A direct line to the top

Dan Rodricks

July 17, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

The man was in a jam with the C&P Telephone Co. He owed several hundred dollars on his bill and couldn't pay. He was too ill to leave his bed, much less his house. The phone company was threatening to cut off his link to the outside world and emergency medical services.

So I was listening to the man describe his problem over the telephone -- and, to be frank, it was beginning to grow tiresome because, I guess, I've heard such stories before -- when he mentioned that he had managed to take his problem directly to Henry Butta, top man at C&P.

How did he get through to Henry Butta?

Being a chief executive of a major corporation, Henry Butta must be one of those arrogant, aloof businessmen who lets his subordinates deal with unhappy and hysterical customers. How, earth, did my man with the big bill get the boss' ear?

"I called him at home."

"At home?" I asked. "Where did you get Hank Butta's home phone number?"

"From the phone book."

Believe it or not, a person can actually call the president of C&P at home -- get him up in the middle of "Murphy Brown" or a game of whist -- to answer a complaint, to hear a plea.

When I called Henry Butta the other day, he verified the story.

I guess I assumed that honchos like Henry Butta do not deal with the day-to-day problems that occur between a big service company like C&P and its customers. They leave that, I assumed, to their heartless lieutenants.

The C&P customer in the case at hand described himself as 39 years old, 350 pounds, disabled with a heart condition, a sleep disorder and phlebitis. He is only ambulatory for part of each day and spends many hours confined to bed. He sleeps attached to a heart monitor and an oxygen supply. Should his heart become distressed, should his respiratory system collapse, the monitor sounds an alarm in his bedroom. On top of the heart problems, the man said he also had been treated for mental illness.

His phone bill had soared, he said, because he had made numerous long-distance phone calls, mostly out of a desperation spawned by his physical and mental disorders.

When I spoke to him, he was frantic that C&P was about to terminate his service. He had made many pleas to local churches in the hope that someone would help pay his bill. At one point, the bill had grown to more than $700. By the time the man got Henry Butta at home, the outstanding balance was around $500.

"I know exactly the man you're talking about," Henry Butta saithe other day over his car phone.

"I spoke with him for about 15 minutes. He called, I believe, on a Friday and he told me his story, mentioned the heart monitor. And I told him I would delay a cutoff in service, but he was going to have to pay his bill. And if he used the weekend to make more calls and go deeper in the hole, well . . . He promised he would use the phone sparingly and make the bill payment. I told him I was going to work the following Monday and would check up on him."

What's a presumably busy man like Henry Butta doing taking calls about bills?

"If the customer insists on talking with me personally, I am to be reached at all times. That's been the policy for as long as I can remember. If the phone is critical to someone's life, if the people tell me it's a medical emergency, I put them back on.

"I'd say that, for every time I've been burned, there have been four or five cases where the people kept the promise to pay their vTC bills. Most people, in my experience, don't lie. They call me because they really have a legitimate problem.

"I guess they know that, if they break their word to me, there is no appeal. I am the court of last resort at C&P."

Butta gave the man with the heart condition a break, but left the follow-up in the hands of subordinates.

"Mr. Butta was very nice to me," the man with the heart condition said. "It's his employees who were disrespectful when I called to talk about my bill. . . ."

As of last night, the man still had service. A church in Dundalhelped pay his bill.

"You have to listen very closely to what people say when they call," Butta said. "And you have to make a judgment. I get stuck once in a while, but generally we've had good luck with people. Most are honest."

Believe it or not.

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