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Gratitude in an age of automatons

If you think it’s tough to file a complaint today, try filing a compliment.

Chris Kirby delivers copies of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun.
John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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  • Sue Wunder

It isn’t difficult, in person, to distinguish a compliment from a complaint. One is welcome and buoying, the other an immediate call to defend oneself – or, if warranted, offer a heartfelt apology. But email has a way of mangling messages, especially when automated responses are involved.

It began as a simple request emailed to the circulation department of the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. To wit: 

I am writing to ask to be put in touch with the person who, until recently, delivered my mom’s paper. My mom has passed away and her delivery person was always so caring about putting the paper where she could easily get it. Please facilitate if possible.

After a few subsequent exchanges in which I was asked to provide further information, I received this reply, to which I mentally replied as I read:

Thank you for contacting The Democrat & Chronicle. Rochester’s #1 source for news and information! (OK, I knew that.)

We appreciate your business and apologize that you are experiencing an issue with paper placement. (Huh?) I understand how that could be very frustrating. (Well, I’m sure it can be, but I am not frustrated, I am more than pleased.) I have provided updated delivery instructions for our carrier to ensure proper delivery going forward. (Uh, we canceled the paper weeks ago.) I have also alerted the home delivery staff and District Manager on the route.... 

Please let us know if you have any additional questions (Yes, I would like the carrier’s name, per my email!)

It was signed by an “account specialist” who offered to communicate with me via chat, email, or phone.

It was abundantly clear that no human being had read my request. My email had simply been fed into the queue of delivery complaints the D&C deals with daily. 

How things have changed since the early 1970s, when I and a group of young cohorts had manned a circle of phones at that newspaper, fielding complaints and offering personal apologies for misdeliveries, then ordering a replacement paper to be dropped off at once. 

It wasn’t a bad job for a college student. There was time to study during the late-evening lull, time to socialize over takeout dinners, and time to chuckle over some of the complaints. One I remember to this day came from a woman objecting to the paper’s announcement of daylight saving time: “The extra hour of sunlight will kill my grass,” came the voice over the phone. I don’t recall how I answered that one. 

But now I was being brushed off by an automaton, my compliment twisted into a complaint, my question unanswered. 

My younger brother – a former paperboy for our local newspaper – offered to step in. He emailed this to the parent company’s president and general manager:

Hey guys, this isn’t rocket science. If you would PLEASE TAKE THE TIME TO READ THROUGH THIS E-MAIL CHAIN. It’s like a script from “Seinfeld”.

Our mother recently passed away. Her carrier was fantastic. We appreciate his/her taking the time and energy to ensure the newspaper was placed right up on the door step each and every morning for her. This was especially important in the winter. We want to COMPLIMENT the carrier and give him or her a well-deserved tip. We would like the carrier’s name and contact information so we can express our gratitude both verbally and monetarily. Can you please make this happen?

It worked. I got a call from the carrier himself, who expressed his condolences. He’d lost his own mother not long before. I thanked him for so faithfully putting the paper on Mom’s stoop so she hadn’t even had to step outside to retrieve it. He waved off the idea of a tip from the family, but I told him a check would be in the mail – Mom would have wanted that.

So, to the next person who tries to penetrate a corporation in order to commend an employee for a job more than well done, I advise patience – and boldness. 

I may be able to get my brother to help you, too.