By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler and The Content Wrangler Community

imageFor the most part, I love AT&T. I love that they were smart enough to join forces with Apple in launching the iPhone—the most successful mobile phone deal in history—and I love that they’ve learned how to provide some convenient customer-focused services (e.g. paying your bill from your mobile phone, receiving bills via email, ordering services online without the help of a customer service agent). Unfortunately, my love affair with AT&T ends there.

The Offer: Residential Phone Service

Recently, I received an offer from AT&T, delivered via US Mail. The mailing promoted a bundled offer for residential customers—a package that included such things as television, email and Internet access, along with residential phone service—all for one low monthly fee. As I was already a satisfied AT&T Wireless customer, I decided to call the toll-free telephone number provided on the mailer to find out how much AT&T would charge me for residential land line telephone service. I had no interest in the bundled internet solution—I was happy with my cable company’s television and Internet service—but I knew my home alarm system was going to be installed soon and that it would require a residential land line in order to function.

imageSo, I dialed the toll-free customer service number provided, entered the requisite information (push one for this, two for that, three for something else) and eventually found myself in touch-tone hell. After several tries, I negotiated the automated customer service telephone system and ended up being connected to a customer service specialist. She was great. Polite, friendly, and professional. She found the rate information I was asking about, placed my order for residential service, provided me with a new telephone number, and helped me find a section of the AT&T website where I could order a telephone. When I hung up, I felt satisfied. “Mission accomplished!” I thought to myself. But, my adventure with AT&T was far from complete.

No Dial Tone

Several days after I placed my order, the telephone arrived. The customer service agent who placed my order for new telephone service had told me that when the phone arrives, “just plug it it and we’ll do the rest”. The phone company, she said, would activate the line without the need for a service technician to visit my home. I unwrapped the phone system, set it up, and plugged it in. I was ready.

When the day came that my service was to be activated, I picked up the receiver on the now fully-charged telephone. I pushed the “talk” button on the handset, but alas, no dial tone. I thought to myself, the folks at AT&T must not have activated my service, yet. I’ll check back later today. But one thing led to another—and before you know it—several days passed before I thought to check the phone line again. I was excited. I grabbed the telephone handset, pushed “talk”, and nothing happened! No dial tone. No telephone service.

Navigating Automated Support Hell

I was a bit frustrated, but realized that the folks at AT&T would certainly have a good explanation for this problem. Or, I thought to myself, maybe they don’t realize my service isn’t working. So, I fired up a web browser, searched Google for a few minutes until I found a list of AT&T toll-free support centers. I used my existing iPhone to dial the number listed for customers with “residential” service problems. Because the automated call routing system used by AT&T attempts to determine (guess) if the number you are calling from (my mobile number) is the number with which you are having trouble, I enter my new residential telephone number. The system accepts the number. It then asks me to enter my customer number (located on my most recent monthly statement). Monthly statement? As I hadn’t yet received a bill, I didn’t have a statement. As a result, I couldn’t provide a customer number. I tried working around the telephone system—pushing zero did nothing useful—and ended up being disconnected. Several times. Each and every time I called back, I would press a different set of numbers, hoping to get past the automated prompts and connected to a human being who could find out what was going on with my service (or lack thereof).

I’m not sure how it happened, but eventually I pressed the right combination of keys and was connected to a human customer service specialist. She looked up the telephone number I provided (my new residential number) and then exclaimed, “I’m not showing anything in our system for this number.” She then asked me to repeat the number to ensure she entered it into the system correctly. Same result. Nothing found.

You Must Have Called Verizon By Accident

“Let’s try a different approach,” she said. “Can you provide me with your service address…the address of the residence for which you ordered service?”

imageNo mater 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.

