An Open Letter to AT&T: You Are Broken And Need To Be Fixed. Now.

Apologies in advance for broadly grouping all AT&T employees into the same category below: I’m sure that at least a few of you are smart, genuinely interested in quickly solving customers’ problems, and capable of navigating the apparently daunting software AT&T has erected between you and the machines that collect the customers’ money. And extra credit to AT&T Twitter guy @ATTChrisF, who volunteered to follow up on the iPad data plan double-billing problem we mentioned a few days ago. It’s because of you, Chris, that I’m taking a brief break from more pressing things to write this today. I could have called back for my fifth or six call with AT&T on this issue, but I felt these words would do more good in this format.

Chris, AT&T PR guy @Sethbloom, and anyone else from AT&T who might be reading this, please share this open letter with your higher-ups. They need to see it, but more importantly, to actually read and understand it. I realize that everyone’s focusing these days on how incredibly dissatisfied AT&T customers are with dropped calls, slow data plans, and unfulfilled promises of better features. These are serious problems, but let’s put them aside for a couple of minutes. I’m about to tell you two other, more easily correctible reasons that AT&T iPhone customers are ready to go elsewhere as soon as they have another option.

The first is simple: AT&T has a distorted view of time. Your wireless business model is based largely upon the dollar value of minutes—charging people for spending more time on the phone—so you obviously understand that time can equal money. But somehow, you’ve mixed up the equation. Your company doesn’t reward customer service agents for quickly and completely resolving the issues they’re called about. Instead, they almost invariably try to stretch things out—they seem to actually want to spend lots of extra time getting simple things done. Worse yet, they put customers through several separate phone calls rather than just finishing the discussion on the first call. This week alone, I had calls with three AT&T employees to re-confirm that I actually, really wanted a billing overcharge to get reversed on my credit card rather than being issued as a check. And that was after my first call, where the question had already been answered.

Your customers see things differently. They don’t like wasting their minutes, or more generally, their time. They have lives. And they don’t like to spend four phone calls and 40 minutes of their lives resolving billing issues that could have been corrected in a 2-minute exchange. These lengthy calls and delays come across as either stupidity or deliberate attempts at creating busywork. And customers especially hate that they’re wasting time not because of anything they did wrong, but rather, because of problems with your computers, compounded by people who have no respect for their time.

That brings me to the second problem: your computerized activation and billing system is broken. It couldn’t handle two iPhone launches back when the iPhone was nowhere near as popular as it is now. But I’m not talking about just those almost-forgotten problems—I’m referring to the ones from this week. A properly functioning system doesn’t disconnect in the middle of activations, leaving accounts non-functional. It doesn’t error out or forget where it was in the middle of billing, resulting in two implausibly identical charges to a brand new account. And let’s not even get started on the P.O. Box thing. It’s almost astonishing to see your system making bad first impressions with new customers nearly three years after the iPhone launch.

Through your agents, I’ve heard you try to blame Apple for these sorts of problems, but I’ve bought more stuff from Apple over the past five years than any other company, and I’ve never had a billing problem of any sort with their retail stores, online store, or iTunes Store. Ever. Apple somehow understands that the process of handing over money should be fast, painless, and friendly, which is why people keep doing it over and over at its stores. Your competitors get this, too. When I used to be a T-Mobile customer, the only reason I ever had to call was over occasional dropped calls, which they fixed instantly. I loved T-Mobile. But I hate having to call AT&T. Over and over again.

AT&T, I realize that you think you can rebrand and market your way out of your problems, but you need to address the mess inside your walls before the outside world will turn in your favor. Right now, your customers know that they get the worst of all worlds: comparatively mediocre service, activation and billing problems, and then extended delays in resolving the problems. Most of your customers are working people with families, too little money, and too little free time. For years, you have operated a billing system that either negligently or deliberately takes too much money out of customers’ pockets, and a customer service system that makes it too difficult to get that wrongfully taken money back. At some point, systematic problems like these cease to be merely annoying and cross the line into illegal conduct. I firmly believe that you’ve crossed that line, but even if you don’t, fix what’s wrong anyway. Replace your activation and billing system. Train your agents to resolve billing and other issues completely in one quick call rather than four. It shouldn’t take action by a state Attorney General or the FCC to make your company do what’s right by your customers. Who knows—with better and fewer customer service experiences, you might just be able to keep some people from jumping ship.

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