12/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How (Not) to Succeed in Business

The spectacle of those automobile CEOs arriving in Washington on their corporate jets and heading into town in their limousines in order to hold out the tin can at those congressional hearings offered a remarkable insight into the other-planetary thinking of the very wealthy and the very powerful, and their separation from the reality that most Americans are faced with. Were these men incapable of imagining how this might look? Clearly, given the trouble their companies are in, their minds reach no further into the future than the next bottom line--but why make it so obvious? Why play so mindlessly into the most cliche'd impression of who they are?

Which had me thinking about corporate America--from the ethical as well as the practical point of view. Is it greed, as I suppose, that makes them so incompetent? That makes them... well, so devious, not to say dishonest?

Here's my own experience, yesterday, opening up just a couple of the monthly bills. Take American Express (please!, as the vaudeville comedian used to say about his wife.) I found two charges, totaling one hundred and seventy-two dollars and six cents, one for a golf club membership (ME!) and the other for something generically titled "Elite Traveler." I called. The operators were very polite. The charges were canceled. It turns out that in returning one of the company's "Million Dollar Sweepstakes" promotional deals, I had unwittingly signed up for these two unwanted "benefits." Okay. My greed. I had stupid visions of an easy million coming my way. I did not read the fine print. Mea culpa. I succumbed to the come-on. Still, it seems to me that the company had knowingly attempted to trade on my laziness, and that I had been tricked.

Then the Verizon telephone bill. My fault again. I have been paying thirty dollars a month for a totally unneeded feature, which I had been given "free for a month" when we bought the telephone. The catch was, we were supposed to call at the end of the month and cancel this useless freebie, or keep on paying, as I had been for months on end, for something that was of absolutely no value. At least the company gave me credit for the past month, but I still feel conned out of several hundreds of dollars.

Okay, call me an easy mark. I should have picked up on this long ago. I didn't. But am I alone in thinking that I was somehow cheated?

And then there was AT&T, also yesterday. (It seems to have been my day of encounter with corporate America.) My business with this company was finally concluded yesterday, after a month of Kafkan miscommunications, nightmare marathon sessions with digital menus and telephone operators, and repeated delays. It was a month ago, with the intention of coordinating the communications systems in my house--telephone, television, computers--that I rashly responded to an AT&T come-on offering a system that seemed to mesh perfectly with my needs, at less cost than my previous mis-matched assortment of servers.

Talk about ineptitude! The first delay (a week) was my own: I was out of town. On my return, I duly received a visit from an AT&T technician, who was to install my system for me. Hurrah! He poked around the house and finally decided that he was unable to install it because there was a "split" between two lines somewhere under the house or behind a drywall. I needed a "direct line" from the box where the outside line reached the corner of the house to a telephone jack beside my desk. Okay. A disappointment, but...

I called the company--in fact, I think it was the technician who called the company, because I did not have the necessary language skills to communicate what was needed--and arranged for a different kind of technician, the jack-installing kind, to come as soon as possible to fit me up. A few days went by. A technician arrived, unannounced, on my doorstep, I assumed to install the jack. He poked around the house for a while, and announced the the first guy "didn't know what he was talking about"--that the jack was simply unnecessary. More calls. More confusion. More apologies.

Then, early this week, another AT&T tech arrived. This one, to my surprise, had been dispatched to install the very same jack the last guy had decided was not needed. We spent half the morning trying to sort things out, with calls to various supervisors and dispatchers. No one knew what had happened, or why. I told this latest guy to install the jack anyway, to remove all possible doubt--a feat that he managed with skill and much appreciated concern for the interior and exterior of our house. I spoke with some ire to several good people at the other end of the AT&T telephone office, and insisted that the problem be resolved without further delay.

All of which produced, finally, another technician, who arrived yesterday and managed to successfully install the system.

A saga, then. You would think that a major corporation like AT&T would be able to make good on its offer with a certain promptitude. But no. Ineptitude all around. One thing I'll say for AT&T, however. Everyone has been exceptionally nice, from the telephone operators to the technicians who made the house calls. Nice, and eager to please the customer. Every time I called to complain, the apology was accompanied by a little adjustment here, a little adjustment there... Very nice. But inept.

One day in the life, then. Small stuff, perhaps, and personal. But the accumulation of these little symptoms may betray a major systemic disease. If the business of America is business, as President Calvin Coolidge said, I fear that our sickness is only just now beginning to incubate. My quick online search tells me that Coolidge added words less frequently quoted: "A business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business"--a thought with which I absolutely concur. If simple ethics and efficiency are sacrificed to the gods of profit, it seems to me, the very foundations of business are gone. It's hardly a surprise to see those corporate houses collapse.

I'd be interested to hear your stories...