AT&T Sells You A Service They Don't Offer, Denies It, Bills You Anyway

This is like one of those ghost stories where the hero joins up with a fellow traveler, and then at the end of his journey discovers that his travel companion never existed. Oooooo! Only it’s about AT&T, so instead of being spooky it’s just annoying. Especially the part at the end where he receives a bill.

It started when Scott received a mailer offering a deal on a bundled service package from AT&T. He didn’t want the package, but did want landline service, so he called the number on the flyer and set up a new line. The CSR told him to plug in his phone, and on the day of activation AT&T would do the rest.

Several days after activation, when there was still no dial tone, Scott called back, only to be told that he’d never called them.

No matter how she looked up my order, she couldn’t find it. After being placed back on hold for a short time, she returned with what she believed to be the reason for my residential telephone problems. “Mr. Abel, the reason why I can’t find your order in our system is that AT&T does not provide residential service in your area,” she declared. “Only Verizon services your area. You probably called them and mistakenly thought you called AT&T,” she added.

WTF? I was certain that I had responded to an AT&T offer for residential phone service. And, I was absolutely sure it was not a Verizon offer. After all, I defected (with much joy) from Verizon several years earlier when I purchased the first generation iPhone, which only AT&T was smart enough to support. I recall the Verizon representative trying to convince me to stay with Verizon because if I ended my contract early, I would have to pay a cancellation fee. I didn’t mind. I paid the fee and went directly to the Apple store. “So, if I didn’t call Verizon accidentally,” I asked the customer service agent, “how else might this situation happened?” Her short answer was … it didn’t happen. AT&T doesn’t have an order for my address nor do they provide service to Palm Springs, CA (the city in which I live).

Unsatisfied (and starting to get a little irritated) I asked to be transfer to a supervisor. Several minutes later another customer support person got on the line and identified herself as the ‘supervisor”. I went through the entire story with her. She looked up my information in her database. Still, nothing. No record of residential telephone service ever being ordered. I thanked her and hung up.

Scott tried escalating the call to a supervisor, but he found himself facing off against a particularly stubborn CSR who refused, then eventually hung up on him. The next day he talked to someone else, who believed Scott’s story that he’d successfully ordered service even though there was no record of it anywhere in the system. He eventually passed Scott up to a supervisor.

I explained my entire situation. He said he totally understood how frustrating this was for me and that he was sorry I had to waste time trying to decipher what was going on. After a quit bit of research, he determined that AT&T doesn’t provide residential service in my area. However, that didn’t stop the residential sales team from placing my order, nor did it prevent the company from automatically generating a welcome letter. It did, however, prevent the company from actually activating my telephone service, which, as it turns out, is only available in my neighborhood from my previous carrier, Verizon.

According to the supervisor, who was extremely candid (a characteristic I appreciate), AT&T is full of silos. One department cannot see all of the information AT&T has about an individual customer. There’s no unified, single customer view for sales and support agents to utilize. Instead, they are guided by written scripts designed to help them obtain the information they need to complete computer-enabled order forms, which run on various computer software applications that-you guessed it-don’t talk to each other. So while the marketing department at AT&T shouldn’t be promoting services in areas in which they don’t provide service, my situation is proof that they do. And, while systems designed to process orders shouldn’t allow orders to be placed in areas where AT&T does not provide service, my situation is proof that they do, at least partially.

Here are some lessons to learn from this story. First of all, every encounter with a CSR is a unique amalgam of your two personalities, the time of day, how upset they are from the previous caller, etc. If you get a bad one, don’t give up; just try again later. Second, be polite—Scott wasn’t a pushover, but he kept (most of) his emotions out of it, which probably helped him find out more when he called back the next day.

The third takeaway is really just a confirmation of something that has longed bothered me, which is that every time a large company passes a new cost on to a customer, I wonder what internal inefficiencies they’re letting slide at the same time. As long as it’s easier to just hike prices, problems like this—that wasted hours of AT&T’s time and resources (not to mention marketing budget)—continue unchecked. If I were a shareholder, I’d be upset that these lasting internal problems were eating away at my profits.

Here’s the final, ridiculous end of Scott’s story:

Before I ended my call with AT&T, I asked the supervisor if he thought it were possible that I’d also receive an invoice for the residential service AT&T isn’t able to provide me. After all, I received a welcome letter even though the company isn’t providing me with service.

His response: “That wouldn’t surprise me.”

The bill arrived a few days later.

“Hey AT&T! Buying Residential Telephone Service Shouldn’t Be This Hard” [The Content Wrangler]
(Photo: mrhayata)