How not to solve systemic problems

Organizations generally try to find the nicest, most empathetic people for their customer service department. It’s way, I think, of placating customers without really fixing the problem.
The people at the front desk at Charter (our local cable company), Comcast (in spite of their occasional cement headedness), Social Security, Metlife, and other are very nice. It’s hard to get mad at them, even when they’re explaining something that clearly went kablooie.
My iPad app for our local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, stopped working the other morning. I was unable to sign in, even though my account was good on their website. Among other things, when I was trying to figure out what was going on, I received this vexing message.

I sent an email to their customer service address and received no response. Twenty-four hours later, I called and talked with a very nice woman who explained that a) my account number was linked to an old address that was no longer valid after we moved in June and b) everything was all set now, except that I’d have to wait another 24 hours before I could use the iPad app.
A day before I can use an app?! That’s frickin’ nuts. The person on the line was very nice.
We had a similar incident with Metlife, where an important document was sent to our old address and returned (presumably because the envelope said not to forward it). No one at Metlife thought to contact our agent or to call us on the phone numbers we had listed with our account. The transaction just dropped into a bureaucratic black hole from which neither light nor reason could escape. The person on the customer line was very nice in explaining what had happened.
Seth Godin writes that the lowliest employee in an organization is an ambassador. Theirs is a hard job. “They apologize. Not for things they did wrong, but for things that others did wrong.” Ambassadors can only be successful if the messages that they receive from customers are moved back up the chain of command, such that the originating problems are fixed. If you hire nice and empathetic people whose job it is to mollify the irate customer time and time again and have no mechanism to learn from those people, you will burn out those employees and lose customers. Unless, of course, you’re so big that you don’t have care.

Dear Charter, trading a bad ZIP code error for a stack dump isn’t progress

I’ve been having a go-round with Charter support for several months. They have an iOS app that offers channel information and a bunch of other stuff. Each time I enter the ZIP code of my home, however, I’m not that it’s not a valid address. (We’ve had Charter service and Greater Media before than for 20 years.)

iOS error

Through Twitter, I learned that there is a problem with the iOS app and that the Android one works OK.

So, I installed the Android version on my phone. I was able to enter my ZIP code and get my channel listings. That it needed to fetch the channel listings anew each time I changed from portrait to landscape mode, requiring about seven seconds on each turn, was bearable.

Then I checked out the other features of the app, such as the listing of products and services.

I then checked out their newsletter:

And, if I wanted to find a nearby service location, such as in Worcester, well, …

More on Charter

You bring your laptop from home to work in a coffee shop. You connect to the Wi-Fi service, start the web browser to check the news, and then go to Outlook to check email. You read what’s arrived and write a quick note to a friend to make plans for lunch next week.

Up pops this message:

Task Throat-Warbler - Sending' reported error (0x800CCC61) : 'Your outgoing (SMTP) e-mail server has reported an internal error. If you continue to receive this message, contact your server administrator or Internet service provider (ISP).  The server responded: 571 imp09 NzAuMTkyLjE0Ljcw You must connect from Charter IP space.  E1110'

A normal, English-speaking adult would see a block of more than 700 undifferentiated ASCII characters.

If you happen to guess that that it might be related to your Charter email account and stumble over to the Charter online help, you may find a message such as this:

571 You must connect from Charter IP space. E1110  Sender attempted to relay email while not connected to Charter IP space. Charter subscribers may receive this message if their client IP address is not recognized as a Charter owned IP address.If the IP address the customer is sending from is a Charter owned IP address then this should be escalated to Charter Customer Support and should include the client IP address.

Do you feel helped?

The short explanation is that Charter has a stupid policy that doesn’t allow people to send mail through Charter email servers when they are not connected to the Internet through Charter.

If you go to one place around Worcester, you might be lucky and find that they use Charter for business, in which case you can send your message. Most places, though, have their own national ISP configurations and so block connections to Port 25 used to send email.

The workaround is to use Charter’s webmail service, the one that welcomes you with email that includes the following message about the message:


If you have a VPN back to your home and can make a connection through a service there, you might be able to connect.

The other alternative is to use the mobile device settings ( and SSL for the IMAP and SMTP servers.. These settings are intended for smartphones, but appear to work with Outlook.