Sunday, October 04, 2015

Humans Versus Robots Answering Phones - LADWP Human The Worst

This past week I've been going through my mom's mail and calling different government agencies, insurance companies, utilities, etc.

I'm totally fed up.

I'm tired of machines asking for account numbers.  Or giving me five choices.  Then three more, then two more, none of which fits. 

Even though they are getting more sophisticated ("If you need more time to find the number, just say 'need more time'), most of the time I really need to talk to a human because I have issues the computers aren't programmed to handle.   And sometimes they don't even work - "When you're ready, say 'ready.'" just kept playing the music even though I said "ready" several times with increasing volume.

If it were simple, I'd just do it online in most cases, simply to avoid the machines answering the phones.  I'm calling because my issue needs a human.

Most of the humans I eventually talk to are really good.  To give you a sense of my . . .  well frustration isn't quite right because my expectations are so low now.  Exhaustion is probably closer.

The LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP)- There was a bill that was due Tuesday.  Since we only got here Tuesday, I hadn't seen it or paid it. 

I just called to see if they had a grace period of a few days.   When I finally got to the human, I told her my mom's name.  Well, the account was in my step-dad's initials (just the middle initial was different from my mom's).

Steve:  Well, it's my mom's account.  She just died.   The name you have has been dead for thirty years.   I'm just trying to find out the grace period or if there's a place near by where I can pay this.
LADWP:  If the account holder is dead we have to close the account and open a new account.
Steve;  That's fine, but for now I just want to pay the bill right now and I'll change it later.
LADWP:  If the account holder is dead we have to cut off the service in three days unless there is a new account and it will cost $19 to change it.
Steve:  The account holder has been dead for over 30 years, I don't see how another week or month is going to matter.
LADWP:  Once we've been notified we shut off services after three days unless it's changed.

You can imagine how I'm feeling now.

Steve:  Look, I just called so I could pay this bill on time and now you're threatening to shut off the water and power?
LADWP:  I'm sorry that is the policy.  Please give me your social security number.

When I hesitated, she repeated the turn off the service threat.  "We need it to check your credit."  OK, I can understand, and credit checking is one of the reasons one has to give a social security number, but it doesn't mean, in this identity theft era, that I like it.

She put me on hold.  When she came back I had collected myself and voiced my dissatisfaction in a mostly calm, but impatient voice.

Steve:  Look, I've been calling lots of organizations since my mom died.  You are the first person I've talked to who hasn't had the decency to say something like, "I'm sorry for your loss."  And all the other places have been understanding and offered me extra time if I needed it.   You, in contrast,  are threatening to shut off the water and power in three days if I don't do everything you say.  I might as well be talking to a robot who isn't programmed to understand human beings and have some discretion or decency.  

At that point she changed her tone.  She apologized, gave her condolences, but also said they deal with thousands of people every day and don't know what the circumstances are.  In the end, she said I could mail it in and not go to the office and stand in line to pay that day.

My assumption is that LADWP is putting lots of pressure on employees who answer phones, and that is reflected in how this woman responded.  I'm sure there are lots of people who skip out on unpaid bills, but that's no reason to treat me like they did.  In the end she acknowledged this was a long time account (my family moved into this house in 1956) and that the bills were always paid on time.

I'm inclined to think the problem really rests on LADWP.  They're known for scandals about hig employee salaries and  their billing as well as over expenditures and secrecy.

I don't think they should get any rewards for customer service either.

And let me say that every other person I've talked to over the phone since my mom died has immediately stopped and offered condolences and been extra nice and accommodating in handling the issues.  It hasn't always been quick and there have sometimes been problems down the line (although Verizon lowered the rate to $96 a month - tv on vacation hold - the new bill was for $335), but when I've called back they've been gracious and helpful.

NOTE:  I started this several days ago.  Saturday this letter arrived from LADWP addressed to [initials] Deceased [last name].  Maybe I should put it on my mom's ashes until she decides what to do with it. (I've already sent them a check.)  Except it's not to my mom, but my step-dad whose been dead over 30 years.  I could take it to the cemetery and tape it to his memorial. 

I've smudged the initials, last name, address, etc.
We've had letters addressed to my mom, and to her estate, but not with 'deceased' as part of her name.  More reason to believe this is an insensitive organization and it wasn't simply the operator I got. 


  1. In the spirit of What do I know?, I'll venture a cause here. Large organization experience when working with large publics serve to warp customer care to worst-case call-handling. In other words, policy formed through exceptions, rather than behaviour of the majority of customers.

    It's why policy is formed, for the most part, isn't it? To manage anticipated outliers in behaviour that can and do harm the organization they are set to protect? Heck, and that's just about people who skip making payment.

    I can only sadly add here I take some tail-tucked comfort in your pitiless pain. We all become miserable together, at the very least. That, I do know.

    To the Corporation!

  2. Jacob, certainly rules get written to deal with problems that come up down the line - the unexpected ways people do what the org doesn't want them to do. But I think DWP is in trouble and it shows in customer service.

    Ziba, thanks.


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