Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Social Entrepreneurship Strategy

Here's a mini-paper I wrote for a class on social entrepreneurship, November 5, 2009.  This was a course in the school of social work but was taught by a business school professor.

Assignment:  Present a scale strategy or an innovative assessment tool being implemented by a social enterprise you have researched or with which you are familiar.

As a bank, Grameen Bank grows itself through a branching strategy.  As an enterprise seeking to maximize its positive social impacts, however, Grameen grows itself through a dissemination strategy.  Thus its social impact has spread worldwide, even as its branches are largely limited to Bangladesh.

Grameen’s branching strategy combines centralized monitoring with decentralized managerial authority.  This strategy appears to be moving in the direction of branchless banking, at least in some contexts, as Grameen follows the lead of other branchless providers.

Such innovations notwithstanding, Grameen qua bank has emphatically not sought growth, typically conceived, as measured by either market share or enhanced (never mind maximized) profits from branch or branchless operations.  Hence, the Grameen approach to banking has provoked serious concerns about sustainability, both in its own original manifestation of its microfinance model and in subsequent adoptions of that model elsewhere.

Grameen’s fame comes, not from its profitability, but from its social impacts.  Treating its banking operation within Bangladesh as a proof-of-concept model with worldwide applicabil­ity, Grameen’s founder Muhammed Yunus cites its poverty-reduction efficacy as the much preferred alternative to the for-profit version of microlending epitomized by Banco Comparta­mos in Mexico.  For purposes of sustainability, though, Compartamos has the upper hand.

Yunus’s concern appears to be that the altruistic intent of his concept has been successfully employed for purposes of exploiting the very persons whom he sought to assist.  This is precisely what one might predict from the observation that a dissemination strategy yields little control over the ways in which a concept might be used.

It is possible, however, that the problem for Yunus lies, not in the distortion of the original “pure” Grameen concept, but rather in the ways in which Compartamos has addressed certain weaknesses in that concept.  In addition to the problem of sustainability (above), there is an obvious problem of rapidity, in the sense that an organization like Compartamos can produce nearly immediate results of some arguable merit while Grameen-style microlending seems to yield results very slowly.  From that perspective, there appears to have been, in effect, a trust-but-verify process, where the original, disseminated idea has prima facie plausibility and some demonstrated efficacy, but is subsequently refined (and perhaps simultaneously sullied) by a more control-oriented (and profit-verified) implementation that does depend upon a sustainable affiliation or branching scheme.

Monday, December 13, 2010

AT&T, Phone Home


Today, I spent 3.5 hours altogether, trying to communicate with AT&T about my bill. My previous calls and online communications had produced no results.

This time, as I discovered, I had to get through to an account specialist before anything would happen. Whatever the lower-level people told me was irrelevant. They were there essentially to tell me to pay some arbitrary amount and forget about the original promotion I had signed up for.

Tech support had no clue as to what I was seeing on my screen, or why. Their emulator did not reflect what was actually happening onscreen.

In my conversations with about 15-20 people at AT&T this morning, I found there were good people and also some cynical people. The latter would put me on hold and not come back, or would give me false information.

I am still not able to log into my account online, and am not able to contact AT&T by their "Contact Us" button, so I will still have to spend hours if I need to get information about my account, or corrections to it, in the future.

AT&T was the only option for service in my neighborhood. I hated to sign up with them, because I had experienced terrible customer service several years earlier with SBC, which was what AT&T was called previously. Unless I wind up in some future situation in which AT&T is the only option, I do not plan to ever have another account with them.

The following is the message in which I logged the details:

* * * * *

Dear AT&T:

This morning, I attempted to contact you through This failed, for reasons I will describe shortly. I then called you at the AT&T Internet Services number specified on my bill (877-722-3755). When I tried to get through to a human voice, that call was terminated.

I tried again and spoke with a call center staffer. He got my account number wrong twice, but eventually we got past that. Next, he insisted upon being given my cell phone number. I was unwilling to give him that number, mostly because I did not want to get into an extended conversation at a dime a minute. I finally stated it was 222-222-2222. I then asked for similar information in return, specifically, an AT&T email address to which I could send a description of the problem I was having when I tried to get through to you at He was unable to give me an email address. I know AT&T is a communication company; but this, I have to say, did not seem very communicative.

