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.