Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘customer service

Follow-up: My recent problems with Unitymedia

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The situation around Unitymedia (cf. [1], [2]) remains extremely frustrating:

  1. My support inquiry is still unanswered, despite a reminder.
  2. I still cannot use the main Internet connection of my apartment.
  3. While I am able to use the hotspot functionality as a workaround, it is (not unexpectedly) considerably slower than my real connection used to be. To boot, there are continual, highly annoying interruptions, leading to e.g. SSH sessions dying and needing a restart, and “ping”* does not work at all. Not to forget: This type of access is inherently more dangerous than the regular use, because it is easier for a hostile entity to listen in on and/or manipulate the communication.

    *Neither does e.g. “traceroute”, and I suspect that the entire ICMP is blocked, which would border on the negligent, seeing that this protocol has an import role in ensuring correctness and efficiency of Internet communications. (Blocking just specifically ping is dubious, but might be somewhat excusable due to its occasional abuse for denial-of-service attacks. For me, however, the lack of ping is a major nuisance, since I need to keep an eye on a few servers, and ping is the best way to do this; especially when reachability problems can be either a server-side problem or a connection problem, as is currently the case.)

  4. The miserable web interface of the router* works better in the newly installed Chromium than it did in Firefox; however, the situation is not satisfactory: Approximately every second attempt to run the built-in trouble-shooting results in a long wait and then an unspecified failure; every second results in a long wait and the claim that everything would now be OK—while de facto everything remains just as broken as before.

    *I note that the router is provided by and is the property of Unitymedia, with the implication that problems, malfunctions, whatnot, are Unitymedia’s responsibility—not e.g. those of an independent retailer.

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Written by michaeleriksson

April 1, 2018 at 7:24 pm

My recent problems with Unitymedia

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Incompetent and user/customer hostile businesses has been a recurring theme in my writings. My experiences with Unitymedia rank among the very worst, however.

Problems until recently were mostly limited to abusing my email address for spam. However, the developments in the last two weeks are utterly inexcusable. Even in a somewhat abbreviated listing:

  1. Visiting my apartment in Wuppertal for pre-sabbatical preparations*, where I have had an Internet connection from Unitymedia for almost a year-and-a-half, I find that the connection no longer worked. This after my only using it for a total of roughly two months, due to my long absences, and now that I finally was going to use it on a daily basis for the foreseeable future.

    *Cf. a previous post.

  2. I attempt to trouble-shoot through the web interface of the router—only to find that the web interface simply does not work with my Firefox. This without any messages as to why, no “please activate X”, or anything indicating that something was amiss—apart from things not working. For instance, a button that was to be pressed was not visible; for instance, after finding the invisible button and pressing it, nothing happened.

    This state persisted after I had verified that all the likely complications, including cookies, JavaScript, and images, where activated and functioning.

    Having limited time, I (temporarily) gave up and focused on other things.

  3. Back in Cologne, I tried to log in to the customer area of Unitymedia’s website. This was not possible, with repeated errors of

    Bad Request

    Your browser sent a request that this server could not understand.

  4. I also investigated Unitymedia’s WiFi hotspots*, hoping to use them as a work-around. This was fruitless, with no information easily found (but compare below).

    *Every (WiFi-)router is per default enabled as a hotspot for other Unitymedia customers, implying that they can access the Internet without extra cost when away from their own routers. (Assuming that another router is sufficiently close by.)

  5. I now contacted customer service per email, giving a detailed record of events and including my last invoice number (the customer number not being obvious from any of the information available in Cologne).

    The result was a pure boiler-plate email claiming that my customer account could not be found based on the data given—utterly absurd since I copy-and-pasted the invoice number. (And have subsequently verified that I sent the correct number.)

    Worse: This email committed many of the sins I discuss in a previous post, including altering the subject line and not including the original message—and added one entirely new: The sender was replaced by a “no-reply” address in an ongoing conversation. These are inexcusable in any context (cf. the linked-to post), but in an ongoing conversation?!?!? Effectively, I have to go back to a previous message and copy the recipient address from there in order to reply!!! An absolute and utter travesty of email use.

    Whether Unitymedia is just utterly incompetent or are deliberately trying to sabotage email communications*, I do not know. Either which way, this is so far beyond the acceptable that the decision maker should be summarily fired for this alone.

