My AT&T Customer Service Nightmare

One move, plus one e-mail password snafu add up to one frustrating week for this PC and iPhone user. Dear AT&T: You should be able to do better customer service than this.

I can be pretty tough on AT&T, particularly about its over-burdened 3G network. Every time I write a column about it, readers practically line up to tell me how much they hate the new incarnation of Ma Bell. But until last week, in which I moved all of two miles from one San Francisco flat to another, I don't think I understood how truly awful AT&T's customer service really is.

Moving my landline and DSL service that short distance resulted in a work week for me with no service. Why? AT&T didn't know that my new apartment wasn't connected to its network, so getting connected took nearly an extra week. Fortunately, I have an iPhone, so I can get email without taking my laptop to a café. But because AT&T's cellular service in San Francisco is so spotty, I'm constantly fighting dropped calls and barely audible conversations in my own home.

In the midst of all this, AT&T's data network, coincidentally and for no discernible reason, suddenly stopped recognizing my email password. Resetting it was all but impossible. Why? The company insisted I produce a hard copy of a phone bill containing an arcane customer code, something I would have been happy to do if I had hard copies. I don't; like most of you, I pay my bills online.

[AT&T isn't the only vendor who needs to improve customer service. See CIO.com's Tech Vendors Behaving Badly: Support Just Gets Worse . ]

Yes, I'm furious. Having said that, I want to note that nearly all of the employees I spoke with were reasonably pleasant and interested in being helpful. But it appears that they lack the tools to do a better job, are hamstrung by bureaucratic procedures, and feel over- worked. As one installer told me as he apologized for being somewhat brusque. "It's the time pressure."

No 360-Degree View of Customer

Anyone who works with enterprise software has likely heard the phrase, "a 360-degree view of the customer." In case you haven't, it means that a company's customer relationship management software should reach across multiple data stores and present all, or at least most, of a customer's information in one shot. So if you call your bank, the person (or machine) that answers can see that you have a credit card, a checking account and a mortgage loan.

Achieving that view isn't easy, but many large businesses come reasonably close. AT&T isn't one of them. I don't know how AT&T runs its corporate networks, but my horrendous week implies that data is still housed in old-fashioned silos, inaccessible from one product group to another.

I'm spending more than $120 a month with AT&T, paying for local and long-distance land line service, DSL service and wireless service. I'd say I'm a pretty good customer and that AT&T has lots of information about me. But the company barely knows who I am.

I first asked to move my land line and DSL service, and the rep said sure, no problem, it will start within 24 hours of your move-in date. Great. But at the end of that day, no dial tone, and of course, no DSL, which flows across the same wires.

I called technical support and was told that service had been turned on. OK, but it isn't working, I said. I was asked if the previous tenant was an AT&T customer. Of course I didn't know. It turns out he wasn't, but that was news to AT&T. You would think that a simple database query on the address would answer that in a nanosecond. Nope, AT&T can't do that.

If I had known that a tech needed to come to my place to connect the inside wiring with the outside wiring, I would have made an appointment well in advance. Since I didn't, I had to wait until the weekend.

Customer Service Ends at 5 p.m.

Meanwhile, I struggled to make do with my iPhone. Service isn't perfect, but at least I could get my email at home. And then the really baffling and infuriating drama began with a message that the network didn't recognize my email password. After carefully inputting it a couple of times, it was clear that I had to reset it.

At this point, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the AT&T customer rep demanded my customer ID. We need it, he said, to verify your identity. I explained that I don't get hard copies of my bills, but that I also have wireless and land line service. Why not ask my a question based on that data to verify who I am?

Can't do it, said Chris. Why not? I can't see that data, he said. I explained to him that I had an urgent appointment and needed to read an email to get the correct address and phone number. (The person who sent it was now inaccessible, so sending him an email via my Gmail account wasn't an option.)

His suggestion: Fax a request to a customer service center that deals with identity issues and they'll get back to you within 24 hours. Uh, Chris? Since I don't have dial tone, I can't use my fax machine, could I just call them? I really can't wait 24 hours. "No, it's after 5 pm (about 15 minutes) they're closed." I didn't know that the need for customer support was a 9 to 5 affair, but I guess it is.

What's more, even if the center had been open, Chris was not allowed to give me the number. "Chris, this is really important to me, isn't there a way to solve the problem?" He said he was sorry, but was unable to help further. I hung up in defeat.

I finally found that elusive number in a dusty box containing tax receipts from 2003 so I could reset my password. And an installer finally came and connected the wiring.

What an awful week. Maybe I'll bail out on all my AT&T services, even though switching email addresses and giving up my iPhone will be a major hassle. I shouldn't have to make a choice like that, and neither I nor anyone else should have to put up with such terrible service. AT&T needs to stop talking about major investments in service and the quality of its network, and just do it.

By the way, we contacted AT&T for a response to my experience. In speaking with an AT&T customer service executive, I found out that AT&T is aware that some of its employees do not know how to utilize information resources that they already have. For example, the rep who asked to move my service should have been able to discern that a tech need to visit the flat to restart service, the exec told me. And when I needed to reset the email password, a supervisor should have, at the very least, connected me to a business office which would have verified my identity, she said. She noted, however, that AT&T still has not fully integrated corporate information that originated in the old Cingular wireless company, which migrated from Bell South to the old SBC to the new AT&T.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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