You don’t need an MBA to know that in business, few things are more important than listening to your customers. So it’s surprising that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who earned an MBA from the University of Oklahoma, told a customer that AT&T isn’t at all interested in his suggestions. Ever. In fact, if you send Stephenson an unsolicited suggestion, you’ll get a similar response from his lawyers.
Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
Tell it to the attorneys
Alfred Valrie, a resident of the Southern California town of El Sereno, had a couple of good ideas he thought he’d share with AT&T. A self-described lifelong AT&T customer, Valrie dropped a note to Stephenson:
“Hi. I have two suggestions. Please do not contact me in regards to these. These are suggestions. Allow unlimited data for DSL customers, particularly those in neighborhoods not serviced by U-verse. Bring back text messaging plans like 1,000 Messages for $10 or create a new plan like 500 Messages for $7.”
You’d think an executive would be pleased as punch to get such a civilized note from a customer. Not Stephenson.
“AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property … from members of the general public. Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion.”
The letter was signed by Thomas A. Restaino, AT&T’s chief intellectual property counsel. When LA Times columnist David Lazarus asked AT&T why it won’t listen to customers, he got the following response:
“In the past, we’ve had customers send us unsolicited ideas and then later threaten to take legal action, claiming we stole their ideas,” she explained. “That’s why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic. It’s so we can protect ourselves.”
T-Mo blasts AT&T
That is, of course, mind boggling.
When word of AT&T’s behavior got out, T-Mobile’s hyper-combative CEO John Legere jumped into the act. Legere had his team create an email address, IdeasforRandall@t-mobile.com, that collects ideas for AT&T services and sends the best ones on to Stephenson. The Twitter hashtag #IdeasforRandall is also being used to harvest ideas.
“It absolutely amazes me that Randall would tell a lifelong customer to basically go away and talk to my lawyers,” Legere said in a statement. “I interact with customers on a daily basis so I can hear their ideas firsthand. It’s called living in the 21st century.”
I sometimes find Legere to be a bit … bumptious. But this time he’s right. As for Stephenson, I think he should have to forfeit that MBA.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.