    *For some reason, many businesses appear to be extremely email adverse and/or view email as a pure one-way channel for them to send messages, mostly spam, to their customers. Common problems include hiding email addresses, taking any chance to ask the customer to call customer service instead, trying to divert customers to Facebook instead of email, … On a few occasions, I have even had emails to officially publicized addresses be given an automatic response of “please use our contact form instead”.

  6. I sent back further (redundant!) information, and now Unitymedia apparently did manage to find me. However, instead of addressing the issues at hand, a message amounting to “we tried to call you; please call us back” was given—something which is entirely pointless, seeing that I am not in Wuppertal at the moment… Worse: Going by the time the email was sent, I and most others would have been at work in the first place—if they had reached me (or whomever) it would have done no-one any good, making the phone call a waste of time. I had described the events in sufficient detail and without being in the presence of the router, there is very little else that I could reasonably have added or tried.

    To boot, I currently have no use for a cell phone and have let my pre-paid SIM expire. Apparently, however, someone who does not have a cell phone is not allowed customer service…

    Also to note: The information that I had additionally requested should have been given per email, not per telephone. If I had wanted information per telephone (extremely error prone), I would have called myself; I sent an email and both common sense and common courtesy requires a reply by email.

    Almost needless to say, this reply also committed all the above email sins…

    As an aside, there are quite large bootstrap problems involved by now: Almost any attempt to open a contract requires leaving a phone number and/or email address—quite often “and”; often specifically a mobile phone number. This even when there is no actual justifiable need; this even when the contract is for e.g. telephone services. When I moved to Düsseldorf in 2011 (?), for instance, the provider I first turned to for telephone and Internet services (Deutsche Telekom) required a pre-existing phone number to even leave the first screen of the process. We could be approaching a state where e.g. an immigrant simply is stuck, not being able to get basic services because he does not already have basic services.

  7. I replied correspondingly, including pointing to the fact that most of the checks Unitymedia should do could or even must be done without my involvement. (For instance, checking that everything is OK with my contract does not require my involvement; correcting errors in Unitymedia’s web pages must not involve me.) This email is still unanswered.
  8. Today, I had grown tired of waiting and not wanting to risk further delays, seeing that I only have the Cologne apartment (and the Internet connection there) until the end of next week, I installed Chromium*, hoping that this would work with the atrocious web pages of Unitymedia. Well, to some approximation, it did. After various hitches, including a password field that refused my securely generated password** and an incorrectly constructed confirmation email***, I finally managed to register and login in.

    *An open source version of Chrome.

    **The best approach to secure passwords is complete randomness. Restrictions like “must contain a digit” can be helpful in slightly protecting idiots who try to use “password” as the actual password, forcing them to move to e.g. “pasSw@w0rd”. However, the emphases is on “slightly” and these restrictions lower the security of random passwords. (Since they are no longer completely random.) The procedure of Unitymedia is made a mockery by insisting on a “security question”, which very, very significantly lowers the security of the password mechanism: A glass window next to a steel door. (The considerably better, even if not perfect, way is to have the ability to send an email with a “reset” link to a pre-defined email address.) As for the security question, I originally tried to use (approximately) “security questions are a bad idea” as the answer. This was rejected as invalid, with no indication of why. (Length? The spaces? After replacing it with a shorter, random string without spaces it worked.) Complete and utter idiots!

    ***The (HTML) email was so poorly written that it did not even render in my email client, appearing to be entirely empty; I was forced to save the email to a text file and to open it manually in a browser. The actually needed contents where several lines of text and a link; the actually provided contents were an order larger due to the inclusion of various information about who was the CEO and whatnot; the actual size of the HTML code was 61406 (!) characters, compared to 1657 for the actual text. (The latter, imprecisely, measured through copying the text from my browser and copying it into the Linux “wc” tool; the former not including several external images, which are incidentally a big “no no” when using HTML emails.) Running the HTML through tidy, a HTML validator, gave no less that 159 (!) warnings.

  9. After navigation through the visually horrifyingly designed pages, with their illogical structure, dodging repeated annoying and uninteresting messages that Unitymedia had wonderful new offers for me, and generally being on the very, very end of my patience, I finally found instructions for how to use the hotspots—with smart phones. A use with computers, even notebooks, is apparently not on the agenda (but I assume that the instructions are sufficiently adaptable that it will be possible).