I asked to speak to his supervisor. The supervisor gave me the address to which I am sending this message: This is obviously an odd address for customer service, so I have a feeling I will be forwarding this message on again. But possibly I can just post it on my blog and get it to you that way.

I then asked the supervisor if we could proceed to the issue that had prompted me to try to contact you through, namely, the status of my bill. You had incorrectly set up two different accounts in my name at the same time, when I installed service here a few months ago, so I had had to call in and request that you straighten out my account. That took a couple of tries. The most recent one was several weeks ago. I have not received a corrected bill, so I was calling, now, to see whether that had been taken care of.

The supervisor informed me that, unfortunately, the number I had reached was technical assistance, and that he would have to transfer me to another number to take care of the bill. After carefully and kindly verifying that I was located in Indiana, he immediately forwarded me to your Texas office, where a very nice man named Gilbert verified my location and told me that he would not be able to help me and that I would have to call your Indiana office at 888-274-9056.

None of this was really very surprising, by the way. I had been an SBC customer several years ago, before the change of name to AT&T, and I had had to go through much the same kind of thing on repeated occasions. In a sense, it was reassuring to see that, for purposes of customer service, it was still a bad idea to break up the real AT&T, all those years ago. Service was very good, way back then.

But to continue. I was just trying to find out the status of my bill, and we were closing in on it: I did reach Linda at 888-274-9056, after a hold of only five minutes. She said AT&T has no customer service email address. She said my account has been blocked, and perhaps that's why I cannot get online, though that was actually not the problem; the website was simply malfunctioning, before we even got to the point of entering my account number. She did find it strange that your records were showing my account as still being active, despite being blocked. I have to confess, I was glad that it was still active, despite being blocked, because I was speaking with Linda on Skype, which would not have been possible if your accounting system had been functioning properly.

After a moment of digging around, Linda discovered that the credits had been issued weeks ago, in response to my previous call, but as she put it, they had not "flowed over" to actually be applied to my bill. Apparently the previous guy had not properly "disputed" the charges (her word). She said they would post $120 in credits to the bill that would be coming to me in a week or two. Linda was an agreeable individual. She put me on hold while she verified with your Payments department that they would actually sort out my account. She said I might have a "restoral" fee of $25; if so, she said, I would have to call back again to dispute that. Altogether, the process of contacting you about my bill took about an hour.

Linda said that, if I wanted an email address for tech support, she would have to refer my phone call to tech support, and maybe they could give me one. I did have the address shown above, but by this point I was seriously doubting it, so I went with Linda on this. The number she referred me to was the one on my bill, under the "Billing Summary" heading; evidently this was not actually a billing phone number. The technician said that he would attempt to find an email address for tech support. He was not able to do so.

So we went through things the slow, painful way. It took another two hours. I didn't know it would take that long, else I wouldn't have bothered. But it's probably just as well that I did. I was afraid that, next time you screwed up my bill, you might fail to screw up the process of cutting off my service -- that is, you might actually succeed in shutting me down in the middle of a project -- so I thought I had probably better do my best to get access to my account through the webpage. Ideally, this would actually spare me from having to spend more hours at this, sometime in the future.

First off, I showed the technician that the "Contact Us" link on your main webpage was not functioning. I don't know how long it's been like that. Let me summarize this: the AT&T webpage for the world was not accepting attempts at contact, and I had to be the one to point it out. This cannot be a great comment on your webpage designers. I say that because, if they had done their job properly, I would have had two extra hours this morning to do more constructive things with, and I'm sure lots of other people have been in the same position.

Then we tried to get me registered, so that I could actually look at my account online. This brought a whole new spectrum of difficulties. Example: my account number begins with a zero. But when I tried to enter that number on the registration page, I got an error message indicating that an account number cannot begin with a zero. The technician and I went through this several times, from different angles. I was trying on two different computers, so it seemed that this, again, must have been a problem that many AT&T users have run into. So instead of processing those customers efficiently through your website, your inaccessibility has forced them to route these problems through your call center, or simply not bother trying to register online.

