Your Greatest Weakness

If you have ever spent any significant amount of time interviewing for jobs, you’ve probably had someone ask you, “What do you think is your greatest weakness?” Most people don’t spend any effort on seriously considering that question, and often it’s just a wankfest of trying to come up with something that also sounds like a strength. “I work too hard.” “I do too much unpaid overtime.” “I sacrifice my social life for work.” Personally, I’ve never liked that, and whenever I’ve been a part of the interview process from the other side and heard a prospect give one of those answers, I’ll either write them off as being useless or if they’ve shown real promise before that get them to answer again, with a little truth this time. If I’ve bothered to ask you that question, it’s because I want to know that you are capable of not seeing yourself as perfect and understanding that you can improve. I certainly don’t want to hear how even your flaws are assets, because if it is an asset, a strength, it’s not a weakness.

For me, my answer has often been that I’m better at fixing or finishing than I am at starting. When asked to explain, I do so by telling them about issues I have with narrowing decisions. For example, I am told to build a webpage. In what language? The choice of language will dictate, down the road, what you can do. Some languages are great at some things and weak at others, and so at the beginning stages of a project I will often spent an incredibly large amount of time trying to think of and map out every possible feature we could want in the site in an attempt to make sure I’m choosing the best language, the best approach. If instead of being told “build a webpage” I was told “build a webpage in PHP” we can eliminate a lot of time and effort. I end by saying that while it is my greatest weakness, it can be greatly tempered with information and direction, and lessens over time as I become more comfortable with my working environment.

I’ve gotten better at that over the years, both through knowledge and speed of research, and by gaining confidence in my decision-making by having decisions I’ve made work out well. And so now my answer has changed.

My greatest weakness these days is that I expect other people to do their jobs. My job is software development with a little support thrown in (small company, everyone does lots of jobs). When I’m asked to write software or if I’m handed a support call, I do it. And when doing my job requires me asking someone to do their job, I ask them and expect it to be done. Too many times, it isn’t done quickly, which holds up my ability to do work. The delays lengthen and eventually I’m missing deadlines.

In my opinion, I shouldn’t have to yell at people to do the job they are being paid to do. They should just do it, as I do in my own job. Instead, I often find that part of my job becomes checking up on other people at other companies to make sure stuff gets done.

I call in and report a problem. I’m not asking for new service, I’m reporting that my existing service is broken. When people call me for things like that, I drop what I’m doing and work on the problem, because a customer who cannot use my service now is infinitely more important than that feature I’m working on that no one is using yet. So, I’ve reported the problem and am told someone will be calling me shortly. Two hours later, I haven’t heard from anyone. I call in to get a status update and find that no one has been assigned the call yet. I am assured the call will be assigned and someone will call me within a couple of minutes. Thirty minutes later I’m calling back in again because no one has called me. They transfer me to the guy who was assigned the call, he tells me he needs to read the problem. He does, we talk, he says it needs to go to another department, and they’ll call me back. This keeps repeating, over and over.

In the end, it takes three days to fix a problem that should have taken a couple of hours at most. Probably because they are dealing with the same stuff I am when they have to call someone about part of my issue. And I know, because I used to have their job.

My weakness boils down to this: I don’t like to yell at people because I shouldn’t have to yell at people.

I know this blog isn’t read by many people, but perhaps just putting thoughts out into the universe can make them heard. Do your job, as well and as fast as you can, because if people are waiting on you, just imagine how you feel when you are waiting on other people. Unfortunately this is one of those “Pay It Forward” types of things where you may never benefit directly, only if it loops around and the people you have to wait on decide not to make you wait. But it’s worth doing, at the very least you can be completely justified in your ire at having to wait on other people since you don’t make people wait.

Deny First, Resolve Later

One thing that has been increasingly difficult over the years as there has become more focus on metrics for measuring call center success is actually getting help.  Too many companies appear to have a policy of denying responsibility first, pushing the problem off on someone else, and only later doing any work once someone else has definitively proven that the problem is theirs to solve.

