Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Why Everyone Hates the Phone Company

OK, just one reason, we don't have all day. The general theme: nobody likes companies who take advantage of them by charging insane prices for something just because they can.

Both Maureen and I have posted recently about the Cingular-to-AT&T rebranding, and both had a general sense that as a brand, Cingular is stronger - AT&T is incredibly well known, but (at least for those of us in states where they are the local phone company) that's not a good thing.

It's always something with them. Today I had the ugly surprise of the bill for an international phone call coming in.

Now, I have no international plan because I rarely make such calls. I knew I'd pay a lot for the call. Here's the thing: my partner was overseas, it was the one window of opportunity in a crazy day for us to talk, and he was having trouble making a call from his hotel. So I got a text message saying "Call me here!"

Had I expected to have to do that, I'd have gotten a code for a prepaid service online earlier. But this was unexpected. So I dialed.

We talked for about 20 minutes. That cost $50. That's to a western European country - we're not talking about calling Malaysia or something like that.

But... come on. More than $2 a minute? I expected to pay a high rate for the call, but that's more than a high rate; that's robbery. A high rate would be twenty-five or thirty cents a minute. (Interestingly, if you sign up for a $5 international plan, AT&T charges eight cents a minute for that same call. I don't believe for a moment that the discounted rate is below cost. So the margin on what I paid was at least $2.15 per minute, or 96%. Look at it this way: they're charging at least twenty-five times the actual cost of the service (and probably much more than that; I'm being generous in their favor here).

And they can. I had no other option at that time. (Obviously, the next time there's a remote chance of having to pick up the phone and dial another country, I'll be prepared to take a non-AT&T route.)

Of course, I learned something, too. I learned that AT&T is the kind of company that will grab your money at any opportunity, and is not to be trusted. They'll charge a ridiculous rate - something far beyond reasonable profit - if they can.

That's a message that won't easily be wiped out by any number of "delivered" billboards or any clever Cingular rebranding efforts.

In fact, though my cell phone has always come from a company partly owned by AT&T, it wasn't right there in my face. Now, when the contract is up and I can consider changing carriers, they'll be AT&T - and I'll have been living with a monthly reminder that it's from those people.

And that's the problem with this whole exercise. AT&T is a brand that is horribly damaged, because being their customer is such a horrifying experience. Cingular, probably because they have always had to compete with other mobile carriers, isn't nearly as bad. I am not surprised that AT&T is opting to use the corporate mothership name for everything, but unfortunately, they're picking the brand that's lodged in consumer's brains somewhere near the spot that muggers, rotting flesh, and the IRS occupy.

They should have stuck with Cingular.

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