Customer service

Level One

I put my mom on a plane this afternoon to fly back home after a visit. She’s been having cognitive problems for a while and airports—especially one as big as O’Hare—are not a familiar environment for her, so I wanted to make sure I could take her to the gate and see her off. Other relatives would be picking her up at the other end—a very small airport that’s only a few steps from gate to baggage claim.

To be allowed through security without a ticket or boarding pass requires something called a gate pass. The airline’s website said that gate passes were available for people accompanying travelers who need assistance, and I called the airline a few days ago to confirm that I’d be able to get one at the ticket desk when we checked her bag.

You will not be surprised to hear that the people at the ticket desk—both our initial agent and his superior—had no idea how to issue me a gate pass. Curiously, the agent did ask for my photo ID, even though he had no idea what to do with it. Force of habit, I guess. Eventually, the supervisor hit upon the idea of sending us to the Special Services desk, where we would become someone else’s problem.

The agent at the Special Services desk knew everything about gate passes and told me right away that I wouldn’t be able to get one. “They’re being very tight with those.”

When I explained to the agent that I’d been told by the airline that I could get a gate pass, she told me with great confidence that the people manning the airline’s 800 number didn’t know anything. But she took my driver’s license, typed my information into her computer, and my gate pass printed out immediately.

“Do you know which gate you’re going to?” she asked sharply as she handed it over.

“No, I haven’t checked yet. I wasn’t sure until just now that I was going to get in.”

“Well, it’s F6A. It’s right on the pass.” There was a note of triumph in her voice, as it was clear she had bested me.

The rest of our visit to O’Hare went smoothly. We didn’t even use up all the extra “snafu time” I’d put into our schedule, so we were able to walk slowly to the gate. Most important, Mom got home safely and wasn’t stressed.

Level Two

Once Mom was on the plane, I drove to my office to knock off a few todos before leaving tomorrow morning on a weeklong business trip. One of the items on my list was to write down our network’s new IP numbers.

Earlier in the week, our company’s service provider had reworked our connections and installed a new router and interface hardware. In the process, our block of IP numbers was changed. I asked the installer why we couldn’t keep the old numbers—they are, after all, under the control of the provider, and we weren’t switching providers. He gave one of those syntactically convoluted answers that’s easily translated to “I don’t know, but I don’t want you to know that I don’t know.” I didn’t pursue it because

  1. it wouldn’t do any good; and
  2. it’s not a big deal to work with the new numbers.

I’d probably want access to company network while I was out of town, so I needed to write down the new numbers to take with me. But doubt—partly from the installer’s word jumble, partly from my still-fresh experience at O’Hare, but mostly from too many disappointing experiences with IT professionals—made me decide to test the new IP numbers before I left the office.

None of them worked. Not a single one.

After some network inquiry, diagnosis, and testing, I learned what the new numbers really were. They weren’t even close to what the installer had given us. Not a single octet was the same, nor was there any chance that digits had been transposed. What we’d been given was just thoroughly wrong, as if it had come from a random number generator.


As I sit here typing and enjoying a beverage, I don’t feel angry or outraged, nor am I disheartened by the sad state of the world. I’m just happy I planned for these mistakes and for others that didn’t happen. It’s something I wouldn’t have done when I was younger, and I would have ended this day upset. Now I see my interactions with customer service as a sort of strategy game: can I plan my way around the obstacles the game will put in my way? Today I came out on top. Tomorrow is another round.