In my current job, I deal with a lot of phone companies.  From AT&T all the way down to podunk local cable companies branching out into VOIP.  Our company is an answering service, and whenever someone calls us with a problem, we take ownership of it, work out all the details in an effort to either a) find and resolve the problem, or b) conclusively prove that the problem isn’t our problem and direct our customers to the right place to resolve their issue.  As an answering service, the one thing we fundamentally depend on is calls being forwarded from our customer’s location to our servers.  Once we get the call, we can do our magic and answer the phone properly and perform all the duties they pay us for.  If we are getting the call and something isn’t going right, we work to resolve the problem.  If we aren’t getting the call… well, there is only so much we can do.

What we don’t do is just shove people off, tell them to call someone else, and leave it at that.  No.  Even when we are certain that the problem isn’t ours, we walk the customer through some simple tests and see what results we get.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred (probably more, but I don’t want to get into large numbers or fractions) the problem is with their phone company.  (Half of the remaining times the problem is with their physical phones and the other half it is with us or our phone service provider.)  Either the phone company isn’t forwarding to us, they are forwarding to the wrong number, or they are forwarding to us but their service lacks the basic call data that most “real” phone companies send us and we are unable to process the call properly.  For the third option, we have a simple solution, takes 5 minutes on our end to resolve and then it’s up to their phone company to change the forwarding number – which should be another 5 minutes, but can often take 3 business days.  The first two options, however, is where the fight begins.

We do our job, then we say, “The problem is [insert exact problem here]. Please call your phone company and tell them [insert solution here]. You can have them conference with us if they don’t understand and we can get it sorted out.”  They thank us and then call their phone company who more often than not tell them, “Our stuff works fine, call your answering service and have them fix it.”  It usually takes about five rounds of this before the customer starts yelling at us.  Why us?  Because for some reason people trust the phone company.  Even when it’s a podunk operation serving the people of Greater Backwater with their fine assortment of tin cans and string, they trust the phone company as a utility and distrust us as some sort of money-grubbing for profit evil business.

Eventually, we get a conference call going and I get to explain to the phone company tech how to do his job.  The worst part is, when I’m doing this, I can hear the contempt in their voice.  They know how to do this, they don’t need me to explain it, but they don’t want to do it.  They want someone else to fix it without involving them.

And the phone companies aren’t alone here.  I run into it everywhere.

It really irritates me because I would never run a business that way.  Never.  Your customers pay for service, you should give them the best service and support you can give.  Of course, the scary though being that perhaps this half-assed responsibility shirking service is the best they can give…

A Week of Tweets on 2011-01-30

  • Never call me on speaker phone. Call first, then inform me you are going to put me on speaker. Really, it's safer for both of us. #
  • Tuesday. A day for doing things in pairs, or doing something because someone else is doing it. #
  • Today is going to be too long by far because the RIFT beta is waiting for me at home. #
  • Thanks to the song, I can always spell Mississippi, but there is no song for Masachewsits. #
  • Really need to see about setting up Artemis at Dragon*Con this year. #
  • Cr-48 showed up at the house yesterday. I can see why many people dislike it, but for a web browser with a full keyboard, it's pretty nifty. #
  • It puts the lotion in the basket. #

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Call Centers vs Help Desks

From my experience, customer support at most businesses falls into one of two categories: Call Center or Help Desk.  As either a customer or an employee, I prefer the Help Desk.  Now let me explain both and why.

A Call Center is usually defined by the (over)use of call metrics to define success.  They want to have as few calls as possible be answered by the automated backup system (when all the reps are busy), and you do that by decreasing call length.  A rep who is not on the phone is a rep who can answer the phone.  In a Call Center, the reps are encouraged to pick up the phone, gather information, answer if they can do so easily, and if not inform the caller that someone will call them back and issue them a ticket or incident number.  No real “work” gets done in a Call Center, they are just there to answer the phone so you don’t talk to a machine.

A Help Desk is very similar except that often the only metric that matters is how many calls it takes to resolve an issue.  The fewer the better.  Call length is unimportant as long as that time spent is relevant to solving the problem.  The goal is to have every problem resolved on the first call, so that the customer does not have to call back.

Whenever I call a company for support, if the entirety of my first call is to create a trouble ticket and then wait for a call back, I already know that my support experience is going to be disappointing.  In one of my most recent experiences, I called about a service outage (no phone service from a 3rd party reseller) and a ticket was created and I was told I would be contacted “shortly”.  Now, understand that my initial report include the line “we are a 24/7 business and we are completely down”.  It took 3 hours for a technician to get in touch with me, during which time I had called the support number a dozen times and escalated through several managers, because, you know, my business was dead in the water.  When he called he was very nice and explained that they were having lots of high priority calls today (which I only half believe since it has become defacto procedure in business to never accept blame and deflect onto other people or situations), and then he ran a line test and determined in less than 2 minutes that he couldn’t help me and we needed to have AT&T go physically fix a line.

