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  • Writer's pictureLaura Fedolfi

Bureaucratic Frenemies: To Catch a Fly

Anyone who has worked in the service industry has an opinion about customer service, broadly speaking. I spent years working in my father's store, served tourists fudge from a window in Boothbay Harbor, and worked as an assistant to a sketchy lawyer in Seattle, to name a few. In all of these cases I learned to be polite in the face of comical rudeness- though for clarity's sake, the lawyer not the clients were the rude ones in the Seattle job- and I firmly believed that you caught more flies with honey. Until recently.

We had a rule at the Fudge Shop that we were forbidden- FORBIDDEN- from selling less than a 1/4 pound of Fudge- but we could slice off free samples to tempt people into buying fudge. The fudge was made in large sheets, and as you cut into it to sell at least a quarter pound, there were sometimes small pieces left behind. One time I had a family waiting at the window- this was summer in Maine and the tourists were lined up and down the street waiting to buy fudge and ice cream. The father of this family walked up and wanted a small piece left to the side. I could tell it was less than a 1/4 pound and I explained our policy, and offered to pair it up with other flavors or to add more to make it a 1/4 pound, but he found my answer infuriating and started to yell at me. I offered to give him a free sample- even a very large free sample- but he was on a roll and really lit into me about our idiotic corporate policy. It took a passing police officer to stop by and ask me if I needed any help for Angry Dad to take his rage elsewhere. I didn't disagree with the principle Angry Dad was spouting, but I had no say in changing the policy. I had always thought that if he had talked to me like a reasonable person, I might have been able to find a solution that had him eating fudge. But he yelled and almost ended up with a police record.

I try to remember that when I am dealing with Insurance companies. Their customer service representatives OFTEN have to tell you frustrating corporate policies they have no control over, and no mater how angry the policy makes me, I know from experience that it is not their fault and I make a conscious effort not to vent on them. But then I ran into Karen. That is not her real name. Not even close. I really don't want the real Karen to know I am writing I do live in respectful fear of her, but I am getting ahead of myself. I was trying to sort out why our medical bill was so high and she started to explain "insurance" and "how it works" to me in a really obnoxious way- talking super slowly and definitely with a "you are an idiot" tone- and my resolve to be polite to customer service wavered. I took a deep breath and interrupted her tutorial to clarify that I understood insurance, but I was trying to understand why the coverage seemed to have changed, and despite trying to appear polite, Karen saw through my veneer and lashed out - angrier at me than I had been at her. The call did not end well.

Fast forward two months and we are at the hospital for a family member's test- a test we had called the Insurance company just the day before to verify coverage for. I had been nervous for that call, on the chance that Karen might pick up and continue to berate me, but luckily it was Jennifer, and after a long time left on hold during which I am sure she not only checked our coverage but also moved her car, rotated her tires, and visited the dentist- she came back to tell us that we were covered. So when the administrator at the hospital who was checking us in told me that my child wasn't covered, I knew there had to be a mistake on her end.

I explained this patiently, and she double-checked, but kept telling me that my child did not have this insurance, but a different one. I briefly considered the possibility that someone had adopted my kid just to pay their medical costs, and what a nice evolution of the paying for the next car's coffee kind of guerrilla-style philanthropy that would be- surprise! A stranger paid for your kid's tonsillectomy, pay it forward! But then I remembered that I lived in the real world and I had much more likely fallen into some bureaucratic stinkhole. I told the hospital admin that we had just talked to Jennifer yesterday, so the hospital admin lady tried again, but still no dice. No matter how nicely I explained it, she insisted that every time she entered his info, it came back as no coverage. This took forty minutes of polite back and forth. Finally, I called the insurance company to clear it up, and who should answer the phone but KAREN.

I am not exaggerating when I say that the sound of Karen's voice sent shivers down my spine, as I frantically prayed that she did not remember our last interaction. If she did, she didn't let on- I explained our situation and she told me to give the phone to the Hospital Admin lady. I did. I don't know what transpired, but the Hospital Lady handed back the phone, avoiding eye contact with me. Karen asked me to get the Hospital lady's phone number, but when I asked for it, the woman told me, "I'm not giving her my phone number." Feeling some empathy for the hospital employee, I translated that to Karen as "She's not allowed to give out her phone number," while I apologized to Karen for keeping her on the phone. This is Karen's verbatim response:

"I get paid whether I am talking to her or not. She is doing it wrong. I know she is. I told her I can verify your insurance, but she got scared. What a dope."

As I was standing in front of the other lady, I made the universal non-committal noise to Karen,"Um-hmm," and just waited it out. Within thirty seconds the Hospital Admin lady looked up at me and said, "It's all fixed now. You are fine." I felt her pain. I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of Karen, but I had to admit that Karen got it done. The bureaucratic enemy of my bureaucratic enemy is my bureaucratic frenemy. I learned that sometimes you need to use a fly-swatter to catch a fly. Thanks Karen.

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