A couple weeks ago David Lazarus of the LA Times wrote a column about an AT&T customer who emailed the company president with a couple of suggestions (one being unlimited data for DSL customers, the other being a 1,000 text message bundle for $10). The AT&T responded with a legalistic letter from the Chief Intellectual Property Counsel which, while not technically rude, didn’t really match the spirit of the customer’s suggestions:
AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property … from members of the general public.
Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion.
When contacted by Lazarus, an AT&T spokesperson doubled down on this customer-hostile response, stating, “In the past, we’ve had customers send us unsolicited ideas and then later threaten to take legal action, claiming we stole their ideas. That’s why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic. It’s so we can protect ourselves.”
In other words, it’s policy. Send a suggestion to the president, get a hostile response from the lawyer.
I have no doubt that some small number of mildly deranged AT&T customers have in fact threatened legal action in this kind of scenario. A company with as many millions of customers as AT&T has gets legal threats on a daily basis. But a legal threat is a long way from an actual lawsuit, and filing a lawsuit is a long way from actually winning damages.
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But AT&T’s response tells us a lot about the company’s culture. From the outside it appears that AT&T management is so focused on the slight chance that a customer might file a frivolous lawsuit that they’re willing to annoy or anger a lot of customers to mitigate the risk. Remember that these are customers who are trying to be helpful. And a company spokesperson–someone specifically given the job of communicating to the media–apparently didn’t see anything wrong with this policy.
These actions seem to indicate a culture where customers are viewed as potential liabilities, not assets.
I’m sure that from inside AT&T the company views this entirely differently. AT&T leadership and employees probably genuinely believe that they value customers and manage them as assets, and that this kind of customer-hostile policy is a reasonable response to some bad things that happened in the past.
That just highlights why being a customer-centric organization is so hard. Remember that Managing Customers as Assets is one of the five key competencies required to be customer-centric. But it can be hard when you’re steeped in a company’s culture and constantly exposed to the internal logic that drives customer-hostile decision making.