Now, allow me to outline one of my jobs on a Help Desk to explain why the above experience was bad.  When I worked for one company, I started initially as a “2nd Level” support person, not clearly defined, but I was not an admin nor did I directly take support calls.  Through my efforts and with the support of management, our help desk would eventually have three clearly defined levels:

  • 3rd Level – These are the system admins, the experts who troubleshoot problems when everyone below them has no idea how to fix it.  If you talk to this level, it is because your problem is new or different enough that a new solution has to be found.
  • 2nd Level – These are the system techs.  They have knowledge, one day probably hope to be promoted to the admin level, and their desks and inboxes and hard drives are filled with solutions handed down from the 3rd Level.  They use these solutions and refine them on issues passed to them from the 1st Level, and they pass failures and run new ideas past the 3rd Level.
  • 1st Level – These are the people who answer the phone.  They aren’t required to have any real knowledge at all beyond being able to read and follow instructions, and to have good people skills.  On their desks should be folders of solutions refined from the 2nd Level, or their PCs should have access to a knowledge base or other digital medium with search capabilities.  Every thing they cannot solve from documents on their desk or in the knowledge base is passed to the 2nd Level.

The goal of these levels is clear.  The 3rd Level guys have other work to do, which is interrupted when they have to take support calls, so they want to solve and document and pass to level 2 as quick as possible.  The 2nd Level guys want to become 3rd Level guys, so they work to understand and refine everything that comes from level 3, and part of that process is recognition that will come from authoring documents for the folders and knowledge base for level 1.  The 1st Level folks, if you’ve hired them correctly, are the kind of people who love helping other people, so they want to resolve every call and don’t want to pass things off to level 2, and if you’ve hired your 1st Level manager correctly they’ll be the sort who hounds level 2 for solutions to problems that keep going past his people.

If you staff and train this three tier help desk right, it is extremely efficient and people won’t mind at all when they have to call because their issues will be handled promptly.  At the company I worked for, while I was the 2nd Level guy, I implemented the folder system for problem resolution.  For everything from password resets to broken PCs, I gave the 1st Level every piece of information they could safely use for troubleshooting and resolution, and when I needed to give them access to something unsafe I wrote or provided a tool that allowed them to do what they needed without giving them full access.  And for everything I absolutely could not give them access to, I gave them instructions on how to gather what information in order to make my job as easy as possible so that I could resolve and respond to the issue as fast as humanly possible.  When I ascended to the 3rd Level, I took my process with me, convinced management we needed a 4 person 2nd Level staff to replace me, and I began documenting every 3rd Level process I could pass off to level 2, which they in turn continued my example of refining and passing to level 1.  Within a couple months of the full three tier setup, the 3rd Level group barely received any support calls as level 2 was handling most of them, and the 2nd Level was rapidly trying to pass the buck to level 1 with new procedures and documentation in order to free themselves up for working on “special projects” (which mostly consisted of implementing work that level 3 had designed … the grunt work that helped educate them on more facets of the systems).   Over time, some of our level 2’s got promoted or got new jobs, and we were even able to promote people from level 1 to level 2 (not often done since the prime skill set for level 1 was customer service, but if someone had technical aptitude we allowed them the opportunity to try, some went back to level 1, some did well at level 2), and the whole thing ran much more smoothly than when I had arrived.  Even I eventually moved on, and when training my replacement, a guy promoted from level 1 to 2 to 3, I showed him all my duties and toys, and then I handed him a documentation manual with every solution I had not or could not pass on to the level below me.  It was beautiful, and as far as I know still runs that way today, eight years later.

So how does that relate to my recent service outage?  Well, if a technician can, in less than 2 minutes, tell me that the problem is not theirs and we needed to call AT&T, whatever he did should be able to be wrapped up in a tool that can be given to the people who answer the phones so that problems like mine can be routed properly more quickly and not have to wait three hours just to be told they aren’t talking to the right people.  The problem is that it is a Call Center, and their management has no interest in having the people answering the phone actually solve problems, their job is just to answer the phone so people don’t wait on hold too long.

