Friday, June 15, 2007


Dora and I have come to the end of a long and trying road, a road that clearly illustrates the hurdles placed before anyone who lives in Hungary. While it may sound trivial, the act of moving our internet service from our old apartment to our new apartment proved to be the single most infuriating experience I have endured since arriving here in Hungary.

Understand that for Dora and me, our link back to life in the States relies heavily on the Internet. It goes beyond email, this blog, and Skype. We listen to weekly podcasts from NPR news, Fresh Air, Lake Wobegon, This American Life, Wait Wait…, and America Abroad. We try to keep up with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” over Comedy Central’s website. And while we don’t watch TV in the traditional sense, through the use of torrent networks, Dora and I are up-to-date on “Heroes” and “Prison Break.” And we are only a season behind “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” and “24.” I can, by the way, heartily recommend all of the above.

That said, we were quite frustrated when our ISP told us that it would take four weeks to move our ADSL signal to the new apartment, but we took that in stride. You have to let some things go in this country.

Let me take this opportunity to say a word or two about the failings I will not address in this entry: 1) the problems with customer service in Hungary and 2) the issue of efficiency in Hungary. These are the topics most often bitched about among ex-pats. The local English-language newspapers include at least one editorial a week on customer service nightmares or inefficient episodes involving bureaucracy. So, while these issues help to keep my blood pressure up, I believe they are only symptoms of the problem that led to me screaming and pleading with a T-online phone representative last month.

The problem: an unshakable unwillingness to step outside of institutionalized thinking.

The example: my interaction with T-online while I tried to shut down the ADSL signal at our old rented apartment.

Let me explain. When we left our apartment on March 31st, we had informed T-online that we were moving and we wanted to bring our ADSL account (still under contract) with us. They told us about the delay, we accepted that, and on the 31st we left. On the first of April the new tenants moved in, and we discovered a problem. T-online hadn’t stopped the ADSL signal at the old apartment, and the new tenants had a different service provider. The two signals could not share the same line. To me it sounded like a simple problem to solve. I called T-online and told them they had to turn off that old signal. Problem solved, right? That’s what I expected to hear, but instead the rep told me, “Um, I’m sorry sir, but until your new signal is in place we cannot stop the old signal.” My pulse sped up just a bit. I was asking my service provider for something relatively simple, but the request was refused. I calmly explained that a third party was now involved, and it was no longer an issue between me and T-online alone. I told the rep that the signal had to be stopped or we would be wasting someone else’s money. The answer came back the same. I mean, exactly the same. He repeated his previous sentence verbatim. Creepy, right? So I asked to speak to his supervisor. (You’re going to love this.) He said I couldn’t speak to his supervisor. I asked why. He told me that his supervisor could not change the company policy, so it would be pointless to speak to him/her. At this point I was mad. I told the rep in no uncertain terms that while the supervisor may not be able to help me, I still wanted to speak to him/her and express my disbelief and disgust at the inflexible and seemingly irrelevant policy I had come up against.

“He’s not here. Can I have your phone number so he can call you back tomorrow?”

Those were the words I heard. I objected - strongly - but was made to understand that this jackass was not going to transfer me.


Over the next week or so I experienced some variation of this conversation daily. Sometimes I would get transferred, but never to anyone with any real authority. I was told that someone would call me back at the end of each call. No one ever called back. So after 10 days of this, I told the latest rep that I would not hang up. I said, “No. No one calls back. So I would like you to put me on hold. I will wait for your supervisor.”

“He’s not here.”

“I’ll wait”

“You can’t. Please. My supervisor will call you back.”

“No he won’t. I will wait on hold.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Please put me on hold.” And I looked at the clock. I was on the phone for fifteen minutes, but I was not on hold. I was going back and forth with this rep. He told me to hang up. I told him I would not. Over and over. Voices were raised. I explained, pleaded, and voiced frustration. I only wanted to be put on hold. I was speaking to T-online, a subsidiary of T-com, the largest communications company in Europe; certainly they had they had call waiting. “Right? You do have that button on your phone, don’t you?”

He did not think that was as funny as I did. We continued. He eventually hung up on me.

The problem was solved only after another week of going through the proper channels, and this leads me to my conclusion: thanks to 40 years of institutionalized thinking under the Soviets, very few people here are willing to take up the reins, even if doing so would actually make the job easier. That young man wasted 15 minutes of both of our lives. But T-online reps are not trained to use the hold function, so even at my insistence he refused to step outside of protocol. He was powerless, something that might have gained my sympathy, but did not because he chose to be powerless. No one would have fired that kid for putting me on hold. There would have been no punishment for doing what the customer asked. But he looked at his backwards set of standards and practices (A customer calls with a complaint and you say, “We’ll call you back tomorrow?” What is that all about?) and he accepted it as law.

This acceptance is what I believe to be at the heart of so many of the other issues that hold the service sector back here in Hungary.


Dora said...

Unfortunately, its so true. Hungary has not yet caught on! Its almost as if they DON'T want you to buy things. One question though. How does McDonald's do it? Not that Im a frequent visitor of the place, but without fail, McDonald's employees, come through on the happy, cheery, helpful, and sometimes even efficient front!

Bradley said...

AMERICA, FUCK YA! but seriously no matter how good service gets, you always have some people that will find something to complain about. you are seriously justified in your "angry" as this story is pure steven king grade a+++ horror.

i'm sorry to hear about all the crappy commie-left-over social economic failure. perhaps in 50 more years all the companies struggling in bungary can be bought out by att, walmart or exon mobile for the win.

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