Vol.8, No. 6 • June 2000
Error Patrol
Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher

“It is better to light a candle, than to curse the darkness.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah,. The trouble with moral precepts is that they’re always a lot easier to pronounce than to perform. The phrases may fall trippingly off the tongue, but the real tripping occurs when you try to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Nonetheless, when you have complained as frequently and as publicly as I have about poor database quality and the need to fix mistakes, you have something of an obligation to do what you can to make things better. So when I discovered serious errors in one of my favorite directory files, Gale Group’s Company Intelligence database (File 479 on Dialog or now, in a fabulously enhanced version from what we hear, Company Profiles [CO-PROFILE] on Westnews), I decided it was my responsibility to make sure someone who could fix it knew about the problem.

Initial discovery of the problem came in the course of verifying addresses for the “Contacts” section of this issue. Out of 30 or more addresses retrieved from Company Intelligence, three or four turned out to have ZIP codes with less than five digits. RATS! Now I have to recheck those companies on other databases or on their Web sites, when available. This is a real pain. How on earth could Gale Group’s quality control procedures be so lax as to not insist on seeing at least five digits in a ZIP code field? Even assuming Gale carries some records with international equivalents of ZIPs, you would think that the checking software would verify U.S. listings.

Well, let’s make a quick call and report this. Hmm. Wonder if I should call the Farmington Hills, Michigan, office or the one in Foster City, California. Might as well start with the one in my time zone.

10-10-9000 AKA 10,109,000 More Problems
I know I have phone numbers somewhere for colleagues at old Information Access Company, now Gale Group, but I’m too lazy to find them. I’ll just give a quick call to my preferred information operator service and get the number. After all, couldn’t be a problem. I visited the complex at IAC years ago and the company hasn’t moved.

No problem, huh? First, the operator at 10-10-9000 wanted to verify how to spell Foster City; he thought it might be spelled with two E’s. (Now, there’s an attractive name for a Chamber of Commerce to get behind — FESTER City.) After searching and searching for Information Access Company and Gale Group, he could find no listings in FOSTER, California. No, no. Foster CITY, not Foster. (Grrr. Must have told him Foster City five times.) Nope. Still no listings.

A quick trip to GTE’s operator information service and bingo — the number in 10 seconds.

Uh-oh. You know what this means, don’t you? Another database in trouble. This time the telephone directory compilations at MCI/Worldcom’s 10-10-9000. The code of those on Error Patrol is the same as those on Search and Rescue Teams. You don’t just work to save the ones you like or the ones you do business with; you work to save anyone in trouble.

Back to 10-10-9000 again to give them the correct information that their database lacks. Reporting errors to these people is definitely swimming against the tide. Darrell the Supervisor told me that they had all the numbers in their database and didn’t make any corrections. Somehow, I got the feeling that Darrell just wanted me to go away and stay away, but I persisted. Finally he gave me an 800 customer support number. Would you believe? The number had a message on it announcing it was being discontinued and referring me to another 800 number.

The next 800 number had more warnings. “We are experiencing higher than ordinary delay times.” It then suggested I could hang on, go online, or “to end this call, hang up.” (Is there anyone anywhere with the intellectual capacity required to make a phone call who doesn’t know that you hang up to end one?) While I waited, the system played Baroque music selections sung, as far as I could tell, by a castrato using a high-pitched string section for tremolo backup. Finally I got four canned voice-mail options, none of which helped me any. Although I never reached a human being throughout the entire session, the voice-mail message informed me that “this call may be taped for development and coaching of our associates.” I’m telling you, the Pod People have taken over this operation.

Once again into the fray, I called a general MCI/Worldcom number to report the problem. They too could not respond to any database change alerts. Finally, they did give me the address where I could mail suggestions. When I asked for a phone number, however, they told me that the number was unlisted. HUH? “That operation is not set up for a high volume of calls.” Well, if that operation is set up to handle problems with this service, I can see how the call volume might mount.

One last try; I went back to 10-10-9000 and asked them for the phone number of MCI/Worldcom in the city designated. “Is that a business or a residence?” the operator responded. HUH? “I’m sorry. We have no listing in that city or the surrounding areas.”

That’s all, brother. I’m outta here. There’s a nice thick line between persistence and obsession and I’m staying on this side of the line.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Whom You Know
OK. Now that laziness has eaten up a half-hour of my time, I think I will look up that number. Ah, here it is. Now whom should I ask for? Hmm. I remember way back in the Second Millennium who was responsible for quality control. I’ll ask for her.

Welcome to the world of voice processing. Clearly and distinctly — James Earl Jones couldn’t have said it better — I pronounced the name. Back came the response, “Thank you. We will now connect you to ____. If this is incorrect, please hit the pound sign.” Incorrect?! I do not believe that the name the system gave back had more than two letters that matched. So I said it again, the next name the system gave me had NO letters overlapping.

So I finally got to a friend inside Gale Group, who told me the person I wanted to contact now worked out of the Farmington Hills office. I called there. Here comes that voice processing system again. Once more, I annunciated with crystalline precision. Once more the system gave me a totally ridiculous counter-offer, followed by a repeat performance with another even more ridiculous suggestion.

You know I think the problem with voice-processing systems is that they have no self-confidence. Why can’t they learn to say, “There’s nobody here by that name”?

So What Happened?!
Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. I ended up talking to two people about the problem at Gale Group. One person was just an ordinary mortal in the general customer support service who thought me a mere mortal, too. In other words, I didn’t flash my “Heads Will Roll” editorial credentials. After all, this is a test of the company’s will-to-fix. The other person, however, was a manager in charge of quality control, who saw me waving all the credentials I could find — mine and those of the person who referred me from Foster City.

Both parties found the problem, identified its scope (over 2,000 records involved), targeted the source of the problem (Dialog had not re-loaded the database since the corrections were made), and promised it would be fixed and fixed fast. They even found some information that would help me in the meantime — all the errors involved dropping an initial zero from the ZIP. (“And so, we bid a fond farewell to scenic New Jersey, land of….”)

Thanks, I needed that. Now if someone from Gale Group could just go over to MCI/Worldcom’s 10-10-9000 operation and help them out, the world  would be a better place.

P.S. Now that I have your attention, Gale Group, were you aware that you don’t carry listings for all the Thomson subsidiaries? And, by the way, Dialog tells me that you have withdrawn full-text records for Time-Life publications (including Fortune) from Magazine Database (File 47 on Dialog). However, apparently current material continues to be added, while older records come up with error messages. So what’s the cut-off date? Why the withdrawal? And who, besides LEXIS-NEXIS, still gets all the full text?

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