Me, I’d rather wait on hold comfortable that when they answer I’ve a good chance of getting my problem resolved, than to talk to someone sooner only to be pushed off and told they’ll call me back at their convenience.

Good News for Zombie Game Addicts

By way of the ZRC, I have learned that you no longer have to complete Call of Duty: World at War to unlock the Nazi zombie mode for online play.  You still need to unlock it for solo play, but at least now I have a reason to bump the game up on my want list since I don’t have to wait to wade through zombies as long as I want to bring some friends with me.

It`s Comcastic!

For a number of years, I was a customer of Charter Communications, and it blew. I know that’s a bit crass, but then their service was terrible. Outages and other issues made it so that I couldn’t get through a single day without wanting to call customer support. I rarely did though, because the customer support for as awful as the service. Nine times out of ten when I did call, I got an automated message stating they were aware of an issue and were working on it. The times I got through, I wound up speaking to someone who was only qualified to answer the phone, not actually know anything about the problems of the callers. There is this story that I like to tell, mostly because its true, about a time when I called in to Charter and explained that my connection was fine, but the current outage was because one of their routers was misconfigured. They didn’t believe me, even after I explained that the reason I know was because I had been able to telnet into the router using the default login and password. I went to my parents’ house that night, downloaded a manual, went home and fixed the router myself.

All in all, my experience with Charter was why I was happy to learn my new house was in a Comcast service area.

I really shouldn’t have been happy. While overall Comcast provides better service than Charter, being better than the worst doesn’t make you good. From day one I had connection issues, but the people at Comcast were happy to help me, after three weeks of calls, to discover that they did not support my cable modem anymore. So I bought a new one. I started having connection issues again and we found that my “signal” was too low. A technician came to the house and “fixed” it. About three months later I called in again… “low signal”, another technician visit and it was “fixed” again. Another three months, another “low signal”, another “fix”.

I should break here to explain what “fixed” means. See, they tell me that I have low signal. The technician comes out, verifies the low signal and then puts in an order to have the signal at my house increased. One time they did replace the cable buried in the yard, and one time they replaced a splitter, but mostly they just run tests and call in to have the signal increased. I suspect that someone back at the home base performs an audit every three months, sees the higher than normal signal for my leg or node of the network and resets it.

So, its been three months again, and I’m waiting for Comcast’s Comcastic service to kick in… I really wish there was an alternative that didn’t involve Comcast and didn’t involve switching to some sort of DSL/Satellite service for Internet and TV. Oh well, maybe this time the “fix” will stick.

Amazon vs Lord of the Rings Online

At the last possible moment… okay, not the last moment, but close… Saturday, I decided the wife and I would play Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar. So, I threw a copy into the Amazon shopping cart, changed the quantity to two and placed my order. The reason I started by saying it was a close call was that the game released on Tuesday, and you had to order it before then as a pre-order to get the super cool Founder’s bonus stuff, most importantly the $9.99 a month rate. Since the normal rate would be $14.99, $5 a month times 2 is $120 a year savings.

If we end up playing for two years, I might kick myself for not taking the Lifetime subscription, but then again, if I paid $200 and then canceled after six month I’d kick myself. Damned if you do…

Back to my point though… we ordered our two copies of the game and then I went to the digital download section to claim our pre-order key… wait. Key? Singular? Shouldn’t I have two keys?

Why yes, yes I should.

So I call Amazon Customer Service… or rather, I go to the web page, enter my phone number and click the button to have their help desk (helpfully located in India) call me. The woman is nice enough, at least the broken formal English she is reading from her CS manual is nice enough. After many unsuccessful attempts to explain how the pre-order, account registration and all that is supposed to work, and trying to point out that I ordered two copies of the game but only got one key… to give a quick example, it went sorta like this:

Me: “I ordered two copies of the game, only got one pre-order key.”
Her: “Order shows one item.”
Me: “With a quantity of two.”
Her: “Not two, just one item on order.”
Me: “There is one item, with a quantity of two.”
Her: “Sir, your order has only one item. Digital downloads are given one per item.”
Me: “The item cost $50, my invoice is for $100 because I bought two.”
Her: “But there is only one line item.”
Me: “With a quantity of two.”

