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.

By Bill Snyder
Wed, July 21, 2010

CIO — 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.

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