Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Customer Service Matters

One of our client associations is very deeply involved in measuring customer experience and its role in companies' profitability or lack thereof. From my perspective, then, it's very easy to see how the treatment of customers (or members) can have an enormous impact on the success or failure of companies large and small. But the importance of good customer service comes into even sharper focus when one is dealing with a customer service process that seems like it was designed to alienate and upset customers.

This little experience that I'm about to describe has convinced me that AT&T is striving to achieve the same infamy as has found companies like Comcast, Sprint Nextel, and, AOL, which have been rated by customers as abject failures in customer service.


I almost never make international calls from my home. There's just no need. But on May 27, I had to participate in a very long telephone call with a group of people who were meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. Because their meeting began at 9:00 am local time, I had to call in at 3:00 am local time. I was not interested in going to my office to make the call, of course. I didn't think anything of it; I just dialed in on my home phone and got on the call.

The next day, or the day after, I arrived home from the office to a voice message from AT&T's fraud department, asking me to call right away. When I called, I learned they wanted to verify that I made the call. I said I had and expressed appreciation that they would double check to make sure my phone service was not being abused. Toward the end of the conversation, though, I got a shock. The representative to whom I was speaking said, "You should get an international rate plan. That was a very expensive call." I asked how much; "about a grand," he responded.

I gasped and said that was preposterous. He agreed and suggested I call another department to get an international plan. I made the call as he suggested.

After a lengthy call that made me feel for all the world that I was being extorted into paying a monthly fee to avoid such absurd charges, I finally felt that the problem had been resolved. (The actual charge was $1,013.20; I was told the call would be about $35 under the international calling plan.)

The woman with whom I had spoken had assured me that the international calling plan would be instituted and would be made effective May 26, one day before the call. She transferred me to a third-party "verifier" who confirmed that I wanted the service, that I wanted AT&T to be my domestic and international long distance provider, etc. I obediently said "yes" to every question, as the woman had instructed.

About ten days later I received a letter from AT&T saying my attempt to get a new service had failed. The letter, dated June 9, said, "On June 9, you called us to request a change in your AT&T telephone service." It went on to say they could not verify the order and further claimed to have tried to contact me by telephone "today" but could not reach me. (Apparently they don't leave voice messages...I had received none.) Because I could not be contacted, the letter said, the order was cancelled.

So, I got back on the phone and started the entire process over. I gave the representative my confirmed order number, but they could not find any record of it. The only choice was to go through the entire process again. This time, I made a record of exactly what was said, what questions I was asked, etc., etc. The person I spoke to said I should call AT&T as soon as I received the phone bill that included the expensive call to Lisbon and that they would take it right off and replace it with the newly-rated call.

A few days later, toward the end of the week, the bill came. I waited until early the following week to call about the adjustment. Both calls from my office to AT&T that day were unsatisfactory; the customer service representatives could not find any records; I was told the "system is down" and they could find nothing. They asked me to call back; I responded by asking if they could call me back, instead, since I had made a number of calls already. No, I was told, we cannot. Period.

A later call reached a young woman who finally agreed to mark the amount of the Lisbon call as "in dispute." But the "systems" would not allow her to find anything of use, either. She advised me to try back later that evening and talk to the long distance unit. That evening, I called and spoke first to "Jude," who could find absolutely no record of any international calling plan on my account, any record of me calling, etc., etc. Then, he put his supervisor, "Tash," on the phone.

Tash said that what I had described (all of my calls heretofore) was impossible and, moreover, than there is "no way" that any AT&T representative would have ever told me an international calling plan could have been backdated to May 26. He then tried to explain that there are multiple AT&Ts and that what someone from another of the AT&Ts may have told me was not valid for his AT&T.

I was getting nowhere with him, so I asked to speak with his supervisor. He claimed he does not have a supervisor; he insisted that he reports to no one that I could speak to. He finally relented and said he did have someone who conducts his performance appraisals, but that he was under no obligation to give me that person's name.

After quite a lot more back and forth with him, he said the best he could do would be to cut 50% off the bill. I said "fine," fully intending to dispute any bill they sent my way. And we said our goodbyes. By this time, I though I had reached the peak of anger at the organization's customer abuse.

And then he called back and said his offer of 50% off was good only if I agreed to the international calling plan. I screamed into the receiver that I had ALREADY ORDERED THAT SERVICE TWICE! He said he just wanted to be clear about that.

I have not received a follow-up bill yet. But I have no doubt I will. And I have no doubt that, the moment this quagmire of customer abuse and torture is finally over, I will completely and irrevocably cut my ties with AT&T and will heartily recommend the same to anyone who will listen. Or who will read this blog.

My experience with AT&T in this incident demonstrates, I think, why customer service matters. Wouldn't it have been more to the company's benefit to make it easy for me to be rid of what I think any right-thinking person would agree is an indefensibly high telephone bill than to repeatedly go to the mat with me? Incidentally, that same call for which AT&T decided to charge $1,013.20 would have cost me $26.82 plus tax with the carrier I use in my office.