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Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: My AT&T DSL Customer Service Experience

Bob Thompson | May 18, 2012 1,040 views 7 Comments

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Despite what the title of this blog post implies, AT&T service representatives all did a good to excellent job helping me solve (maybe) problems with a balky DSL connection.



So this post is not meant to slam AT&T, but rather serve as a teachable moment. Because sometimes good intentions and even good actions don’t add up to genuine customer loyalty.

Loyal to AT&T? Not so much

Speaking of loyalty, I suspect AT&T thinks I’m a loyal customer. I’ve been a DSL and business phone line customer for 10+ years, since switching from another DSL provider that let me down. When I’ve interacted with AT&T staff, I’ve generally been pleased.

But cracks are appearing in my presumed loyalty. When my wife and I moved into our new condo, we decided to split our business between AT&T and Comcast. Both have bundled services for TV, phone and Internet, but we didn’t feel comfortable putting all our digital eggs in one basket because:

  • Comcast’s cable service went down occasionally, which is no big deal for watching TV but a big problem if it means (in my mind at least) an Internet outage.
  • AT&T’s U-Verse was (in my mind at least) unproven for TV/cable replacement. Our friends liked the service but we couldn’t figure out if/how the cabling would work in our condo.

So when we moved in, the edge went to AT&T. But we decided to try Comcast’s VoIP for our home phone. And keep our options open for the future in looking for an integrated service.

Fear

We moved less than a mile, and the new DSL line was hooked up using the same modem and wireless router we had used for years in our house. AT&T did a great job on the order process and installation of the line. So far so good.

(Oh, and the Comcast installation went equally well.)

Unfortunately, we experienced an unreliable DSL connection over the next few months. Sometimes the speed would slow way down. Other times the connection would drop for a few seconds to a few minutes, then come back on its own.

Not a big problem unless you depend on the Internet for a live webinar with hundreds of people online.

But it gets worse. Sporadically the connection would drop and the only way to get it back was to reset the modem (power down and back up.) Still not a huge deal, but annoying because it happened several times a month.

However, occasionally even that didn’t work. I called AT&T DSL once and it took an hour to complete a complex process to test everything and reset the network password. No problem was found, but it conditioned me to fear making that call again.

I just didn’t want to spend an hour on the phone, so we continued to reset the modem and not call.

Uncertainty

Until last weekend when the line failed for a solid day. Had no choice but to call AT&T support.

Or did I?

I thought it would be worth a try to see if AT&T used Twitter for customer service. Maybe that would be easier than navigating a complex web site that kept pushing me to try self-service. And just where was that DSL support number?

Well, the AT&T reps were very responsive, but in the end they just give me the phone number and then were cheerleaders. I can’t fault them for any of that, but one lesson might be that if people are contacting ATTCustomerCare, AT&T should try to figure out why their core service process isn’t working.

Well, I settled in for another hour-long process. And sure enough, no trouble found. Eventually after lots of tests and resetting passwords, the line came back.

The AT&T service rep was good, but clearly was following a script. When I tried to discuss what might be the source of the intermittent problem, she wasn’t technical enough to add much value, aside from pointing me to a “supported” DSL modem that got terrible reviews online.

The line was back, but I posted a tweet back to AT&T that I was very FRUSTRATED.

Doubt

That Tweet may explain why I got unsolicited calls from DSL techies. In one case the caller transferred me to a line technician and refused to get off the line because it was a “social media” issue. (Hmmm, maybe Twitter is useful, after all, to get prioritized service.)

The line was tested and again there no problem found. A dispatched technician then came to the condo with an impressive array of equipment, spent 2 hours testing everything and found no definitive problem.

I learned a lot about DSL technology that day from a very smart and capable technician. For example, did you know that …

  • The limit for DSL 6 Mbps is about 6,000 feet, but it depends on the path the wire travels. Our new condo is right at that limit, which might explain the reliability problems. Funny, this never came up when I ordered the service.
  • Internal wiring can act like a radio antenna and disrupt the DSL connection. The DSL tech put a filter on the line to mitigate that possibility.
  • Modems don’t last forever. I’ve been using an old non-programmable DSL modem that one AT&T tech described as a “tank” (in a good way), but nevertheless it’s several years old. I replaced the modem with something newer just in case (a Best Buy rep was much more helpful than AT&T on this), even though the technician could find no problems.

So at the end of several hours invested by me and AT&T, all I’m left with is doubt.

Doubt that the line will be reliable at 6 Mbps. (The DSL tech said we could downgrade if we continued to have problems.)

Doubt that the other changes really fixed the problem. (Line filter and modem/router replacement.)

Doubt that I want to continue with AT&T, despite everyone doing exactly the job they were supposed to do.

Missed opportunities

All of the AT&T people were trained, polite and really tried to help. Except one who brusquely informed me that the modem was not their responsibility. Even though I had bought it with my first AT&T DSL installation, all they could do was test the line. If the modem was going bad, that was my problem.

Really? Combo DSL modem/wireless routers cost less $100 at retail. (I bought an Actiontec, in case you’re wondering.)

If old modems are the source of lots of service calls like mine, why not give loyal customers a free upgrade? That’s perhaps a $50 expense instead of hours of tech time, plus the risk of losing a customer to Comcast. And it would have meant something if AT&T had done this voluntarily to help a “loyal” customer.

