Wednesday's column about "Floyd," SBC's seemingly robotic online tech- support guy, sparked an unusually heavy flood of feedback -- including from suspicious state regulators.
The consensus among tech-savvy readers was that Floyd's probably human, but he's almost certainly using some sort of automated system for responses.
Also, he's not really a Floyd. Not unless Indian parents have suddenly embraced the name for their offspring.
Telecom giant SBC is dodging questions about its Indian affiliate, but the facts speak for themselves.
Dave Johnston, a Ukiah networking consultant, dug into the Web address I provided for SBC Yahoo's online tech support. He found that when you connect to the system, you're actually being transferred to a server registered to a company called HCL Infinet in -- you guessed it -- India.
HCL's Web site says the company's numerous English-speaking employees handle tech support and other services for a variety of corporations worldwide.
It boasts of a commitment to quality that "has resulted in some key clients reposing faith in us over the last few years." It doesn't say which clients specifically have reposed that faith.
So I gave HCL a call. It was about 1 a.m. at the company's facility in New Delhi, but a sleepy-sounding worker there said HCL has about 2,000 people providing customer service for a wide variety of clients -- among them, SBC.
"They are a very important client for us," the worker said.
There you have it. Straight from Floyd's mouth.
"SBC is obviously hiding this," said Johnston, the networking consultant. "They probably think customers are going to have a negative reaction, like the whole Nike sweatshop thing."
Whatever else, SBC is clearly being deceptive. Why else would the South Asian techies handling the online service use bogus names like Floyd when dealing with SBC's high-speed Internet customers?
And why else would guys like Floyd (or whatever he's really called) not be authorized to discuss any topic that might reveal their true identity or whereabouts? Heck, I couldn't even get Floyd to comment on the latest "Lord of the Rings" movie.
Most disconcertingly, how can SBC justify calling this "live" support when Floyd and his cohorts are apparently limited to a series of canned responses to customers' queries?
She noted that the PUC is already investigating customer service throughout the business and is very interested in looking at how companies like SBC handle complaints regarding DSL connections.
"The commission wants to establish jurisdiction over DSL service quality," Young said.
Another PUC source told me that investigators will likely now ask SBC to provide more information about its relationship with subcontractors outside the United States.
Hopefully they'll have better luck than I did. Fletcher Cook, an SBC spokesman in San Francisco, refused to return my calls this week and said he'd only respond by e-mail to written questions.
This guy works for the phone company, mind you.
Yet in response to my very specific questions about Floyd and India, Cook replied Thursday that SBC won't comment on its relationships with subcontractors.
"The bottom line here is they provide great service, and that is the most important thing to our customers and the company," he wrote.
In any case, tech-smart readers, including a few who work for software companies specializing in language simulation, say that Floyd's responses in Wednesday's column sounded artificial because he was limited to a carefully scripted handful of replies.
"These guys have very strict rules about what they can and can't say," noted Jon Lieberman, managing partner of New York's InfiniteAgent, which makes automated natural-language programs for AOL. "They'll literally cut and paste responses into message windows."
Karthik Arumugham, a Massachusetts network engineer, said the time lag for Floyd's answers suggests that he was dealing with more than one SBC customer at once, probably jumping back and forth between computer screens.
Of course, many companies have set up service centers in India, including Dell, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard, to name just a few. Call center workers in the United States can earn as much as $12 an hour. Their Indian counterparts might make a third of this amount.
But while other companies may also strive to obscure the fact that customers in the United States are talking to people in India, they don't seem quite as obsessed with hiding the truth as does SBC.
"We're not trying to deceive people," said Dell spokeswoman Cathie Hargett. "We'll tell them if they ask."
In response to my questions, SBC's Cook refused to specify whether the company outsources customer support to India but did say that SBC is not deliberately trying to fool customers
"We don't have a policy on employees using their given name or a nickname in dealing with customers," he wrote. "We do have a policy on delivering great customer service, and that's what consumers are concerned with, not a name."
I also asked if SBC is worried about the company's business practices drawing scrutiny from state regulators.
"No," Cook replied.
THIS JUST IN: I had a stormy exchange with Cook when I finally tracked him down to his cell phone.
Turns out the powers-that-be at SBC don't like what I'm writing about the company, so they've officially decided that none of my calls will be answered. Ever. Instead, they'll deal with me by e-mail only.
I asked Cook if this was because I'd misquoted an SBC executive or mischaracterized anything I'd been told.
"No," he replied. "We just want to document all our exchanges."
A little nervous, boys? I wonder why.