistence, the manager comes to help — a middle-aged man, seemingly not wanting to talk, with very bloodshot eyes. He not-so-politely informs my wife that the 10 percent discount on the floor model justifies its having no accessories. She could, he says, call customer service and buy the accessories, creating a total price in excess of a completely untouched machine. Guessing at the manager's preferred language, my wife says, "But, dude, like, that makes no sense. Lighten up, man. Put on some good tunes, chill out, take care of the munchies and do your job." The manager mumbles, "That's just the way we do it," walking away.

I buy two air rifles for my boys at Dick's. At first, only one sample of the model I want can be found. A special order is impossible because "we don't do the stocking, um, we just sell whatever central headquarters sends us." The manager confirms that, due to the efficient computer system and centralized control, only about four items in the store could be special-ordered. Meanwhile, the clerk finds another gun hidden in the storeroom. That package is missing instructions. The manager gives me a 30 percent discount on the second gun.

I go back to buy pellets: the store is all out. There's no estimate on when ammo for the guns will be stocked. That's up to a mechanical brain in another location, probably in another state. Four weeks later, still no ammo. My boys have set up a machine shop in the garage to make their own.

It's got to be a fairly relaxing job, working at Dick's. Not much to do. Most of the time the sales clerks seem to be away playing or working on personal projects. Sometimes having the cashier page them will bring them out of the woodwork.

Dick's is not alone. I've gotten the same "it's up to the central brain" run-around at World Market, Kmart, Meijer, Home Depot and other stores. Many items are sold until the bulk purchase (of cheaper goods) runs out and will never be restocked. Customers are inherently encouraged to shop elsewhere as needed. Computer records of sales, not customers, matter. Workers' job descriptions, at maximum, seem to require physical labor and being able to scan data into the computer.

We buy a Dell computer by phone, with the full-service package and guarantee. In the case of problems, it takes one to two hours on the phone to get initial help, often just something to try or a vague assurance that everything will be OK. The high-power, high-speed computer seems sluggish, and a Dell employee informs my wife that the software they put in the machine isn't adequate to run it effectively.

The state-of-the-art monitor has a screen that wobbles. The replacement monitor sent by Dell wobbles worse. For some reason, Dell hasn't ever suggested sending a technician out, at least not until we figure out what the problem is.

As a gift to my wife, I coordinate her calls to Dell with an in-the-home massage, manicure and pedicure, all of which get done before Dell takes her off hold.

We have our business voice mail through Cincinnati Bell. It's deactivated, inappropriately, while we're away on vacation. The manager at the 800 number says she'll have it back on in an hour, a relief given our fight to get past two digital menus and a clerk. Twenty-four hours later, no voice mail. I call the manager, who will now only communicate with me via a three-way conversation through her secretary.

"The order was put in yesterday, sir."

"Well, ma'am, I suggest that your manager talk to Cincinnati personally since you all are in Nebraska. Maybe someone here will get the job done."

"But the order was put in yesterday, sir."

(To get the flavor of our conversation, read the above quotes 20 times non-stop.)

Although given the one-hour assurances for the second time, another 24 hours later I'm back on the phone to the manager's manager, who turns on the service with a phone call — to Cincinnati.

As it turns out, although the voice mail company answers calls as "Cincinnati Bell," it's an outsourced company called Advantage Receivable Solutions (or something to that effect). Perhaps they'll change their digital menu, referring us back to Ma Bell for such problems in the future. But what will happen then?

These situations all occurred the past couple of months, and I have not presented every example. In addition, similar things are happening to everyone I know.

Business leaders should note. Problems come from a short-term profit motive and a love of money. Many of the problems are connected to the use of technology as it's employed to enhance corporate profit. As computers handle more and more, businesses seem to hire people to act like robots. Many problems, inefficiencies and outright insults now get blamed on the computer.

These problems are occurring across the board in all types of business. As corporations get larger and more powerful, the neglect of customers increases — which might translate into the neglect of the public interest in general.

Large businesses have lost their accountability to communities. National and global expansion will require national and global standards of conduct. To the extent that industry can't address these standards, governments will have to.

Some businesses have become powerful enough to insult and negatively influence the democratic process — one CEO attempting, for example, to undermine funding of the anti-trust department that was designed to enhance competition and address the negligent treatment of consumers.

The gates of oligopoly and monopoly are opening wide, forcing us to accept widespread corporate contempt. Governmental and legal rulings will be a poor substitute for the social capital businesses could gain across the world through more upstanding behavior.

Social scientists are glossing over corporate influence and expansion as a cause of the widespread loss of American social capital, especially in the past three decades. The negative effects of corporate globalization — the results of essentially outpacing government and community — at best receive lip service.

We stare at better and better computer monitors reflecting a software price that halves about every 18 months. The ritual becomes throw away your old one each year or so and buy twice as much. But twice as much of what?

The economy-made-sacred marches on, as deeper and deeper piles of bullshit blind us.

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