A number of years ago, I was strolling through TimesSquare (this was before it was closed to traffic and became a repository forlounge chairs and sunbathers) and observed one of the true New York con gamesin motion.

A Midwestern family - complete with shorts paired withblack socks andloafers along withmatching "I Love New York" T-Shirts were hustled by one of the BigApple's shifty three card Monte dealers.

They sat and watched as another player began winning handafter hand, correctly guessing each time and gradually cleaning the dealer outof his hard-earned take.

The father, seeing this, decided to plunk down $40 andtry his hand at increasing his family's walking around money. Before you couldutter "Peoria, Illinois," the money was gone and the children werecaterwauling about how pop could have blown their lunch and souvenir fare soquickly.

It obviously never occurred to them that the lucky playerwas in on the con.

I regale you with this tale of urban prestidigitation becauselast week I could empathize with that family, only in lieu of a shady carddealer, the object of my fleecing was none other than the august financialbroadsheet, The Wall Street Journal.

Long story short: I have been an online subscriber forsix years and the annual rate, give or take minor adjustments, has averagedroughly about $80 per year.

Imagine my surprise when the annual charge appeared on mycredit card to the tune of $170.

Which brings me to the crux of this week's missive - goodcustomer service despite an obvious financial mugging.

My conversation with a customer service rep wentsomething like this.

Me: "Yes, I have a question about my bill. It'snearly double what it was last year. Is there a particular reason forthis?"

WSJ: "Sometimes they give people an introductoryrate and then raise it later." (Hmmm.)

Me: "Yes, but I have been a subscriber for sixyears."

WSJ: "What state are you calling from?"

Me: "New York."

WSJ: "Sometimes they try different rates withdifferent people."

Me: "What? You mean if I lived in Kansas my ratewould be different?"

WSJ: "I don't know. Maybe."

Me: "Can you explain that a bit more or is theresomeone else that can?"

WSJ: "I could give you the number for marketing, butthey are just going to tell you the same thing I am. We're just customerservice. We sign people up and renew 'em."

Me: "Who sets the rates then?"

WSJ: "I don't know."

I admittedly haven't written nearly enough columns onpractice management, specifically best practices, but hopefully the concept ofdeploying competent and informed people as your first line of contact for yourfirm is not lost amidst the absurdity of my recent experience.

I still find it a bit inconceivable that callers to aglobal publication were greeted with an equitable level of attitude andincompetence.

I'll bet that dealer could have gotten some answers.

As for me, I almost feel like putting on shorts and blacksocks.

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