    However, before use I had to activate the functionality, set a password, and whatnot. Before submitting the corresponding form, I clicked on the link for the Terms-and-Conditions—only to unexpectedly find myself looking at a PDF document within Chromium. I closed it to download and reopen it in a proper PDF viewer—only to find that the tab with my data was gone. (Apparently, the PDF had opened in the same tab.) I re-opened the tab and went back to the original page—only to find that the data I had entered were gone. At this point, I just gave up, wanting to save my blood pressure from a complete disaster.

    (This is of course only partially the fault of Unitymedia. Most of it likely falls on a weird default behavior from Chromium, which incidentally proved to be very frustrating and limiting in other regards too, e.g. in the use of annoying animations and filling the “new tab page” with a redundant Google search page, neither of which appeared to be possible to deactivate through the main settings.)

The web pages of Unitymedia could basically be used as an example for aspiring web designers of how not to do it. I will not attempt a detailed analysis (because that would require me to go back and look at them in corresponding detail, for which I have neither the time nor the patience). However, I do note especially on the visual side the need for excessive scrolling to reach any content, any screen typically containing just a few lines of text—and large, uninteresting images or large swatches of even less interesting empty space. Technically, they provide an excellent example of why Ajax/DHTML/whatnot are rarely a good idea and why it is almost always better to develop regular HTML pages, using vanilla forms, and possibly some very minor piece of JavaScript for some special tasks. Content-wise, the pages are confusing, making it hard for even a very experienced surfer to find the right information. By and large, I would liken the visit to trying to find useful product information in a supermarket flyer.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 22, 2018 at 5:31 pm

German businesses appear to blame their customers for conflicts over poor service…

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I was actually about to deliberately scale my writing back a bit again, when I encountered a German article article that more or less demanded an answer. This article, dealing with the tone used in contacts between customers and customer service effectively puts the world on its head, making vague references to a study and quoting various “experts”.

Claims made (or passed on) include:

  • “Umgangston zwischen Kunden und Service wird rauer”—the tone between customers and service is getting harsher.

    If the tone is getting harsher, it is normally not the fault of the customers. On the contrary, the problem is the businesses* with their lower willingness not just to provide a reasonable customer service—but to actually fulfill their part of the contracts. In as far as the attitude of the customers have changed, it is for the better! They are no longer willing to put up with the disgraceful, customer despising, often even outright fraudulent behavior of German companies. If the customer attitude of old, which often amounted to unquestioningly accept any excuse or refusal made, is changing, well, that is positive—extremely positive! More than that: I positively urge my fellow customers to deliberately take a stand against the current situation and complain more.

    *I find myself lacking a good English word that is both sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently exclusive. I settle for “business” for the purposes of this article, but stress that this need not the ideal choice of words in all cases. Think “the party the customer pays to provide a good or service”.

  • “Oft haben auch Kunden falsche Vorstellungen.”—the customers often have faulty expectations.

    Speaking for myself, I have expectations like my contract partners actually fulfilling their part of contractual agreements. From what I have seen, this is the case with most other people too.

    On the other hand, the businesses often have unrealistic and unfair expectations that they do their darnedest to push through—sometimes to the point that a contract appears to be seen as a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, with the other half of the contract being left to good luck and (metaphorically) the will of God.

  • “Zwar betreibe auch er großen Aufwand, um Personal zu schulen. Dennoch würden die Mitarbeiter in einigen Fällen derart übel beschimpft, dass die Gespräche abgebrochen werden müssten.”—Despite major attempts to train the staff (in e.g. de-escalation techniques), the staff is sometimes verbally attacked to the point that the call has to be terminated. (Quoting an individual call center.)

    There are people who go off over nothing and there are people who take a bad day out on the wrong person—however, they are the exception (at least when we speak of such excesses). If something like this happens on a regular basis, the call center and the business has to take a step back and ask “why?”—and if they do, they will almost certainly find that the problem lies with them, that there simply has come a point where the customer is no longer willing to take the situation unfairly imposed on him.

