In the digital age, frustrated consumers might prefer to make an offer that online customer representatives can’t refuse.
By Jack Cashill
“You found paradise in America,” Don Corleone tells Bonasera, the mortician, in the opening scene of The Godfather. “You had a good trade. You made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law.” As Don and Bonasera both know, however, only the Godfather can deliver “justice” in a timely fashion. After a week of wrangling with a series of service providers, I am looking for a digital godfather I can call my own.
In a more chivalric age to be “unhonored” meant, in the words of Sir Walter Scott, to be a “wretch, concentred in self,” destined inevitably to “the vile dust from whence he came.” In the digital age, “unhonored,” as in “unhonored by your bank,” means no one at MGE can figure out why your gas bill didn’t get paid.
At MGE, as with other other service providers, the process rules. HAL runs the joint, and he has little understanding of how you offended him or how you can make amends. He may talk blindly of “honor,” but he never talks of mercy. He has no sense of it.
The MGE Credit and Collection Department goes hard on people like me who seem to have fallen from grace. “We will not accept payment from you for the next twelve months,” wrote the unnamed author in a missive that bordered on hate mail. “This letter serves as a written demand on you to pay the full amount… by cash, Cashier’s Check or Money Order.”
From the text above, one would never guess that I have been a reliable MGE customer for the past 30 years at the address listed or that I had more than $35,000 in the checking account that MGE failed to tap. In the digital age, none of this matters because no one knows.
The MGE missive would have been glove-slap enough were it the sole insult to my honor, but it was one of several comparable letters I received from other service providers at roughly the same time. I had signed up for automatic check withdrawal across the board, and apparently I did something wrong. The problem was that no one, anywhere, could tell me what exactly went wrong.
Given the many rejections, I suspect I misreported the routing number or the number of my checking account.
I suppose I could have called the bank and verified the
same, but it would have done no good.
My fate had been sealed for the next year. It was too late to correct the error anywhere.
The great failing of the digital-service revolution, I realized, was not the lack of humanity. If I pushed enough buttons, I could always find a human to talk to, many of whom spoke a serviceable form of English. No, the failing was the lack of authority. I could push buttons until my fingertips bled without ever finding anyone who could solve even a simple problem.
What the digital age needed, I became convinced, was a source of authority, someone capable of cutting through the clutter and settling disputes on the spot, a digital godfather. “From me you’ll get justice,” says my digital don to me and the MGE rep. “Let’s get down to business. We are all honorable men here. We don’t have to give assurances as if we were lawyers.”
If any service sector needs a godfather or two, it is health care. I certainly yearned for one to help me sort out a recent kerfuffle. It began when the Encompass Medical Group sent me a $394 bill for my annual physical, a procedure that my health plan typically covered.
When I called to clear this up, I realized that Encompass had not been alerted to the fact that we had changed insurers from Coventry to UnitedHealthcare (yes, one word.
Don’t ask me why.). I gave Encompass the new information, and I presumed the problem would be solved. It wasn’t. Some time later, I received an identical letter to the first one I received with no additional clarification.
I called Encompass back. After some minutes of research, the rep told me that UnitedHealthcare had chosen not to honor—there is that word again—my request for payment. So next I called UnitedHealthcare. This rep told me she would need a series of documents from Encompass to straighten things out. When she started to list the items, I suggested she call Encompass direct and explain, and this, happily, she did.
Although that communication clarified the problem, it did not solve it. Yes, my policy was in place at the time of the physical, and yes, the policy covered the physical, but Encompass, through no real fault of its own, failed to submit the claim to UnitedHealthcare on time.
In a simpler age, UnitedHealthcare would either pay the claim or tell me they wouldn’t. I could live with either. In the digital age, UnitedHealthcare had devised a torturous series of steps that, in no one’s best interest, the rep felt obliged to walk me through.
This ultimately involved me printing out a document called “explanation of benefits” and sending it to someone in Utah. All I had to do was to log into my UnitedHealthcare account and find the “explanation of benefits.”
The rep seemed astonished that I had no such account. Having none, I had to register. From experience, I can tell you that registering for the draft was simpler. My draft board did not bedevil me with multiple security questions and demand a password so elaborate its mysteries took me six tries to resolve.
My UnitedHealthcare rep hung in with me through the 30 or so minutes spent on a futile search for the “explanation of benefits” page. It turns out there was no such page. While the rep was off seeking her supervisor, I found something we both agreed was comparable. I have yet to send it. I fear the results.
“What have I ever done,” I needed someone powerful to say on my behalf, “to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”
Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.