How to Lose a Customer in Ten Minutes

Until very recently, I was a very loyal ATT customer. I took my membership across multiple moves, I used ATT for both phone and internet services, and I used the company as my primary telecommunications service provider for over fifteen years. If you want to get technical, I’ve been using ATT for even longer, given that my father used them when I was a kid and my childhood phone number – that self-same number I talked for hours with friends on, that number that I had my first college interview on, that number that still exists today with my father on other end of the line – was administered by ATT.

That all changed late last year, though, and it was because of a sequence of bad decisions from ATT that could have been really easily addressed and headed off at the pass if they’d decided that customer service was in any way meaningful and important. Instead, they wasted hours of my time, made me feel completely valueless and unwanted as a customer, and drove me to a competing telecommunications company. It seems like a bizarre business strategy to me, but then again, I don’t work for ATT. In a world where Comcast is notorious for its retention strategies, I guess ATT can afford to be more laissez faire about its approach to making sure customers stay with it.

It’s not like I was a major customer. I didn’t own a business with multiple phone lines, I didn’t have a requirement for huge amounts of bandwidth that would involve a juicy bill at the end of the month. I did, however, have a 15 year perfect record for the company. One that would suggest I had no reason to change service providers. Furthermore, ATT never knows when a small customer might become a larger one. Maybe I’d start my own business, and require more services from the company. At the very least, I’d tell other people that they might consider ATT as a communications provider when they asked me for advice about where to establish service and with whom.

This is pretty basic customer service, here: You want customers to be happy. There’s a line when it comes to unreasonableness (and I’ll have more about this in a moment), but on a base level, if a customer has been using your service for a long time and has a complaint, address it. Quickly. Find out what kind of resolution the customer wants, and implement it. Ideally, you’ll retain the customer (and perhaps increase brand loyalty, as Clarisonic did when they rapidly and helpfully assisted me with a problem). Worst case, the customer will leave your company, but won’t feel totally burned by it and won’t trash-talk you – on, say, social media or, I don’t know, websites.

So, ATT. One morning, I woke up and my internet wasn’t working. This is a pressing problem for someone who works online. I checked my router, which seemed to be in order. I called ATT and dealt with its interminable phone system before eventually being routed to someone in billing, who claimed that I had a large past-due amount. I informed her that I hadn’t received any bills or communications from ATT to this effect – I invited her to look over my billing history and note that never, in the history of ever, had I paid my bill late, underpaid, asked for an extension or partial payment plan, or anything else. I paid my bills promptly and without complaint except for one case, in which I politely requested a correction of a billing error (I was double-billed).

She bullishly insisted that I was lying. Over and over again. She demanded money from me. She grew excessively rude. I terminated the call and took, as is our wont, to social media. It took them a few hours, but eventually someone realised that my ATT-related tirade wasn’t going to end and that they needed to do something about it. Finally someone called me. He also accused me of lying. I asked him to terminate my service immediately. He continued to accuse me of lying and tried to badger me into retaining service. I demanded that he terminate service and zero out my account. He finally agreed to shut down service, snidely remarking that I’d have to pay a ‘reconnection fee’ ‘when [I] realised that I’d need to come back to ATT,’ and flatly refused to credit my account. I asked for a manager. He insisted that he was his own manager. I asked for someone higher up. He lied to me and claimed that CS was ‘basically equivalent to the executive level’ at ATT, which I suspect will come as a surprise to the company’s CEO and CFO.

At this point, I was beyond furious. I’d been abused, mistreated, and lied to by alleged customer service representatives of a company I had patronised for over a decade. So I hung up and called…Comcast, the only other service provider here. (The other is just an ATT reseller.)

To my surprise, everyone at Comcast was polite and helpful. There were some errors with my account setup process and the woman I spoke with was apologetic and kind (almost cringingly so, she was clearly used to verbal abuse). At the end, I couldn’t get an appointment for new service for almost ten days, and she was clearly bracing for a screaming fit, but I verbally shrugged. Not like she could do anything about it – it wasn’t her fault (see: reasonable versus unreasonable customers).

I was struck by the sharp contrast between my experiences. One with a notoriously evil company, the other with one that I’d peaceably gotten along with for quite a long time. Of course, Comcast has a clear incentive to be easygoing and friendly with new customers for obvious reasons, but still, I actually felt like I was being welcomed to a family, instead of thrown out like garbage.

I hope ATT learned their lesson. I hope the company continues to learn its lesson if it wants to provide this level of ‘customer service.’ Because customers have a right to basic, polite treatment – and that’s not what I got.

Image: AT&T, Chris Young, Flickr