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Another AT&T story. Another disgruntled customer.

Another AT&T story. Another disgruntled customer.

It’s almost assumed that big companies inherently have terrible customer service, but I take offense to the notion that big companies can’t treat their customers with respect. The bottom line is that great customer service is great for business and that is especially true in a down economy.

For companies big and small, mistakes happen; that’s life. It is how you react to those mistakes that defines the company as good or bad. This is a tale of my horrific experience with a company with whom I have been a loyal customer for over 7 years — AT&T Wireless.

On to the story…

I took two trips out of the country in August: one to Canada and another to Peru. In anticipation of these trips and aware of the dangers of international data and voice charges, I decided to be prepared before leaving the US. I logged on to my AT&T Wireless account and added on an international roaming plan for 50mb of data and headed off to my trips very proud of myself for having such foresight.

With four days left in Peru, I was concerned that I might have exceeded my limit. I called AT&T service to inquire about my data usage. They let me know that I was, in fact, over my 50mb limit but that I would be fine if I changed to the 200mb plan (for $200). I took their advice, upgraded, and a few days after my return to the States, logged on again and removed the feature from my account since I had no more international trips planned.

Two weeks later, while I was in Chicago, my phone stopped working. There was neither warning nor explanation; it just stopped working. Clients, family and friends were receiving a disconnection message when they tried to contact me. I called AT&T after realizing that it wasn’t a hardware error with the iPhone and, after an hour on the phone with them, they put together that they turned off my phone due to a “high unbilled balance.” In other words, something had gone wrong with the international data charges. Before I even received a bill for what turned out to be a $1,100 error and had knowledge of the mistake, AT&T decided to turn off my phone. I inquired how this could possibly happen without notification and how I had conceivably done anything wrong to warrant this. They let me know that I had been sent an automated message about thirty minutes before the phone was turned off.


So I was an hour into this process and, of course, my phone dropped the call to customer support. Awesome! More bars in more places, huh? More like more advertising about more bars in more places. I called back and got somebody different who was unable to connect me with the original person working on the issue because “we don’t have individual extensions here, but I’d be glad to help.” That’s a bit ironic for a telecommunications corporation, isn’t it? Regardless, now I was back to square one. Two full hours later, we were nearing the end of resolving the issue, however, the team that issues credits to the wronged customers of AT&T had already gone home for the day. The journey continued to the next day…

While I eventually got the bill straightened out and my phone reactivated, there was no compensation for my three hours of lost time nor for my day with a disconnected phone which resulted in an unknown number of missed calls. When I asked them if there was anything–anything at all–that I should have done differently throughout this process, their response was underwhelming. I had been aware, proactive and communicative from start to finish and they responded that that although I did nothing wrong, I shouldn’t use their online system to add or delete features in the future.

In the end, I can’t help but feel that:

• The only reason I am still with AT&T is because of my contract and their exclusive deal with the iPhone. That sucks.
• People at companies like AT&T are not empowered to actually solve problems resulting in a major bottleneck in the customer experience.
• As a company, AT&T undervalues treating their clients with respect. Instead, AT&T relies on contracts, exclusivity of hardware and advertising to circumvent the problem. This is a flawed philosophy. Turn your customers into fans of your service and they will repay you many times over in loyalty and word of mouth.

Mistakes happen and I can forgive that. What is harder to forgive is the way that AT&T dealt with the mistake. Bending over backwards to earn back trust and satisfaction is the least that a company can do when a mistake ends up costing a client time and money through no fault of their own. Instead of being met with customer service representatives eager to fix a situation that AT&T had broken, I was given company lines, boilerplate responses and little overall effort to help me out. Eventually, the proper charges were assessed and service was returned, however, I believe that this only occurred because, I had taken copious notes about my phone activity in anticipation of a potential debacle of this nature. It just goes to show that AT&T’s reputation for poor customer service preceded it. In this case, its reputation was quite deserved.

AT&T has a long way to go when it comes to doing right by their customers. Even if they can get away with it now, they won’t be able to sustain such poor service forever.


