Customer Service

[today’s post is sponsored by my friend, neighbor, and loyal reader Alessia Petrucci; at a recent dinner gathering, she good-naturedly chided me for being “slack” in my recent postings. Embarrassed, I wrote this on an early Sunday morning. Enjoy, Alessia!]



I’ve traveled widely in the Far East, eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union. As some of these countries have made the transition to a less centralized economy, one thing with which they’ve struggled is the basic idea of customer service. Employees often give the impression of doing you a favor even by looking half-interested in whatever question or problem you pose.

If you are dealing with government bureaucrats, however, you can multiply that effect by a factor of 2 or more.

Before we in the US of A get too smug, however, let’s not forget our own domestic experiences with any state’s DMV, cable TV conglomerates, the IRS, and cell phone companies. It seems that a lot of those who are supposed to be serving the public aren’t coming even close.

And that’s why an experience I had recently with a bureaucrat – albeit not one in the United States – was so unusual and noteworthy.

I hold dual US-Canadian citizenship, and when I’m traveling to offbeat and not-infrequently adversarial places around the globe – think mainland China or Russia – I often ‘go Canadian.’

[sidebar: sometime soon, I need to blog about my train trip several years ago from Riga to Moscow, a journey not for the faint at heart thanks to surly border guards]

Thus, I keep my northern passport up to date, and as instructed by the government in Ottawa, I register with the passport office when I am overseas.

[sidebar: Ottawa considers me overseas living here in the U.S., so I am current registered in case any civil unrest occurs in, say, my local Walmart and I might need to be evacuated along with other stranded Canucks]

A quick digression: I’ve had an AOL email account since the mid-1990s. It seemed relatively simple and utilitarian, until one day my daughter told me that, amongst her know-it-all teen generation, it was thought of as ‘,’ something only for old farts and nursing home residents. I pondered this for a while, and decided to shut down this stodgy reminder of the dial-up internet days and move to something more hip/ professional and 21st century. I selected Microsoft’s Outlook.

I knew I would need a mechanism by which to have non-spam forwarded to the Outlook account should something important arrive in the AOL dead letter box after I had stopped checking the latter. Then I learned that my undergraduate alma mater, William & Mary, offers free alumni email. So I created an AOL auto-reply that lists an otherwise unused ‘’ address as the one to which a sender should write in the future. Those auto-replies would be ignored by spam-computers, but would otherwise allow me to personally filter emails sent to me by actual humans before replying.

So I opened the WM account. I created the AOL auto-reply. And then I promptly forgot about them.

When taking quick breaks during the work day over the past several weeks, I’ve been registering my new Outlook email with a variety of websites and organizations that I have joined over the years. And one such recent update was at the website of the Canadian passport office.

Within ten minutes of submitting my contact information to Canada and having turned back to my desk, my cellphone showed an incoming call from area code (343). I didn’t recognize that area code, but I knew it wasn’t local, so I ignored it, assuming it was a mid-day telemarketer.

Five minutes later, the number called back. I answered. A heavily accented voice asked for me. I tried to reply, but the connection wasn’t good, and the caller had trouble hearing me. Now I was convinced of telemarketing, so I hung up.

Five minutes later, the number called back. I was getting a bit annoyed. I answered again. The connection was clear.

“Hello,” said the heavily accented voice. “I’m looking for John Carbone.”

I replied in the affirmative. My finger rested on the ‘end’ button for use as soon as the expected rote sales pitch began.

“This is the passport office.”


[sidebar: (343) is Ottawa’s area code]

“I just noticed the contact information change on your passport file,” the voice continued. “But when I sent a message to your old AOL account acknowledging the change, I rec’d an email back saying that the new address was actually and not Outlook. That didn’t match the information you had submitted, so I am calling to make sure that you are okay.”

You mean a bureaucrat was sitting at his desk 850 miles away monitoring my account’s information change from less than 15 minutes earlier, sent an email of acknowledgment, and then called to check on me given an apparent discrepancy?!?

I was able to prove my identity with some add’n questions, and I assured him that the Outlook address is correct, and that is only a forwarding address. Satisfied, he wished me a nice trip ‘overseas.’

God Bless the Canadians. And try THAT with any agency of the U.S. government!

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