Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Richmond Public Utilities: Customer Disservice

The problem with moving from one state to another is that the blog material comes in at a rate inversely proportional to the time you have to do any writing.

The Wanderers

There should have been a post about the whole experience of finding a house in Richmond two weekends ago. It was good and bad. The bad was, if I'd had a dollar for every time someone with a property to rent said, "Well we still need to . . . we're planning to . . . we've been meaning to . . . etc," I think it would have paid for the trip. We saw some seven or eight houses, all but one needing major cleaning or work before we could move in, and we weren't slumming folks. There's simply a trend to post rentals on Craigslist before they're really ready for showing. Of course, of our top three, numbers two and three had rented already.

Like Family

Lucky for us though, our number one choice, even before our arrival, was not rented, and it was very nearly pristine. In fact, all of the looking we did after seeing it was only so that we had a backup plan. But the best part of our first choice, soon to be the address we call home in Richmond, was the owners. We had time to look for a backup during the weekend because we weren't able to meet with them until Monday morning. They were coming from a wedding in New York. They were in the United States for the wedding, and to rent their former home in Richmond. They live in Greece. They are Greek. They are wonderful. We spent most of the morning with them a week ago, and by the time we parted after lunch, it was like parting from old friends, family even.

We are delighted to be moving into this home, and I believe they are relieved that we will be. I now own and rent two of my former residences. The first I ever owned I've kept as a rental for over twenty years. I have stories to tell. The home I lived in before moving to Charleston, I still own with my ex-wife. Last year was not the best time to sell a home, to leave the service, to change careers, etc. I know how comfortable I am that, that home is rented to someone whose own home in Ft Collins is also rented to someone whose own home in . . . you get the picture. When houses begin to sell again, there will be a cascading effect, but until then, many of us who've had to move for work are back in the renting market after owning homes for decades.

Finding a good renter for a beautiful home is not necessarily easy. Finding a rental home that feels like a home you would like to own is not necessarily easy. I feel very lucky on both counts. We'll care for our new home as if we owned it because one day we very well may. We would have cared for it that way anyway, but you understand what I mean.

Setting Up House

Having moved some thirteen or so times during my military career, I'm fairly adept at getting things up and running by the day we arrive. The move to Richmond has been no different, with one exception. I've got the TV, the internet, the electricity all set up to start the day before we arrive. The water . . . not so fast. It's on, and it should stay on, I think, but trying to have it put in our name with Richmond Public Utilities was the worst bureaucratic nightmare I've seen in a while.

The homeowners are wonderful, responsible people. The home is immaculate. But living in Greece, the forwarding of their mail stopped some time ago. As a result, I expect they've not received water bills. No one has lived in the home for some time. The bill can't be for much. But because there is a bill due, Richmond needs to verify my lease before they can set up service in my name. Mind you, they don't tell you, as the new customer, that there's a bill due, they simply ask for your lease and leave it at that.

Phone Tree Hell

RPU: We'll need your landlord's phone number so we can call them to verify your lease.
ME: They live in Greece. I don't have a phone number.
RPU: They live in Greece?
ME: That's correct. They live in Greece.
RPU: How do you contact them?
ME: E-mail. Would you like their address?
RPU: Then I'm going to need a copy of your lease.
ME: Can I e-mail you a pdf?
RPU: We don't have e-mail to the outside. Can you fax it?
ME: Sure.

I don't mention that it's a good deal of trouble. I scan it. It's on legal paper and my scanner is letter, so I overlap paragraphs for good measure. Then I send it through PamFax. Of course, I have to buy PamFax credits to do that. Eventually, it goes through. At least, PamFax says it did. When I call to confirm receipt, RPU claims not to have seen hide nor hair of it.

Mind you, even getting through to RPU is a two minute technological nightmare.

