You’ve heard of “too big to fail”. But has the American corporate ideal become too big to succeed?
Last year, a supremely obnoxious telemarketing scam “Account Services” glommed onto my land-line. Despite the “Do Not Call” list and repeated requests to stop, their calls continued, sometimes three per day, every day, for weeks. It reached the point where the land-line existed solely for the purpose of them annoying me, so I decided to cancel, and my adventure with AT&T began.
AT&T is the 17th largest company in the world by market value, number 12 on the Fortune 500 list, with 2011 revenues of around $126B, and operating in 225 countries around the world. Their corporate values state they will –
“Understand what our customers want and deliver it” and
“Ensure we are as valuable to our customers as they are to us” and
“Enable employees to make good decisions for their customers” and
(the big one)
“Solve problems and make things easy”.
Admirable concepts, and yet it took four separate phone calls to cancel my land-line while maintaining broadband service, and months later five separate calls to get a service failure resolved, leaving me without internet access for nearly a week. Each call involved traversing a computerized redirect system where the automated voice often “didn’t quite make out” what I said (especially if I had lost patience). It was tough to figure out from limited choices how to transfer to a live body (saying “help” and “representative” and finally cursing seemed to work). That brought me to a call center representative straight out of Bollywood central casting, who parroted catchphrases like “How can I make sure you are having a great day?”
When after just five months, service crashed, I spent nearly a week calling for help: I called to alert tech support to the failure; I called to find out what they had resolved the problem was; I called to ask why the overnight shipment I had been promised yesterday had not arrived (“it will ship tomorrow”); and, when my replacement modem finally arrived, I called to ask why the paperwork stated that service would not be established until two days later. Since I had online banking to accomplish and was going through Facebook withdrawal, I demanded to speak to a supervisor. Part of the agony is having to repeat your story to each and every contact. Steve, the supervisor, said “Yes, yes, so sorry, I will have that taken care of so your service is restored this evening”. Then the evening deadline passed and I realized he had no authority whatsoever; his job was to get grumpy customers off the line, even if that involves lying.
Well, I thought, perhaps the shipment paperwork would be correct since it was officially in their system, so on the sixth day without service I rebooted everything but to no avail. So I called yet again, furious, and something astonishing happened: AT&T’s system noted that my account had pinged them five times and ESCALATED me.
I was automatically routed to lovely Angela at the Escalation Center in Milwaukee, who immediately noted the service interruption on her network map and bumped me into next afternoon’s schedule for an actual visit from an actual technician. Sure enough, calm and courteous Brian arrived at the appointed time, plugged in and performed his tests, determined that original and replacement modems were bad, and installed a nifty new model (802.11n !!) from his truck. Before he left, he had replaced the wall jack because it was “marginal” and given me his personal e-mail address and direct phone number. I was near faint from relief.
Still, I can’t figure out with AT&T’s published corporate values, why did it take six days and five tedious phone calls to engage Angela and Brian? Why did I have to struggle through repeated calls to Maria, Hermione, Sandip (“call me Sandy”), Jacinia, Mango (I swear she said Mango) and Steve before I was escalated to Angela and received the service I should have gotten initially?
There is an AT&T store one block from my home. Just think of it, an in-person smiling customer service experience within walking distance, the potential to have my problem resolved same day. I learned I could have contracted my U-Verse account there, but had I gone for service as an existing customer, I would have been charged. Or as Brian mentioned, they would be happy to sell me a smart phone contract, but he worked out of a different group.
In marketing, each contact is a “touch point”, an opportunity to influence. Every piece of mail, every billboard, TV ad, or social media message, is carefully coordinated to lure you to spend your dollars with the advertiser. (AT&T is a master marketer, they must send a dozen direct mail pieces every month suggesting I bundle services with them.) However when actual personal contact with the company frustrates, the branding gloss is revealed as a sham. With every retread and every failure, irritation grows exponentially.
What is even more revealing is there is nothing special about me, I’m just an average customer, signaling that odds are my experience is not unusual. Now you’d think that a company as big as AT&T would have customer service nailed. But my experience epitomizes everything that is wrong with American corporations. Their bottom line is quarterly profits, about cutting the fat and goosing productivity. Outsourced customer service frankly doesn’t have the presence or commitment, much less the authority to resolve anything but the simplest problems, but it’s cheaper. Product lines often operate in the silos of separate divisions, which means the physical presence of an existing local store was not available to me, already a customer. Did anyone there think to ask why?
AT&T had me as a customer — all the time and marketing efforts to land me, and they had me, monthly payments and a contract and everything. Then they lost me, pushed me away really. Why would a company do that, unless they were just too big to care.