    For that matter, that the staff has been trained is not necessarily an indication that they have the intended capabilities. Indeed, in my general experience, by no means restricted to customer service, the amount of formal training is usually less important than intelligence and insight. That staff is rude, even without any type of provocation from the customer, is by no means rare either…

  • That the customer expectation “the customer is king” is (implied rightfully) a thing of the past. (The original formulations are sub-optimal and mix direct statement and quote in an unfortunate manner.)

    This is an outright disgrace: If this mentality has ever applied in Germany, it was decades ago. The corresponding German saying was “Servicewüste Deutschland” (“service desert Germany”) even when I moved here twenty years ago—and this matches the normal expectation found in Germany both then and today. (Notably, expectation through experience—not through approval or an agreement that this is reasonable!)

    We do not have a problem with spoiled customers with unreasonable demands—we have a problem with businesses that often fail to fulfill even their most basic duties.

    The addition “In der Regel muss er an die Hand genommen werden.” (“As rule, [the customer] needs to be led by the hand.”) is an inexcusably presumption, but, unfortunately, well illustrates the lack of respect, often outright contempt, that businesses show for customers and the rights of the customers. This is made the worse by the usually very low competence level in first-level support—if such people presume to try to lead a customer with a high I.Q., solid education, superior understanding of the law, whatnot, by the hand, they should not be surprised if he grows annoyed.

To make a complete analysis of the many problems present in German “service” is beyond the scope of both this post and the amount of time I can reasonably spend, but to give a few points of the top of my head:

  1. First-level customer support that is often highly incompetent, unable to understand basic reasoning, and/or limit their efforts* to finding the first piece of boilerplate text that is even remotely a fit (and usually not even remotely helpful).

    *Such problems often ultimately rest with the employer, who is unwilling to make sufficient allocation of time and resource to resolve the problems it has it self caused. Even members of customer support who would, in principle, be willing and capable to help are often unable to do so due to e.g. time constraints.

  2. A constant abuse of the customers email addresses for spam purposes, while deliberately trying to prevent the customers from using email in the other direction. (Notably through the use of unethical “no-reply” addresses or by forcing the customers to forego email in favour of user hostile web forms—often even a refusal to answer emails sent to official email addresses.) In extreme cases, even postal contacts are made near impossible.
  3. Forcing the customers to pay for for a prolonged time in a telephone queue before reaching support—often being forced to listen to second-rate music* during the wait.

    *It used to be the case that one could at least put the phone aside and wait for a human voice, while doing something unrelated. Unfortunately, many hot-lines now interrupt the music again and again for an automated message along the lines of “you are still in the queue”, effectively forcing the customer to focus on the telephone, lest he misses the point where a real, living human starts to talk.

  4. A refusal to honor legal rights without escalation. In particular, it appears that many members of support are given instructions that serve mostly to get customers who either do not know their rights or grow to tired of the effort to just go away. (“Abwimmelversuche”, with variations, is a wonderful German word for such behaviors that lack a good English translation.)
  5. Contracts and “terms and conditions” that are written extremely one-sidedly to exclusive favour the business and to turn the contract into an obligation for the customer to pay, come hell or high-water, and to regulate the obligations of the customer towards the business—while making all kinds of exceptions and excuses to allow the businesses to shirk their duties. (This is of course quite the opposite of what should be the case: Payment must be contingent on the other party fulfilling its duties, and should (almost) be the entirety of the customers duties. The contract should regulate the duties of the provider to earn that payment!)
  6. The presumption by businesses to unilaterally decide what compensation (if any!) the customer should receive—even when they are clearly in breach of contract. This compensation is typically not even remotely comparable to the efforts, costs, and/or negative side-effects the customer has incurred, often being nothing more than a five-euro voucher for the next purchase*. In some cases, notably delays and Deutsche Bahn**, the system is rigged against the customer in so disastrous a manner that a frequent traveler can rack up hundreds or thousands of Euro in damages and get nothing in return. Most delays give the customer no means of recourse whatsoever; most of the remaining require substantial additional efforts and give a fraction of the ticket price back.

    *Notably, something that does not actually cost the business anything. Five euro might reduce the gain from said purchase, but rarely so much as to make it a loss for the business. To boot, many will not use the voucher (not being willing to do further business, having lost the voucher, having no reason to buy anything before the voucher expires, …) in the first place.

