Opinion » Ted Rall

Service, Please

Congress should mandate phone reps


If you're like me, you travel a lot. And if you're on Facebook, odds are that you've been locked out of your account because you logged in from an "unfamiliar location."

Facebook's test to make you prove you are who you say you are is bizarre: It shows you random pictures of your Facebook "friends" and ask you to identify them. Most of my "friends" are readers of my cartoons and books. I don't know their faces. Moreover, not all of my "friends'" photos are of themselves. One Facebook test--I kept failing--presented me with pictures of potted plants.

Why does Facebook freak out when I log in from San Diego while Citibank allows me to move money using no more than a password--from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan?

During my third week of Facebook Lockout Month, I tried to call the company to ask that question and plead my case. I couldn't. Facebook doesn't have a service number.

Some tech companies have phone numbers, but there's no way to talk to a live human. "Twitter's system hangs up after providing Web or email addresses three times," Amy O'Leary reported in the New York Times. "At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook's system explains it is, in fact, 'an Internet-based company.' Try email, it suggests."

When tech companies worth $10 billion don't have a working phone number, you know they've taken "drop dead" to a whole new level.

"A lot of these companies don't have enough employees to talk to," Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, told The Times. "Facebook, for example, has just one employee for every 300,000 users. Its online systems process more than 2 million customer requests a day."

Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of the Internet revolution is that the new tech sector employs far fewer workers per dollar of capitalization than the older industries, such as manufacturing, that it is replacing. Big banks like Goldman Sachs may be profit-sucking vampire squids, yet they're not nearly as destructive as high-valuation, low-payroll leeches like Twitter and Facebook.

General Motors, a company with $39 billion in equity value, directly employs 207,000 people, plus many more indirectly through its suppliers. Facebook has nearly twice the market capitalization ($67 billion) but employs a miserly 1,400 workers. On Wall Street, Facebook is worth more than GM. On Main Street, GM is worth 250 Facebooks.

It should be obvious to everyone that companies have a moral obligation to be responsive to the public, and that their duty to provide high-quality customer service increases exponentially as they grow in size. It should be equally obvious that companies that extract billions in profits from the American public have a moral responsibility to hire members of the American public.

Clearly, the big tech companies are refusing to meet these minimum standards.

We should demand, Congress pass, and the president should sign a law that sets clear standards for customer service by large corporations. For every X number of customers and/or every Y million dollars of capitalization, there should be one U.S.-based, native English-speaking, professional customer service rep waiting to take our calls and help us.