Let’s Try This Again

Peeved about the whole situation, I decided to try again. I called into the residential customer service line. After circumnavigating the automated support system (which was still trying to identify me by customer number) I landed in the queue, in line to speak with a customer service operator. As soon as she answered, I told her I was frustrated, that I had spent nearly two hours trying to solve a ridiculous problem that I was sure wasn’t suppose to happen. I told her I didn’t think this was the type of challenge she could solve and asked to be transferred to a supervisor. She didn’t like that idea and spent the next five minutes trying to convince me to tell her my story so she could determine if there was any way she could help me. I refused. “Connect me to a supervisor, please,” I said, repeatedly. Finally, I said, “I am certain that AT&T teaches you to follow certain procedures and that’s why you find it necessary to continue trying to get me to tell you my situation. However, I’m also certain they teach you to listen. So, listen to this, transfer me to your supervisor right this minute, please.” She disconnected me.

I called back, but unfortunately not fast enough. Customer service closed before I could get back in the queue.

Welcome To AT&T

The next day I called back. Worked my way through the automated system, got through to a customer service agent. After going through the entire story again, he apologized for my inconvenience and then confided in me several interesting things. First, he said, I may indeed have called AT&T customer support, but I may not have reached the right AT&T department. Instead, he said, “You probably were connected to the other AT&T (the company formerly known as SBC). Those folks are certainly part of AT&T, but they don’t use the same computer system and they may have provided some inaccurate information. In the past, we didn’t offer service in your city. Today, we do provide residential service in Palm Springs, CA.” After all, he said, why would AT&T send you an offer to buy service in an area in which they don’t provide service. My point, exactly, I said.

He searched through the system, and said despite his belief that AT&T did indeed provide service in my area, he was unsure how anyone could order service for my residence because the computer system wouldn’t allow him to process an order using my street address. He continued to try various ways of making my order go through. He eventually gave up and transferred me to a supervisor.

While on hold, the US Mail arrived at my door. The postal delivery person had a package to large to fit into my mail box so he brought it (and my regular mail) to the door. I grabbed it and returned to my call with AT&T. While I waited on “hold” I began flipping through my mail. “Renew now or ….” it said on an envelop from National Geographic magazine. “Save 10% on a single item”, a post card coupon from Bed, Bath and Beyond proclaimed. Then, I saw it. The familiar AT&T logo on a business sized envelop. I opened it. It was a letter from the telephone company thanking me for my recent residential telephone service order and welcoming me to the AT&T family.


“You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought to myself. “How on earth did I receive a welcome letter from AT&T thanking me for my recent order when the company customer service department says they have no record of my order?”

Just then, a supervisor jumped onto the line. 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.

How Is This Scenario Even Possible?

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.

Once I realized I was not going to get a residential phone line from AT&T, the customer service supervisor and I had a nice conversation about the state of things at AT&T. The content management challenges he described weren’t unfamiliar to me. Many organizations I work with have similar problems. They hire me and others like me to help them avoid these challenges when they discover them. They do so because silos and error-laden processes waste time and money. And, in this case, they irritate customers and damage brand loyalty. And, they waste money. Money provided to the company by investors and customers alike. In short, these challenges impact the bottom line in many ways that are not providing customer nor shareholder value. When these types of problems persist, they create opportunities for the competition.

Here are a few questions for AT&T:

  • How much time do your customers waste trying to navigate a phone system that assume they have their monthly statement (and customer number) in front of them when they call to find out why their phone isn’t working?
  • How much money is wasted paying customer service representatives—even lesser paid ones in overseas call centers — to address these challenges?
  • How many supervisor hours are spent dealing with customers like me with problems similar to mine?
  • How much does it cost to send out welcome letters to people like me to whom AT&T isn’t actually providing telephone service?
  • How about those fancy marketing mailers?
  • And, what is the total cost of dealing with problems like this that shouldn’t be problems at all?

This example is certainly not an isolated one. Far too many organizations fail when it comes to automating critical business functions. They inadvertently create challenges for both their customers and for their employees. They waste time and money and assume that the mediocre way they run their businesses is the best they can do—or is—“good enough”. What’s needed is an honest assessment of the current way they conduct business with an eye toward optimizing and unifying their marketing, sales, training, e-commerce systems, and providing their customer service agents with an overarching view of the customer.

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.”

[Editor’s Note: January 28, 2009 update—I went to my mailbox this morning and found a bill from AT&T for the service they claim they can’t provide me and have no record that I ever ordered. Amazing!]