    **“German Railways”, which is run with such incompetence and/or even deliberate neglect of consumer rights that its offerings to large parts have to be considered fraudulent. It (metaphorically) sells and receives payment for horses knowing in advance that half the time it will only deliver mules.

  7. The hiring of third-party service providers that screw things up—for which the original business refuses to take any responsibility or to help with any recourse. A prime example is delivery services like DHL; however, the number of such service providers can be large and varied, often even including call centers… (That then often just parrot a script and have very little actual ability and discretion.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2017 at 12:57 am

Horrible customer experiences in Germany: Postbank

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Over the years, I have encountered a disturbing number of truly depressing behaviors from various German companies, both privately and in my professional and business life, be it stemming from incompetence, from blatant disregard for the customer’s rights, or from an inability to understand that both parties have to keep up their end of the bargain. I intend to discuss some of them over time, starting with the events around the business account I until very recently held with the Postbank (a banking subsidiary of Deutsche Post, the German “Post Office”). I recommend all readers to without exception have no dealings whatsoever with this grossly incompetent and customer hostile institution.

In an incomplete account:

  1. The account was supposed to come with a credit card, barring a vague disclaimer about credit worthiness. This disclaimer is fairly standard in Germany and something someone in good standing should be able to ignore—and I* earned well, had a bit of money put aside, and had never failed to pay a correct and undisputed bill. Still, I was refused a credit card, with the claim that these were not available to businesses* younger than, in my recollection, two years—something not mentioned with one word in advance.

    *Note that I work in a legal form that does not require the explicit founding of a company, implying that my credit worthiness as a business entity is (or at least should be) the same as my credit worthiness as a private person. This also makes the time limit applied harder to defend.

    No alternatives were presented (e.g. a debit or pre-paid card or a deposit).

    My request, about a year later, to look at the amount* of money in the account instead of the age of my business went without a reaction.

    *I will not discuss details of that kind here, for reasons of privacy. However, it was considerably more than I could realistically spend with the types of limits that apply to most German credit cards—and it had a history of rapid growth over the year that had passed.

    As a result, I was forced to use my private* credit card for e.g. booking and paying hotels, resulting in an unfortunate mixing of private and business funds/transactions, probably formally violating the terms of use for my private account, and removing many of the benefits with having a business account. Certainly, had I been told in advance about the business-age limit, I would absolutely not have opened my business account with the Postbank.

    *This credit card, as well as my private bank account, are with another bank.

  2. The account was supposed to come with a fully functioning Internet banking (and is anything else even conceivable in the years 2015 and 2016?!?). This did not turn out to be the case: In order to take actions within the online banking, including executing money transfers, I needed mTans*. In a first step, this required entry of a cell-phone number, to which a text message would be sent as verification, after which everything would work. However, despite several attempts on several days and despite a fully functioning cell phone**, I never received this text message.

    *I.e. Tans sent to a mobile phone. Frankly, the technical problems aside, it is very weak of a bank to force some specific technology on the users in that manner. What if someone does not have a cell phone?

    **Including the ability to receive text messages, something I verified carefully through copy-and-pasting the phone number from the online-banking page to an SMS-sending tool.

    My requests that the Postbank fix the problem went unheeded. Alternative means to activate mTans or do online banking were not provided.

    With this, the remaining benefits of a business account were gone and, again, I would certainly never have opened the account, had I expected such problems.

  3. As time went by, money accumulated on my business account from bills paid by my customers while my private account grew thinner and thinner, seeing that I had to pay all my costs, private and business, from my private account.

    I now wanted to transfer money to my private account and used one of the provided (paper) forms for an inconvenient and fee requiring* transfer. This transfer was never executed and I never received any notification as to the the “that” and “why”.

    *Whereas transfers through online banking, had they been possible, were free of charge.

  4. A little later, I finally bought a suitable apartment (cf. earlier posts) and needed to pay the seller. This time I went directly to the bank/post office, bringing a number of documents, including identification papers, with me, so that this could be done directly in the office, with no possibility of a hick-up. At the same time I wanted to transfer the lion’s part of the remainder to my private account.

    What happens? The clerk hands me several forms and asks me to complete them—apparently unable to do anything of what I had expected. Well, if filling in forms was the only thing available, I could have saved myself the walk and the almost half-hour (!) long wait in the queue, and just done this at home with the forms I already had.

