Complaint Central

Did you get your Herald today? Are you sure?

Used to be that if you didn't receive your newspaper, you'd phone up your delivery boy. He'd ride over on a Schwinn, apologize for the inconvenience, and give you the day's edition. Then he'd ring your doorbell the next morning to make sure you were happy. True, this kind of attention almost always came close to Christmas-tip time but still, it was personal. He cared.

Knight Ridder, the nation's second largest newspaper corporation and owner of the Miami Herald, has never much bothered worrying about hometown folk. Just a few years ag, its leaders packed their bags and headed to California. And staff cuts over the past decade have reduced the paper to the size of a Wal-Mart insert.

New Timeshas discovered more insidious doings over at 1 Herald Plaza. They quietly began about three years ago, and soon they'll worsen. In its downsizing, profit-maximizing frenzy, Knight Ridder has whacked customer-service departments at papers around the nation and funneled phone calls here. Miami reps field calls from subscribers to not only the Miami Herald, the Bradenton Herald, the Grand Forks(North Dakota) Herald, the Biloxi (Mississippi) Sun Herald, the St. Paul(Minnesota) Pioneer Press, and the San Jose (California) Mercury News. They also take calls for a dining guide called Gusto. (Why? For the same reason Mallory wanted to climb Mount Everest: “Because it's there.”) Now a source at the Herald confirms the parent corporation is looking to eliminate local customer service at four more papers and add those calls to the workload in Miami. Which papers? They won't say.

In an attempt to gauge the impact on customers, New Times placed a small bug up the Herald's, um, air-conditioning vent. This is what we heard:

Scene: A typical weekday morning at 1 Herald Plaza. Waves lap at the building's foundation. On the fourth floor, customer-service reps frantically work the phones.

(Phone rings)

Beleaguered rep: Hello. Customer service. How may I help you today?

Caller #1: “I didn't get my paper this morning.

Beleaguered rep: Which paper?

Caller #1: This morning's. Thursday morning's.

Beleaguered rep: No, no, I mean which paper.

Caller #1: The Herald. Is there another one?

Beleaguered rep: Which Herald?

Caller #1: The Grand Forks Herald. Is this the right number?

Beleaguered rep: Yes, it is (furiously paging through Knight Ridder's “Pat Answers to Customer Complaints”). I'll make a note of your missed paper and credit your account.

Caller #1: I don't want you to credit my account. I want today's paper.

Beleaguered rep: I'm sorry, ma'am. We can only deliver today's paper if you call before 10:00 a.m.

Caller #1: But it's only 9:30 now.

Beleaguered rep: I'm sorry, ma'am. It's 10:30 a.m. here.

Caller #1: Where are you?

Beleaguered rep: Could you hold one second, ma'am? (Clicks over) Hello. Customer service. How may I help you today?

Caller #2: I'd like to stop my delivery for two weeks while I go on vacation.

Beleaguered rep: Certainly. Which paper?

Caller #2: The Herald.

Beleaguered rep: Which Herald?

Caller #2: The Miami Herald. Is this the right number?

Beleaguered rep: Indeed, it is. I'd be happy to hold your paper for you. Your name, please?

Caller #2: José Sanchez.

Beleaguered rep: All right, Mr. Sanchez. Your date of departure and return ... uh-huh ... okay, I'll stop delivery of the Mercury News right away.

Caller #2: The Mercury News? What the hell is that?

Beleaguered rep: The San Jose Mercury News, Mr. Sanchez, your paper ...

Caller #2: No, no, my paper is the Miami Herald. I'm José ... José Sanchez.

Beleaguered rep: (Another call comes in) I'm very sorry, sir. Could you hold? (Clicks over) Hello. Customer service. How may I help you today?

Caller #3: I'd like to open an account, you know, start delivery of the paper.

Beleaguered rep: Which paper?

Caller #3: Your paper.

Beleaguered rep: Which one?

Caller #3: The Pioneer Press. Is this the right number?

Beleaguered rep: Yes. May I have your address ... uh-huh ... okay, Paul, we'll begin delivery right away.

Caller #3: My name's not Paul. I just want the St. Paul paper.

Beleaguered rep: The Herald?

Caller #3: No, the Pioneer Press. Is this the right number?

Beleaguered rep: Could you hold?

(A supervisor, who's been listening in, interrupts: Customer rep #21870, you are exceeding your optimum phone contact limit on almost every call! We're getting backed up. I'm showing calls from Biloxi, Miami, and one from just outside Spokane -- a car phone. Pick up the pace. C'mon, I wanna see those computer screens lit up like a sailor on three-day leave!)

Beleaguered rep: (Clicks over, sounds anxious) Hello. Customer service. How may I help you?

Caller #2: This is José Sanchez. I've been on hold.

Beleaguered rep: Yes, Mr. Sanchez, what can I do for you today?

Caller #2: I called to stop delivery of my paper for two weeks.

Beleaguered rep: Which one?

Caller #2: The Herald, the friggin' Miami Herald.

Beleaguered rep: Right, I have that information here. All taken care of.

Caller #2: Good. Remember, the Herald, not that San Jose something or other.

Beleaguered rep: San Jose or St. Paul?

Caller #2: St. Paul? San Jose? Is this the Herald or the Archdiocese of Miami?

Beleaguered rep: Could you hold one second?

Caller #2: Again?

Beleaguered rep: (Clicks over) Hello. Customer service. How may I help you today?

Caller #1: I've been on hold. I didn't get my paper this morning. Does any of this ring a bell?

Beleaguered rep: Yes, ma'am. Let's see, right, it's too late to get a copy of today's paper to you, but I'd be happy to credit your account.

Caller #1: I tried to take care of this earlier today through the automated system, but I didn't have much luck.

Beleaguered rep: What happened?

Caller #1: I started pushing the buttons on my phone like they tell you. I thought I was following directions, but I must have gotten rerouted.

Beleaguered rep: Why do you say that?

Caller #1: 'Cause I finally got this guy on the line, and he just kept asking me what I was wearing. When I told him, well, he started telling me what he was wearing....

Beleaguered rep: I'm very sorry about that, ma'am. I just need your name, please. (Pause) I'm not showing an account for you. How long have you been a Herald subscriber?

Caller #1: Almost nine years.

Beleaguered rep: That's funny. I can't pull you up on the screen. Are you sure you're a Herald subscriber?

Caller #1: (Exasperated) Darn tootin'. Ever since I moved to Grand Forks.

Beleaguered rep: How do you expect to get a copy of the Herald in Grand Forks?

Caller #1: Cancel my subscription. (Hangs up)

Beleaguered rep: (Clicks back) Hello. Customer service. How may I help you today?

Caller #2: This is José Sanchez again.

Beleaguered rep: From St. Paul?

Caller #2: No, from Miami. Look, I've decided to cancel my vacation. I don't have the energy to go away anymore. Don't do anything, okay? Nada, you understand?

Beleaguered rep: Yes, Mr. Sanchez and thank you for your cooperation. Gracias.

Caller #2: Yeah, yeah, I know: “Have a nice day.” “Mucho gusto.”

Beleaguered rep: Gusto? I thought you were calling about the Herald.

Caller #2: Which one?

Beleaguered rep: I don't remember.

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