8 thoughts on “How AT&T Ruined My Vacation
  1. KRONiS says:

    This is exactly the reason I left AT&T for good. I’ve even switched to the Gphone, even though right now the iPhone has some sweet features (not including a keyboard you can use with one hand), I know that eventually Google will outdo them and right now are just testing the waters.

    I had a similar experience traveling to Canada with AT&T who OBVIOUSLY make a lot of money off of the stupid roaming data BS. the fact that ANYONE charges per megabyte when roaming is complete and utter consumer ripoff.

    That being said, i recently went to canada on T-mobile and it was relentless how awful their support was trying to turn on my phone. I went through 4 people to just have to start all over. I mean their solution is for you to use your credit card to cover your calls….and don’t let me get started on Bell Canada!

    ah…..open source, google voice… please help us!

  2. Amanda Moshier says:

    I am an AT&T customer and have one too many horror stories. They should have done something to make up for what happened. A credit on your bill, a free month of service…even a $20 Visa card…at least it would have been something…but it doesn’t seem they care.

  3. Joe says:

    This is hilarious. A similar experience happened to me with Sprint. They for some reason put my family plan on the “default” plan, or so they told us and that our contract length or charges would not change. We started getting charged 50 cents a minute without knowing until we received the bill.

    Every time we called them to resolve the issue, they promised that it will be fixed 5 days (this happened on 3 different occasions, which i had to explain form the beginning each time). I took extensive notes of what was going on and even spoke with their “managers” a two of those 3 times.

    The bill came out to be $1800 dollars when the second bill came around (1 1/2 months after the first dispute call). After 3 calls, 4 emails and hours of demanding a refund they did nothing. And then I filed a complaint to the BBB and then i was refunded my money back in 2 days.

  4. Mike Weber says:

    I had so many issues with AT&T between not offering insurance on the iPhone to coverage issues, to strange international rules & settings when I left for Italy.

    Anyway, after leaving Verizon last year I am now back and the $110 to break my contract with AT&T felt like the best $110 I ever spent. Blackberry Tour does me just fine and I’d imagine it won’t be long before they have the iPhone anyway.

    P.S. This is probably the 4th or 5th story I’ve read from friends that went down as you stated. Really sad.

  5. mike stone says:

    This post is going to help my pitch to win AT&T’s business. JK.

  6. Ny says:

    It’s a good thing that Apple’s contract with AT&T ends this year so hopefully in 2010 they can make phones for other service carriers.

    This post reminds me of an article I read awhile back about why smaller companies tend to be more successful than larger corporations when it comes to delivering exceptional customer experience and keeping loyal clients.

    1) Clients can expect that they can reach the same person who has been dealing with their account (versus a different representative each time)–they can even speak to the CEO if they want to
    2) Employees in smaller companies are recognized when they perform well and they pass on that positive experience to their clients

    For the reasons above, smaller companies have earned Trust from both their employees as well as their clients which results in both ends being happy.

    A major problem that I see with big corporations such as AT&T is that they don’t take the time to empower their employees like you said in your post as well as give them ownership in what they do. So when dealing with customer issues like this one, most of the responses that we receive from customer service seem like they’re automated responses to help us stay calm when it fact it does the opposite–it upsets us even more. The fact that they don’t have any sense of ownership doesn’t give the employees an incentive to treat customers well. What AT&T should do if they really want to keep their loyal customers is to train their employees to effectively deal with customers when they’re upset and NOT deliver scripted responses. Perhaps some empathy training might work. Not only that but the employees should be trained to be leaders and learn how to apply common sense to help resolve customer issues–and they should be recognized and rewarded when that happens.

  7. Jessica says:

    Pretty ridiculous. I’ve never had any positive experiences with AT&T either!

  8. Alison Quinn says:

    I can’t wait till Apple’s contract with AT&T ends! Hopefully other carries will offer the iPhone soon after…a little healthy competition would be wonderful for the iPhone addicts who are being held against their will with AT&T! They’d have to actually start thinking of ways to make us want to stay with them….tethering anyone??

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