If at first you don’t succeed…

… then maybe success just isn’t your thing.

Just joking, of course! I saw that on a T-shirt once and have treasured it ever since. There’s nothing like challenging the conventional wisdom from time to time, especially when people are least expecting it.

In truth, though, I’ve recently learned that when something isn’t working out, there can be a lot of value in simply hanging up and trying again—literally!

Due to a few snafus that have arisen in various areas of my life over the past few weeks, I’ve had to spend a significant amount of time on the phone with an unnamed phone company, an unnamed airline, and an unnamed government agency.

Obviously, I don’t want to get into any trouble for defamation here, so names are omitted to protect the not-so-very-innocent.

However, I will say that the name of the phone company sounds an awful lot like “Horizon,” the name of the airline is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet, and the government agency is the IRS.

(Yeah, I just kind of let that last one slip.)

Things have been brewing at the IRS for a while now, thanks to various filing status errors on my part, and I may see Social Security benefits before I see my 2009 tax refund—and you know what that means. Back in the heat of things, when I realized that I had made a mistake but didn’t quite know what to do, I decided to give my friendly federal tax collectors a call and see if I could sort things out.

Bad idea… at least the first time around.

After waiting on hold long enough for my clothes to go out of style (no snarky comebacks, please), the first “gentle”man to whom I spoke basically told me that I was in a world of trouble and should probably just turn myself in now to spare the federal government the trouble of finding me later. I did my best to explain the situation to him, but to no avail. The more I talked, the less he listened, and it soon became clear that I was getting nowhere fast. I thanked him for his time and hung up, feeling devastated at what he had told me.

Then, a daring idea crept into my mind. Why not call again?

It wasn’t daring to think of it, exactly, but it was definitely daring to do it. I could practically have qualified for retirement after the amount of time I had already spent on hold the first time, and I didn’t necessarily stand to gain anything by doing it again. Still, I held out a glimmer of hope that perhaps not every federal agent was as nasty as my first encounter, and screwed up my courage to try again.

Before you get any ideas of an overly happy ending, I’ll burst that bubble right now. My tax situation is still in a muddle (it may not be worked out for several weeks), and no amount of repeat phone calls could change that.

However, the woman with whom I spoke the second time made me feel a whole lot better about it, and I’m extremely grateful to her for doing so. She worked for a long time to try to resolve my issue over the phone (which would have obviated the need for me to refile), and when this proved unsuccessful, she did everything else she could to help—including placing a hold on my balance “due” (not really) so that I wouldn’t be registered as a delinquent taxpayer while the situation continued to be resolved. With a little simple assistance, she took a great deal of worry off my mind.

More recently, in dealing with my wireless phone provider (“Horizon,” you may recall), I had a simple problem that called for a simple solution. I administer the “Family Plan” that includes my siblings and me, and one of my sisters had mistakenly downloaded an application that she neither wanted nor used. She had been billed for it for two months. I simply wanted the application blocked on the phone, and the charges reversed on the bill.

To make a long story short, this proved to be an extremely difficult task for the first “associate” with whom I spoke, but not at all for the second. When the first representative spent the bulk of her time accusing me of lying (seriously!), I decided once again that my time would be better spent trying a second time with someone else. The second time around, the representative apologized to me for the company’s mistake, credited me with two months’ worth of the wrongful charge, and even threw in an extra month’s credit just to compensate for the inconvenience (or in case the charge recurred for the current month).

What a difference a second try makes!

On to the “Greek” airline: I recently bought a ticket with some of my accrued frequent flyer miles, and there was to be a small service charge of $2.50. (Not bad for a plane ticket, eh?) However, because the airline’s credit processing server was down that day, they called my bank directly to withdraw the charge.

And of course they made a mistake: instead of charging my $2.50, they charged me $22.50.

Now, twenty dollars is not the end of the world, but things do get a bit tight at the end of the academic year, and I wanted the situation to be resolved quickly. I called the airline and was told (probably from somewhere in Uttar Pradesh) that the extra $20 had been charged in error and had been re-deposited in my bank account.

Needless to say, I agreed as to the first half of the statement, but not so much as to the second. I attempted to explain to Ms. Balasubramaniam that, in fact, I would not be calling if the money had been returned to my account, but this notion didn’t seem to hold much water with her. I said that I would call back in a week if the money had not appeared—and I’m confident, based on prior results, that a second try will serve me well here, too.

Certainly, giving things a second try applies in many more contexts than difficult over-the-phone corporate interactions. You can find second chances in academic enterprises, career choices, and (of course) love. The general takeaway is this: the old motto telling you to “try, try again” is not nearly as hokey as it sounds. But don’t take my word for it; give it a try! Now, it may not work the first time…

But if that’s the case, you know what to do.

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