Jason Wright: Is the phone company really such a bad guy?

Jason Wright

Jason Wright

They’re the villain you love to hate.

If the new “Star Wars” movies reveal more children for Darth Vader, they will all be named after local telephone companies.

In countless communities around the country, this utility is one plump piñata. But instead of mints and mini Milky Ways, it’s packed with plastic modems and Ethernet cables.

“Step right up! Swing away!”

In my corner of Virginia — the Shenandoah Valley — the longtime bad guy goes by the name Shentel. Like any other phone company, the common complaints cover the phone bill, Internet speeds or why Bob Jones can’t watch the Underwater Penguin Poker Network.

That’s probably not a real channel, but if it were, Bob would rant that it’s not available on Shentel. “I need my penguins playing cards!”

Perhaps it’s unavoidable. After all, they’re a utility, and for generations they’ve been easy targets with their co-star antagonists: the power, water and gas companies.

Is it really possible that with so many customers across such a large market that sometimes, maybe, just maybe, believe it or not, they actually do something right?

Let’s see.

About a month ago, I discovered that the AT&T Microcell that sits perched by the window of my building in Woodstock had stopped working. The device functions like a cell phone signal booster, and I tried the normal quick fix. I unplugged it, counted to 60, turned my pajamas inside out, flushed three ice cubes and plugged it back in again.

Nothing, though we did get a little snow.

I took a deep breath, mumbled a prayer and called AT&T’s customer service. They waved a wand, spouted some numbers and told me the problem was mine. “Call your local Internet service provider and tell them they need to quit blocking your ports.”

“I’m not trying to sail anywhere. I just want my device to work.”

I laughed. They didn’t.

I explained that no changes had been made on my end and that the device had been working well for three years. It’s had only a handful of minor hiccups, always solved with the restarting and ice cube tricks.

And thus began a three-week adventure with my local telephone company.

We started with one call, then another, and another and another. The issue climbed rung by rung up the support ladder and even though the problem was not yet solved, the service was outstanding.

Never once did they blame AT&T or whisper even a negative word. Nor did they make me feel as though I had somehow created the problem myself, a common tactic in the tech support world.

We tried it all.

AT&T sent another device, just in case. Nope.

I experimented with several other routers. Negative.

I brought in a private networking guru to troubleshoot. Thanks for trying.

I invested many hours determining what was broken and how it could be fixed. I tried so many different cabling configurations that my office looked like my kid’s Rainbow Loom.

When I was nearing my breaking point — the day I was going to let my boys strap bottle rockets to it — I got another phone call from Shentel offering something that just might shock you.

An apology.

They’d discovered the problem was, in fact, theirs. It was the result of a simple tweak made in their network configurations about the same time my device decided to hibernate. They reverted to the original settings and within two minutes, everything was working perfectly.

I didn’t even have to flush the ice cubes.

How impressive that they didn’t pass the buck and they were completely transparent about their internal investigative process. They completely owned it.

Simply put: they screwed up, and it took longer than it should have for them to recognize the issue. But the company I’m supposed to distrust and dislike did the right thing in a remarkably honest and genuine way.

Perhaps some of my local readers will pounce on the comments to post their horrible experience dealing with the very same company. But as I’ve written before, we have a responsibility to highlight when things go right.

I’m not an expert, I’m just a writer, but perhaps when we form our consumer opinions, we ought to rely more on our own experiences and less on the loud and disgruntled few.

I offer public kudos to Emily, Judson, Larry, Michael, Robert and Seth at Shentel for aggressively working to solve a problem they admitted to creating in the first place.

If that’s a villain, we need a lot more of them in the marketplace.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including “Christmas Jars,” “The Wednesday Letters” and “The 13th Day of Christmas.” He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or http://www.jasonfwright.com

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