Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Department of Customer Prevention

Is it just me, or does this page simply scream "Dear Customer, please do not bother us"?

This is what I encountered on the AT&T web site. I wanted to make some changes to my land line service.

While AT&T (or as they keep calling themselves, "the new AT&T!") has an "online account manager" it's one of those peculiar systems that lets you upgrade service, but not remove anything. I realize they don't want you to actually remove anything you're paying them for, but let's face it: sometimes, you will. And you'll be a happier customer if you can just do it.

(Plus, the transaction will cost them less to process.)

Unable to do that, I realized I had to call them. Silly me; I thought it would be easy to find a phone number on the web site. Ha! To get a plain old number to call and get a person to help me, I had to go over to the shelf in the corner of my office and drag out the phone book.

When I called, one of the first things I heard was a recording telling me that I could manage my account online on their web site. No, not really.

Would it have been so hard to put that phone number somewhere easy to find on the web site?

Here's what worries me: I have my mobile phone service from Cingular, which is also "the new AT&T" now, and I've been very pleased with them in just about every regard. They have a much better web site with much better account management features. They're generally good to deal with, in my experience.

I'm worried that now that AT&T is their full owner (SBC, the "old AT&T," was part owner and while SBC was evil incarnate, Cingular seemed to operate outside of their sphere of despair; now that BellSouth been acquired by SBC/AT&T, though, AT&T owns the whole thing) they will begin to resemble AT&T: a business that views its customers the way vampires view their prey.

But let's hope not.


Mary Schmidt said...


This is a classic case of "service avoidance" I'd have far more respect for them if they'd just say upfront, "Look if you really have a problem, call us at one of the numbers. Otherwise, it costs us far too much money to talk to you."

We all know the "customer commitment" and smiley faces are a facade anyway.

If someone could start a phone company that actually answered their phones (and made it easy to buy from them...and sent out bills you could actually understand) we'd all flock to it.

Or, why is it so hard for "communications" companies to communicate?

John Whiteside said...

Telecoms are fascinating beasts. (I worked a European telecom for a while.)

While they try to position themselves as hip, forward thinking tech companies these days, the monopolistic roots run deep, and still manifest themselves in things like focus on cost reduction despite the customer dissatisfaction it can cause, the proliferation of little charges for everything rather than transparent pricing, and so on. They didn't need to be customer-centric when they had the power of government behind them, and I don't think any of them have fundamentally changed.

You can also see this heritage in their anemic R&D expenditures.

One of the reasons that they are so threatened by internet upstarts and net neutrality is, I think, a fundamental recognition that they simply don't know how to compete in a more open market with people who understand the idea of serving customer needs.