Customer service at scale, part II: Why my experiences with AT&T make me fear for GM

Yeah, you may have a great big battle station, but if you waste the opportunity to shore it up, a rebeliions gonna come. (Image from The Daily Yeah.)
Yeah, you may have a great big battle station, but if you waste the opportunity to shore it up, a rebeliion's gonna come. (Image from The Daily Yeah.)

I’m going to resist the temptation to turn this post into a therapy session over the myriad problems I’ve had with AT&T over the past month. Specific situations will crop up organically in the descriptions below, but instead of a chronological chapter-and-verse story, I’m going to focus on the lessons I’ve learned about AT&T and its processes. Suffice to say that my AT&T DSL was functioning poorly, and dissatisfied with the efforts to fix it (and lusty for more bandwidth), I switched to U-verse about four weeks ago. However the U-verse hadn’t worked for a full day since install. Then I had activation issues with my new iPhone 3GS on release day.
In many of these points I’m going to offer an example from my Apple experience as a counterpoint — not because the companies are exactly comparable, but rather because I’ve recently reflected on Apple experiences that left me feeling the opposite of how my AT&T experiences did.

  • There is no consistency, synergy or knowledge share between divisions: I’ve been dealing with the folks at AT&T Internet; U-verse; and Wireless. Wireless has native speakers on the line; the other two don’t. A critical problem on our line that broke my DSL (and caused me to look into U-verse) was not communicated between Internet and U-verse, and was further ignored by the U-verse installer when I alerted him. The Wireless hotline automated menu is easy to find a person to talk to — the U-verse one generally has me screaming before I’m three options in because its voice recognition is appallingly bad. Because the experiences with different groups are so disparate, it’s hard to form a notion of the “AT&T brand.”
  • The level of training / knowledge exchange is appallingly low: When trying to get phone support in activating my new iPhone, the veteran rep (who was doing her level best to help me) admitted that she had never held an iPhone in her hand. Turns out that neither her supervisor nor any of the reps around her had done so either. This is a flagship product and a major launch date, mind you. She wound up taking notes from what I’d told her I was seeing so that she could better help other callers. This actually carried over to line guys working on my U-verse. When they came to open the switch box, they asked what speed internet I had. I told them I had the top U-verse package. They still didn’t know what the promised speed was with that package, and told me they had never been shown the packages available.
  • Insincere appreciation of customer and employee: We’ve all heard similar tripe before whether it’s “We know you have a choice when you fly” or “I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for being an AT&T customer.” (In reality it’s “Dammit, you have a choice when you fly so we have to pretend to give a damn how your trip was” or “I am now emotionlessly reading a line in the script that I have to say in the unlikely case a trainer is listening in.)But perhaps the most mind-blowing part of my AT&T experience was when the third U-verse rep who came to my house — the one who actually solved the problem with our install — made his call in to HQ on speakerphone so I could hear it too. After about ten minutes of back-and-forth matrixspeak and disbelief from the on-site rep at what the phone guy was seeing on our line, it was time for them to end the conversation. And at the end, the guy on the phone closed by saying to the rep in my house: “I want you to know that you are a valued AT&T employee and we appreciate your efforts today.”Now I generally consider incoherent strings of profanity the refuge of those who are either linguistic weaklings or have suffered a brain short circuit. So:
    What the fuck!? What the FUCKING fuck?! They have to rattle off the same insincere bullshit to each other, just as they do with the hapless fucking customers? No wonder so many of the people I talked to sounded as pissed at AT&T as I was. And who can they mean the shit they say to me when they know that their colleagues are horsewhipped into saying the same to them? I was completely gobstopped at this point, thinking I’d slipped into some Orwell-inspired episode of The Outer Limits.
    This brings us to another really key point…
  • Get off the script!: While I’m sure that the OCD maniac who conceived the idea of customer service scripts meant well, they invariably lead to frustration and inefficiency. During my U-verse troubles, every call was a reset to ground zero of the problem. It wasted my time (already reset the box 100 times, thanks); wasted the company’s time; and kept us from getting to the real solution. Meantime, on my visit to the Apple Store, they went off-script immediately and y’know what?: They solved my problem.
  • Treat employees with real respect: It’s clear from the faux inter-company appreciation script that AT&T doesn’t have a ton of respect for its employees, or at least their intelligence. Meantime, while I was in the Apple store, I saw no less than three organic displays of a appreciation for employees. In one case, an employee showed the manager her purse on the way out, in what looked like a standard procedure. She was waved off with an “I trust you” followed by “Great work today.” That same manager was complimented by her manager when my problem was resolved.

  • People come through when companies don’t. But it doesn’t scale: For all of my carping about AT&T, I dealt with some great people during my trevails — well-meaning people who went as far as they could within a broken system to help. The shame of it is that they represented maybe 20% of the people I talked to. Does that mean 8/10 customers get the run-around?

  • My time is valuable: None of the AT&T reps who heard my dismay when they wanted to schedule (yet another) visit to my house seemed to understand that we have jobs at which we earn the money to pay AT&T. When I’d bristle at that solution, the attitude was clearly one of “Hey, we’re not charging you to send someone to your house, so you should be thrilled.” (That is, except for the first visit that they told me they would charge me an undisclosable amount for if they determined in their sole judgment the problem wasn’t their fault.) When I have to take vacation from work to let you in for the fourth time in two weeks, I’m not being done a favor.

  • Don’t let lousy service ruin a great product: I love the iPhone. It is my favorite piece of technology ever, and I loves me some technology. U-verse, when working properly, is far faster than any internet service I’ve ever had and provides a great TV interface and high value in terms of the channels for the price. That said, by the end of these dramas, I was well on the way to kicking AT&T – my second highest monthly bill after the mortgage – to the curb. The minute the iPhone is available on another carrier and Verizon FIOS is available in my hood, I’m a free agent. That’s a shame, because I switched from Sprint to AT&T and from DirecTV to U-verse because of the strength of these products. They had a chance to win me over and FAILed.

So what does all of this have to do with GM? Well, former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre is the new Chairman of the post-bailout company. And I have to assume that many of AT&T’s problems were born or nurtured under his watch. And just when GM needs visionary reinvention most, it gets a CEO that comes from a company that might well just be a decade behind GM, making similar decisions in the early throes of a death spiral, substituting ubiquity and distribution for service and innovation.
I’ll also confess that my take on his ability to change GM is colored by my experience interviewing him for a laudatory publication some years back — Despite the fact that this was for a Business Hall of Fame honor, he and his staff were arrogant, bullying and generally unpleasant as hell. I can’t imagine that doesn’t trickle down.

FOLLOWUP: I started this post about a week ago and only now have time to finish it. In the interim, there have been two interesting events that illustrate some of what I’m talking about here:
First, AT&T was unable to deliver on promises it made about the wait for new iPhone buyers to activate the devices. How was the situation made good? By Apple giving them an iTunes gift certificate.
Then, Mythbuster Adam Savage found his service cut off because of a bogus $11,000 roaming charge. His experience sounded remarkably similar to mine up to the point he starting Twittering about it to his 50,000 followers. I recommend following his Tweets in addition to the linked interview for the juicy parts of the story. The best one:

AT&T guy on the phone with me:” apparently you’ve got enough Twitter followers to get our attention.” me: “50,000”. Him: “wow”.

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.

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