    I filled in the forms, double-checked them, had the clerk double-check them (comparing against the known amounts and papers with printed versions of the relevant account numbers). This while explicitly mentioning the earlier unexecuted transfer and having emphasized how important it was that nothing went wrong. The clerk had no objections whatsoever to the form contents and claimed that the money would be transferred in no more than three* days.

    *Considerably slower than with online banking. (But in all fairness, I likely would not have been able to transfer so large a sum in one sitting per online banking anyway. The transfers to my private account are different, because I could easily just have made a monthly transfer for a smaller amount.)

    I waited four (!) days and still found no trace of a transfer.

  5. Come the next banking day, I went to another office, further away from my living quarters, where I expected a more bank- and less post-centric support from the external presentation, in order to terminate my account, ensure that the apartment seller received his money, and that every last cent of the remainder were transferred to my private account.

    Despite the exterior giving a “banky” impression, including having signs advertising various bank services, this office turned out to know nothing about banking, being virtually dedicated to postal matters. Not only that, the clerk I talked to this time was extremely rude and aggressive, from the first word on, apparently considering me an idiot for coming to them for a bank matter—never mind their own signs… In the end I was sent to a central office several kilometers away, where I eventual managed to find someone who was a dedicated bank employee.

  6. This visit took half-an eternity, with time spent waiting for service, with explanations, research of what had happened to the earlier transfers, the filling out and signing of form after form, …

    As it turns out, the first transfer had been rejected due to deviations in the signature. That might have been acceptable (I certainly do not want others transferring my money) had I been informed—but I was not. (As an aside, pen-and-paper signatures are an idiocy, being far to easy to forge, and suffering from considerable variations when written by the same person on different occasions. However, that is not a problem with the Postbank but with the overall system.)

    The other two had been filtered out because the scanner had been uncertain about the amounts. This sound more like an excuse than a reason, but is not entirely implausible, with standard German and Swedish digits being somewhat different. However, what followed later is under no circumstances acceptable: Firstly, such ambiguity should have been easily handled by a human reader (remember that the original clerk had verified the correctness and, by implication, readability)—and they had explicitly mentioned the amounts involved during the phone call, without prompting, which proves that they had no problems reading the numbers. Secondly, again they had failed to notify me.

    For the money transfer to the apartment seller, the situation was now urgent, and the clerk recommended an “express transfer”—for which I would have to pay another 15 Euro. This despite the only reason the express transfer was needed was the incompetence of the Postbank… Having no other choice, not wanting to risk the seller backing out, I consented, but clearly stated that I would demand these 15 Euros back. As promised, the money was transferred the same day.

    However, the money transfer for the remainder was not executed at all. This despite there being no room for error, the forms having been filled out by the clerk this time, and again without my receiving any type of notification as to the “that” and the “why”.

    Instead, the amount from the second of my earlier transfers to the private account suddenly turned up a few days after this visit. In combination, this is an obvious, obviously deliberate, and gross violation of my expressed will.

    To boot, despite my account being unambiguously terminated, with the additional unambiguous demand that any remainders of my money be transferred to my private account, this remainder has still not been transferred—almost two weeks after the visit. (And despite the clerk’s claim that money from an account termination should be available within roughly one week, even when not otherwise transferred.)

    As a result, the Postbank is currently sitting on a significant amount of money that they have no right whatsoever to sit on, while I find myself short the same amount of money.

    I have no idea whether they intend to return it, let alone when—but I do know that I will file criminal charges, contact the German Bank Inspection (Bafin) with a detailed complaint, and instruct a lawyer to take steps to retrieve my money against any and all further obstructions by the Postbank.

As an excursion, I originally picked the Postbank for my business account due to the, so it was presented, large net of bank offices, virtually every post office also being a bank office. In reality, as I have come to understand over the last few weeks, most of the post offices are useless when it comes to banking matters—even when their signs claim otherwise. In reality, the number of offices to take seriously is quite limited and the service network is far weaker, not stronger, than that of the main competitors (e.g. Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, and, locally, various Sparkassen). Mostly, everything that can be done is to fill out a form that is then mailed to a more central office.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2016 at 7:52 pm