Finally, she grasps the concept… one item, quantity of two… and determines that she is not capable of resolving my issue. She says that I should have ordered the items at separate lines, then forwards my problem to another department, says they will email me the resolution, and hangs up.

Now, there are many things I am not, but one thing I am is a Web Programmer. You would think, if Amazon has an issue with providing digital content on multiple quantity single line items someone over there might be able to trap a flag and issue a warning to the user, or even not allow multiple quantities for items with digital content. A nice little pop up that says, “This item includes a digital download and product key, please add multiples to the cart separately.”

In any event, we are now waiting to hear from Amazon. They owe us a pre-order key, or they owe us $5 a month. Let’s see how long this takes to resolve…

Update: As bad as the first call was, my follow up 48 hours later was good. The woman was pleasant, contacted the department needed, got us all on the phone, got the issue reviewed and resolved, and she apologized for it taking a second call to get the work done. Apparently the first woman hadn’t actually forwarded my issue to the other department. All is good now.

Alliance: I love it when a plan comes together

So, this past weekend I decided to do a little PvP in the Battlegrounds. As usual, I dumped myself into all three BG queues and then headed off to mess around with low level quests I never did.

It took a while, but just as I was finishing up a handful of Darnassus newbie quests (Woohoo! 11 faction per turn in!), I got the call to enter Warsong. If you’ve read some of my ranting before, you’ll know that for the Alliance on Durotan Warsong Gulch runs last about as long as it takes for the Horde to run the flag three times. Non-stop. They just chain us, mostly because the entire Alliance side is out getting honorable kills, wasting time while me and maybe one other guy try to defend the flag. One shadow priest and one other random guy just often are not enough to fight off four or five Horde. We usually down a couple of them, but their shaman/druid/rogue will take off at high speed and that’s all she wrote. (By the way, being able to use speed forms or sprint while carrying the flag should be forbidden. It sucks that I start fighting a guy, he runs off with some speed boost, and I’m in combat so I can’t mount up and chase him. Blizzard, either remove the use of speed abilities while flag carrying, or remove the combat flag in BGs.) All I usually ask is that a hunter or two stay on defense and use their ice traps. I realize that druids switching forms can break free easy, but it help against everyone else.

Anyway… so I go in expecting it to suck. Only, it doesn’t. One guy starts shouting orders and, lo and behold, people listen. We win, 3-0. Yeah!! So, I re-enter the Warsong queue, and twice more I get in, and twice more we win. Awesome! Then I guess people stop joining, or perhaps too many people are in queue, so I head back to lowbie quest fulfillment. A short while later, an Arathi Basin call comes in. Whoosh…

So, Arathi Basin, like Warsong, seems to just suck for Alliance. And it doesn’t fail to disappoint in the first round. After asking to be invited to the raid a few times, I start inviting people. Most of them are in groups already, in the raid. I do invite three people to my group: two priests and a druid. All the healers in Arathi were not in groups. At this point some of the people start bitching about lack of healing, so I explain the situation. They start arguing that you don’t need to be grouped to heal. I explain about group heals, and the fact that Power Word: Shield can only be cast on group or raid members. All the other healers back me up, but some of the melees (rogues mostly) continue to say we don’t need to be grouped. I finally relent, “Hey, you’re right, we don’t NEED to be grouped, it just makes it about 10,000 times easier, especially since most of us have CTRaid_Assist installed and can easily target and heal anyone in range in the raid IF THERE WAS A RAID FORMED AND WE WERE ACTUALLY INVITED INTO IT.” Just then, the pop up for Warsong springs up on my screen. I click it and zip over to Warsong. I’m about to leave my group when I notice that they are all also in Warsong. We stick together and put down the most awesome 4 healer defense ever. Another Warsong victory.

After Warsong, I go back to the queues. Immediately Arathi Basin pops up. I’m hesitant, but I go in anyway. The good leader from the earlier Warsongs is in there. He gives commands, and people actually listen. Its a tough fight (I think the Horde side had more “raid level” players, because by far their outfits were sillier and they were really hard to kill), but we managed to eek out a victory by a mere 50 or so points (2000 to 1940/1950).