The technician said that, ordinarily, AT&T sends a registration code by snail mail. I told him that I hadn't received anything like that. After he checked a bunch of things and put me on hold a bunch of times, the conclusion we reached was that he had to transfer me back to the billing department, albeit at a different number (800-288-2020). The lady there was talking kind of fast, but she referred to my account number (beginning with a zero) as a "dry-lube" account. I don't think "lube" was actually the word she used, but it was vaguely something like that. Link, maybe. Anyway, she had to transfer me back to Indiana after all, and that took only another couple of minutes. The hold music, in this case, was steel drums. I like Jamaican, but this was not a very good selection. But at least I was becoming more attuned to such matters, as I gradually settled into my new life role as an AT&T customer on hold.

The billing technician took me through the same steps as I had just gone through with the tech support guy, and after about ten minutes, we wound up back at the same error message, informing me that I could not request a registration code because an account number cannot have a zero as its first digit. The billing guy got back in touch with tech support because, as he said, "It shouldn't do that, at all." I thought he was putting me on hold, but then it turned out I was being forwarded back to tech support again. So it was, like, goodbye to the billing guy.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was actually providing a valuable public service, in that I was helping AT&T troubleshoot its webpage. And this was exactly why I had signed up with AT&T again, after those previous experiences. Well, that and the fact that there didn't seem to be any other high-speed service in this particular town, though I must admit I was getting curious about whether maybe I should have looked harder for an alternative.

By the way, I found that I had sufficient time to write all this out in detail, once I decided that the email address (above) was almost surely a joke at my expense, and that I would therefore have to be posting this on my blog. So, in the spirit of my blog posts generally, at a certain point in this process, I tried to log the steps in the process more carefully than I had done at the outset of this message.

This time around, at tech support, I got a lady with a sense of humor. I mean, I think I amused her, because it sounded like she was sort of laughing at me. I realized, after a moment, that possibly she thought I was an idiot because I was going through the steps so slowly, so I sped it up a bit, and started to check in with her at each step. I had learned, along the way, that AT&T tech support uses an emulator to give them a rough idea of what the screen is actually like for the customer, so probably she just found it humorous that someone would think she was not familiar with the webpages she had to go through a million times every day. I sympathized with her for that, and I had to admit that my problem, again, was not with her, so much as with the web programmers who had not constructed the emulator to emulate accurately.

Anyway, she did seem to understand what I was saying, once I took her through it step by step, and she seemed to be taking me more seriously now, so I guess that was progress. But then I wasn't sure that she actually had understood the situation after all, because, once again, she took me through the same steps that, I swear, I had gone through at least 15 times by this point. Then she put me on hold and ...

... and, unfortunately, at that point, AT&T did finally get its act together and cut off my service. The Skype call died.  Note to self:  if it works, don't fix it.  They may have been threatening to cut off my service because I refused to pay the wrong amounts, but they weren't actually able to figure out how to do that until I contacted them.

So now I really did have to start racking up cell phone minutes. I called the billing department and got a man who was so -- and I'm sorry to say this, but he was just really a decidedly unintelligent individual, to the point that I was ashamed of myself for expecting on-the-ball performance from someone who did not appear to have that capability. I don't mean that snidely. I know people with disabilities. I honestly mean that this guy seemed to have a disability that impaired his ability to perform what I thought was his job. I wasn't expecting that, and ... well, anyway, so when he really wasn't getting what I was saying, eventually I asked to speak to his supervisor. But he didn't want to transfer me to his supervisor. When I insisted several times, he put me on hold, and after a while of that, I hung up and called back. This time, I got a woman who explained very clearly the wrong promotion, one that I hadn't signed up for. After she was finished with her presentation, I asked to speak to her supervisor. She told me that, instead, I should speak to a specialist. I was willing to try that, so she forwarded me to someone who was, actually, not a specialist, and after going through the same song and dance again, she forwarded me to another person who did sound like a real specialist.

That call lasted another 32 minutes. By the end, the woman had taken my credit card number, had sorted out the correct amount that I should be billed for, and had forwarded to her supervisor a request that I be put back online as soon as possible. That was at 12:25 PM. I had started this process at about 8:50 AM. Twenty minutes later, I was back online. But since there was still no online access to my account, I would have to go back through something like this process again, next time I wanted to sort out something related to my account.