AT&T, shame on you

Our 29-year old son Austin emailed my wife Uta last week from vacation in Hong Kong and Seoul. He couldn’t get any reception on his Android phone.

He wanted to be able to read messages and make emergency phone calls. Wednesday morning Uta went online to look at AT&T international calling plans. The three phones on our plan had worked in the UK, Switzerland, and Italy last year. AT&T’s services had changed since our trips abroad.

Uta called AT&T for further information. An AT&T rep in International Calling told her Austin would not be able to make calls on his phone. “But he has the latest Galaxy,” she explained. Again and again, the rep said international service was not available on that line. My wife said she did not understand. The rep repeatedly said my son would not be able to make international calls from his phone. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?” she asked repeatedly. Finally, when the International Calling representative could not explain further, she hung up and went to the local AT&T store.

A representative at the store looked up our accounts and mentioned international calling plans. Uta said she didn’t want a new plan. austin’s problem is that he was not even receiving calls on his phone. He wanted reception and a way to make pay-per-use calls.

All Austin needed was reception and an option of making pay-per-call calls. Besides, he was on a short trip and that was half over.

The rep advised that Austin remove the battery and put it back in to reboot the phone. Go to settings, check for local providers. Uta emailed Austin, who had already rebooted the phone. Settings showed eight providers. Nonetheless, he was getting no reception.

Thursday morning Uta called the rep at the store. She admitted that this sounded like an AT&T issue, not something wrong with the hardware. She checked with her manager and called back to say Austin’s phone needed expanded international roaming allowance.

All Uta needed to do was call Customer Care and request this free option.

An hour later, Uta received an automated email asking her to call an 800 number. The number was an automated voice telling her how to activate her Go-Phone, requesting her confirmation, and requesting she replace her SIM card. She called the store to ask what was going on. The rep confirmed this was an authentic AT&T mail but had no idea why we’d received it. (Go Phones do not require outside activation.) The rep could not identify who sent the superfluous email.

Uta called Customer Care about the mysterious email. They couldn’t explain it either, but as long as we’re talking could Customer Care help us expand Austin’s international roaming alliance?

Certainly, she was told three times, Customer Care could sell us an international calling plan. No, that’s not what we’re after. By this time, Uta could recite the international calling plan specs better than the AT&T reps. They could not even say whether international calling applied to Hong Kong and Seoul. Some said yes; others said maybe. Customer Care only offered the option of for-fee international calling plans.

Friday, the next day, Uta called Customer Care again. She reached a helpful fellow named Evan. As with every new contact at AT&T, she had to recount the entire story from scratch. AT&T apparently does not document customer calls.

Evan said he would call International Calling and request the “expanded international roaming allowance.” the right person to deal with this while Uta was on the line. Evan turned us over to Kershe Rumph in International Calling. Kershe understood what we were asking for: Expanded international roaming, free, not a new plan. He added the feature to Austin’s line. He said Austin would only need to recycle his phone.

Uta asked if Kershe could switch her line to international roaming, too. Kershe said he would do that and confirm by email. His email the next day mentioned only Austin’s line.

During the call with Kershe Rumph, Uta pointed out that we’d gotten reception overseas last fall. Why did we no longer have international roaming? “Because it has to be added,” she was told. Uta pointed out that we had international service last year. Kershe told her that they only add the service during sweeps of many accounts.

Why did Jay’s iPhone have international roaming but the others not? Uta was told my phone had been automatically updated in a sweep in November 2012.

This is balderdash. In November, I had purchased a new iPhone from Apple. Were our other lines deactivated for international calling at this time? Was neutering our phone retaliation for buying from Apple instead of AT&T? I’ll probably never know.

On Friday afternoon, Austin emailed Uta that his phone was working.

Uta had invested three days learning AT&T’s confusing terminology and retelling the same story over and over.

How does she feel about the experience?

She became very angry when the International Calling guy told her over and over that Austin’s line could not work internationally. What? Why? How is this possible? Again and again, the rep could provide no information.

Here’s a formula for stress: Feeling helpless when encountering stories that are at odds with one another. The feature might cost something or then again it might not. International might include Korea and Hong Kong or then again it might not. Receiving a spurious email without a way to contact the sender and with clearly inappropriate content. Frustration with dealing with an illogical, dysfunctional system.

I did my best to provide an explanation for what might be going on. Half of America’s workforce is disengaged. They don’t care whether they serve the customer or not. Judging from their service level, I suspect AT&T hires more than its share of the disengaged workforce. Also, AT&T either lacks or doesn’t use any form of Customer Relationship Management system.

AT&T people don’t know their products. Their knee-jerk response to service outages is to try to sell another product. How many people do they dupe into buying international calling plans by cutting off the free international call-per-call option and offering a recurring “plan” instead? I will forward a copy of this paper to the FCC to make sure they’re aware of the practice.

Clearly something is off when only one AT&T rep out of half a dozen can fulfill a simple request. This is a failure of leadership. By chance, I happen to have met the head of leadership training for AT&T; we spoke on a panel together. I’ll forward this to him, too. Perhaps leadership training could use this as a case study. AT&T has my permission to use this for those purposes.

My mantra for management is “Delight the customer.” This is not how.

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