Finally, as I’m about to queue up again, the Alterac Valley gong sounds and I zip in quick. Normally I come into Alterac toward the end. All the towers are gone, and its the weakening dregs of an 8 hour zerg fest who remain emboldened by a few new players. But this was a new start. Immediately everyone rushed forward to try to take a new graveyard. The entire half-hour I was there, we fought at this location. We pushed up and down the hillside, getting so close to the flag at times. And then my computer locked up.

Ah well… maybe next time.

Story of Heroes

City of Heroes is about to do something that, unless I’m mistaken, is nearly unheard of in the world of MMOs. They are going to advance the story.

No, not just some expansion that tacks on a dozen new zones and makes an additional story you can explore, but actually taking the existing story and moving it forward. The only other game I know of that has done this is Asheron’s Call… and it makes sense once you know that some of the top guys at Cryptic were once the top guys at Turbine, makers of Asheron’s Call.

If you have been playing the game, or buy it right now and play, one of the villain groups you will fight are the 5th Column. These are a hold over from WWII, rooted in the Nazi Party but since separated into their own goals and headed by a man from another dimension, an alternate Earth when Germany won WWII. In a month or so (or less, I hope), you won’t be able to do this. In fact, if you join the test server now, you’ll find that the 5th Column are gone, and a new group, The Council, have risen up to take their place, destroying and devouring them from within. In a few months time, except for the odd plaque and the memories of older heroes, the 5th Column will vanish from the game.

One of the problems with other games on the market, is that they are, for all their lore and diversity, static. In EverQuest, if you buy an account right now and start from scratch, I can point you to quests and monster spawns that have remained unchanged for more than five years. The story in EverQuest has expanded, they’ve added new continents and worlds, alternate planes. They’ve added new lore and stories, new arcs of history and adventure, but they have remained reluctant to remove the old ones… The Paladins of Marr and the Freeport Militia are at the same tense standoff for control that they have had for five years. Wait, that’s five “real” years, but since 72 real minutes = a Norrath day, then you have 20 Norrath days per real day, which means that its been over 100 Norrath years. Beyond simple storytelling, EQ would have benefitted from adjusting its game in other ways… as time went on they developed more and more high level content, because thats where the bulk of people were, but they also took away none of the low level content, so the decreasing number of players turned into empty underpopulated zones and loss of social activity. In its beginning, people met in EQ because they were in the same places… now, until you get up to the later 50’s in level, there just simply aren’t enough people to fill the world to make for meaningful interaction between players.

This whole thing with City of Heroes gives me hope. I’ll be keeping my eye on the future of World of Warcraft to see if they follow suit, and even though I have no interest in playing EQ2, I’ll keep an eye on them to see if they have learned from their past. I’d love to see more worlds, more stories, instead of giant online gaming habitats.

People suck.

That’s is one phrase that I probably overuse. I’m just fond of saying that “people suck”. And every now and then, I consider stopping saying it, because maybe, just maybe, people don’t suck… and then I’m reminded that by and large, people do indeed suck.

Today I got a call from my credit card company. It seems that there was an unusual convenience check written against my account. Now, I use convenience checks all the time… see, I have this one credit card that has a 3.9% rate on transfers, with no fee, but it has a 16.9% rate for purchases… weird, I know, but I’ve learned to live with it. So, I buy stuff with other cards, and then transfer them over to the “better” card, basically giving myself 60 days to pay with no charge instead of 30.

Anyway, this one account however, I’ve never used a convenience check for, hence the reason they called. A $1000 check had been written to a “Tiffany Lane”, and signed by Jodi, my fiancee, who’s name is also on the credit card account. Well, Jodi never even sees the checks before I rip them up, so I was certain it wasn’t her. And of course, we don’t know any Tiffany Lane.

So, the process begins. They are going to close my account and issue me a new one. They will send me an affidavit to indicate which charges are not mine, and they will remove them from my account and start trying to get their money from the other direction.

When I got home today, I pulled out all my paperwork (which I’ve neatly filed ever since a previous landlord tried to double hit me with penalties I had already paid). Sure enough, I checked and this month’s statement should have reached me about a week or so ago. Some filthy scum-sucking piece of human waste stole my credit card statement out of the mail and was trying to use the convenience checks the credit card company happily provides.

Now I have to wait seven to ten days to get my new account, then go about redoing all my automatic transactions and stuff. Pain in my ass.

People suck.