RPU automated phone system:

  • "Welcome to hell. Please press one for English or . . . "
  • "Press one for Department of Public Utilities . . ."
  • "Thank you for calling the City of Richmond. For a gas emergency press one. For a sewer emergency press two. For all other inquiries press three . . . "
  • "Press one to enter your acct number, Press zero if you don't know your number . . . "
  • "We could not verify the account info that you don't know. Other queries menu. Press one if you have six fingers on your left hand. Press two if you believe in flying saucers. Press three to connect or disconnect service . . . "
  • "All representatives are assisting other customers. Your call will be answered after a wait in inverse proportion to the amount of time you have to kill. Thank you for your patience."
Mind you, this is every time you call. So when I get do get through to see if the fax got through . . .

Catch 22

RPU: We don't accept faxed leases.
ME: Excuse me? Then why was I just asked to fax it?
RPU: Can I have your landlord's phone number? [This is a new person.]
ME: As a matter of fact, yes. [I had remembered, in the meantime, that we actually did have it.] 011 . . .
RPU: Did you say 011?
ME: Yes.
RPU: What's that?
ME: That the first part of the phone number, the international dialing code. They live in Greece.
RPU: Just a minute. . . . . . [Insert theme from Jeopardy.]
RPU: Okay. Did you say you faxed your lease?
ME: Yes.
RPU: Do you know who you faxed it to?
ME: I sent it to the attention of . . . .
RPU: Let me go look for it. [Theme from Jeopardy again.]
RPU: It's not here.
ME: I have a transmission confirmation that says it is. Why do you even need it to put service in my name?
RPU: Because there's a balance on the account, and when there's a balance on the account, we have to have a copy of the lease to open a new account.
ME: Can I simply pay the balance? [How much could it be? No one has lived there in some time.]
RPU: Yes you could pay it.
ME: Okay, how much is it.
RPU: I can't tell you. It's not your account.
[ . . . time passes. . . . . 99, 100.]
ME: If you don't tell me how much it is, how can I pay it.
RPU: Well, see, it's not your account.
ME: But you said I could pay it off.
RPU: Well you can pay it off if you want to.
ME: Well then how much is it?
RPU: I can't tell you how much it is. It's not your account. You'll have to call your landlord and ask them.
ME: If they knew how much it was, they'd have paid it already.
RPU: Well, I'm sorry. I can't tell you how much it is. It's not your account.
ME: . . . . . Is there a supervisor there I can speak to?
RPU: Sure. Just a minute.
[Theme from Jeopardy.]
RPU: She's with someone right now. Can you hold?
ME: Sure. The minutes are only $.35 each after 2100, and we've only used, what 1950 so far, so yeah, I can hold. What's the supervisor's name?
RPU: Pardon me?
ME: Name. Her name. To whom am I waiting to speak?
RPU: Ms . . . . .
ME: Thank you.
[Theme from Jeopardy one last time.]

Mind you, I've been on the phone since about 6:30 p.m. They close at 7:00 p.m. I wait patiently for about ten minutes. At 7:00 p.m., the phone goes dead.

This is why government buildings need barriers for protection.

UPDATE: I call back today. I get someone new. I learn that I do, in fact, now have a customer number. (And probably a red flag that says: "Danger. Radical anarchist. Has tried repeatedly to introduce logic into system. Treat as armed with rationality and therefore dangerous.")

ME: May I simply start with a supervisor today.
RPU: Is there some issue I can help you with?
ME: I doubt it. Is there a supervisor there please?
RPU: Just a minute.
[Time passes again.]
RPU: This is . . .

I explain the history. She looks for the missing fax. She asks if I can fax it again. I say yes, but ask if there is an e-mail I can send the file to. She gives me her e-mail. So much for "We don't have outside e-mail." I send the file, but because it is a 3MB pdf, it takes a long time. Eventually, she hangs up, again.

I am deep in trying to fax it again when the phone rings. It's the very first person I spoke with. The fax has been there all along. No one is quite sure where, but it was there. She'll review it with a supervisor and call me back.

And this is where we left it. Do you suppose I'll have water when I get to Virginia, or will they have finally come out and turned it off? God only knows.

And Virginia is the state that thinks it invented democracy and only leases it to the rest of us.

Give me North Carolina any day. Or just shoot me.