Great Moments in Customer Service

by Hal Pomeranz <>, Deer Run Associates


I'm an IT professional and hold myself to extremely high standards of customer service (both of which certainly put me high on the suspect list for the title of "closet masochist").  This means that I'm also really a jerk to other customer service people when roles are reversed and I'm on the customer side of the equation.  Our parable begins, then, with my quest to find the right serial cable for an application on my home network.


Now I'll be the first to admit that the cable I needed was a mighty strange cable.  It had to run between the serial port on my Sun Ultra5 workstation and the serial console port on my moldy old Sun clone that I use for testing.  The Ultra5 has a standard 9-pin connector, but the clone (for reasons known only to the manufacturer of the device) uses those cheesy little round mini-8 connectors.  And, of course, this had to be a null-modem type cable.  To think that such a cable exists ready-made was perhaps a vain hope, but occasionally I enjoy tilting at windmills so off I went.


It was late at night (the only time I generally get to fiddle around on my home network), so I decided to call the toll-free number at... well, let's call them "Big PC Parts Warehouse", "BPPW" for short.  I buy a decent amount of gear from these guys because I know I can call them late at night and generally get it the next morning if I'm willing to pay enough.  I'm connected to Bob (not his real name) and I'm up front with him and say, "I need a really strange serial cable. It's 9-pin female to mini-8 male"-- I didn't even try to specify the "null-modem" aspect because I don't like to tempt fate.


Bob then asks the fatal question, "Is this for a PC or a Mac?"  Let me try to explain exactly why this question is so infuriating to me as a customer.  First, it seems to imply a disbelief that I could actually be able to specify on my own the exact sort of cable that I need for my application.  Let's face it folks, Bob's job in this scenario is to separate me from my money in as painless a manner as possible for all concerned.  If I tell him that I want a purple cable with pictures of Barney the Dinosaur™ and in the shape of a Moebius strip, his job is to either tell me how much it costs or let me know that they don't stock those.


The second problem with the question is that it doesn't really matter whether or not it's for a PC or a Mac (or a Unix machine or my nuclear reactor).  It's a serial cable, and say what you want but good old RS-232 is a pretty well understood standard at this point.  I wanted to reach through my telephone, grab him around the neck, and pound his head against the monitor on his PC while rhythmically intoning, "It <*thunk*> doesn't <*thunk*> matter <*thunk*> you <*thunk*> jerk! <*thunk*> It's <*thunk*> a <*thunk*> serial <*thunk*> cable <*slam*>!" Instead, I manfully mastered my emotion (which is a polite way of saying I "wussed out") and gave him the completely unhelpful response, "Heh, heh.  Well, actually it's for a Unix machine."


Bob then proceeds to ask me again what I want and then he puts me on hold.  At this point I know I'm doomed because he's either (a) talking to a night-shift supervisor who's just as clueless about this stuff as Bob is, or (b) calling the cops because there's a dangerous lunatic on the other end of the phone.  It turns out to be (a) because Bob comes back on the phone a couple of minutes later and lets me know (in a tone which leaves no room for doubt that our time together is at an end), "Nobody makes those cables."


Now gentle reader, it's really not Bob's fault.  He probably hasn't been given much training by BPPW and I doubt his supervisor is much better off.  And they're both going to quit in the next six months and have nothing to do with me or BPPW ever again.


But, in reality, anybody could make one of "those cables".  In fact, I know that BPPW will do custom-order cables upon request.  Hell, I could have done it myself, but frankly crafting custom cables never really held much allure for me— when I want to do something with my hands I practice my origami.  The other answer, of course, is that such a cable could be "built" by stringing together off-the-shelf components.  Bob could have made either suggestion to me in order to separate me from my money, but he didn't and BPPW was the ultimate loser because they didn't get the sale.


Well, I guess it's time for me to figure out the minimum number of components I need to string together in order to make my cable.  I'm figuring it's three: mini-8 to DB25, a DB25 null-modem block, and a DB25 to 9-pin cable.  Turns out I'm right, which I confirm by perusing the Web site of "Large Cabling Manufacturer" ("LCM").  I could actually order all of the components directly from LCM's Web site, but I decide to do a little price comparison.


It turns out it's a good thing I did because the prices at LCM's Web site are almost double the prices I get for exactly the same manufacturer's components at the Web site of "Discount Parts Supply" ("DPS").  Yes, that's right, LCM is charging me twice as much for their own equipment at their own Web site.  Well, that doesn't seem like such a good deal, so I start shopping at DPS.  Oh wait, I have to enable "cookies" on my Web browser so the stupid shopping cart code on

DPS' Web site works.


Allrighty, the end game is upon us as I click the checkout button. Oh good, DPS has saved my billing and payment information, so checkout is a snap... or is it?  Hmmm, that's strange; they don't have my shipping address.  No problem, type that in and click the little "save as default" button on their form.  Submit.  The result is a SQLServer ODBC error all alone on a page with no navigation elements or administrator contact information.  Swell.  Hit the "back" button, re-enter the shipping address information, DON'T click the "save as default" button, and submit again.  Works this time of course. I'd scream, but I no longer have the strength.


One hour, three vendors, and untold wear and tear on my nervous system later my "cable" (actually a composite object about 7 feet long) is winging its way through DPS' fulfillment system and will arrive at my place sometime early next week.  Cost was $21 for the three cable pieces plus $11 shipping (don't ask).  I go to bed with the serene knowledge of a job well done.


Because let's face it, gentle reader, it was a "job well done".  I could have given up like Bob did, but I didn't.  It's that ability to "roll with the punches" and ultimately arrive at a solution for your customer (who may in some cases be yourself) which separates the IT professionals from the wanna-be's.  So the next time somebody asks why you're making all that money for what you do, share this little parable with them and ask them who they'd rather call when their hard drive melts down-- Bob or you?