The AT&T web site is a mess. That’s another missed opportunity to help customers help themselves. My guess is more and more people will be using Twitter much like zeroing out on an IVR — because we want a real person to help us make the right next step. What a lot of unnecessary cost for AT&T.

But perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was at the very beginning. If the line was near the maximum distance, why did AT&T take my order? Why didn’t someone mention that the connection might be unstable but I could try it and downgrade if necessary? Expectations were not set correctly by the sales person — who no doubt was motivated for me to buy the more expensive plan.

The good news is that it’s been a few days and the line has not gone down. Maybe the changes worked. Maybe we just got lucky.

But if the DSL line goes down again, we’re trying Comcast next for high-speed Internet. So maybe we’re not so loyal to AT&T after all. AT&T, are you listening?

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7 Responses to Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: My AT&T DSL Customer Service Experience

  1. Maz Iqbal May 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm (79 comments) #

    Hello Bob

    The short answer to your experience and the questions you ask is addressed in a recent post of mine:

    http://thecustomerblog.co.uk/2012/05/02/can-externalities-open-up-an-actionable-pathway-to-customer-service-customer-experience-design-and-customer-centricity/

    You are experiencing your needs end to end whereas AT&T only sees itself as being in the business of supplying lines/connections. Put differently you want a complete job done say like have a new house built whereas AT&T sees itself as supplying you with the indies for your house. Anything other than what AT&T supply (yet which you need) is simply an externality from AT&T perspective. The concrete example of that is the modem issue – as far as AT&T is your business and not an AT&T issue. This is classic product thinking.

    You ask why did AT&T sell you the line if they knew ithat there was likely to be an issue. First, they may simply have not known that. Second, your situation may be a rare occurrence and so it has not merited attention to address it. Most likely, the sales dept made the sale and the folks there get credit for the sale and do not live with the consequences – supplying with product, making sure it works, addressing your issues.

    Why dont they give a free modem costing USD50? Most likely someone did the numbers and worked out it is not cost efficient remember the Ford Pinto where he calculations showed it was cost efficient to let people die and then payout to he ones that one the case in court? Bob you are simply a number in a spreadsheet, you are not a fellow human being, that is simply what is.

    What could have AT&T done differently? That in Wittgensteins view would simply be called a pointless question. Thevfactbis that AT&T functioned perfectly – it did what it was designed to do and could not have done anything other than what it did. The smarter question is this: given that you are the person whose needs have not been met why are still with AT&T? By continuing with AT&T you have voted with your wallet for AT&T organisational design! You are the one that is signalling in the language of finance that it is ok for AT&T to carry on as is. You are responsible, I wrote a post about this exact issue:

    http://maziqbal.net/2012/04/27/want-to-live-an-extraordinary-life-and-show-up-as-leader-then-get-to-grips-with-and-live-from-the-following-distinctions-and-insights/

    All the best
    Maz

  2. Bob Thompson May 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm (875 comments) #

    Maz, it’s a harsh truth but you’re right. So long as customers don’t “vote with their wallets” then nothing will change.

    In my area there is a duopoly competing for TV/internet/phone business — AT&T and Comcast. They have similar capabilities and pricing, albeit different approaches to delivering their services.

    Sad to say, but my expectation is that a Comcast service experience would be pretty much the same. Maybe worse, judging by their customer satisfaction ratings.
    http://www.defefx.com/comcast-vs-att-u-verse/

    For now, I’d say the AT&T is trying hard to do a good job improving individual experiences, but hasn’t grappled with cross-channel issues or truly dealing with the customer’s complete solution. But maybe they will as they mature.

  3. Colin Shaw May 21, 2012 at 7:28 am (39 comments) #

    I am sorry to say Bob but this doesn’t surprise me. I used to work for BT before setting up Beyond Philosophy ten years ago. In that ten years I don't see a lot of progress on being more Customer focussed.

    We have recently undertaken new research in Telecoms. The biggest surprise to me was when we asked Telecoms companies "Which Telecoms company do you most for CE ?” There was a deafening silence.

    I can totally appreciate your feeling of 'doubt'. This, unfortunately is a common emotion that organizations generate. Do you think this is what they want to generate? Obviously not, but their actions have led you to feel this way. In my view there is a massive opportunity for someone to get the CE right in the CE space. But they will need to look outside of their industry for examples.

  4. Adrian Swinscoe May 22, 2012 at 4:18 am (36 comments) #

    Hi Bob,
    I understand your frustration and growing doubt but it seems your provider doesn’t empathise with your concerns. Seems to me like someone in their organisation needs to take a more strategic view of this issue and figure out how much it has cost them to try and deal with your issue rather than invest in new equipment for you as a loyal customer. I am sure that the amount of time that they have spent (cost of man hours) is way more than the $50 they could have spent on a new piece of equipment for you and is testament to how organisations get stuck in their silos and their ‘this is how we do it around here’ mentality.

    Only when CE is elevated to a strategic and troubleshooting position will we see the returns on the opportunities that exist for many firms. Me, for one, I live in hope that that day will come sooner than later.

    Adrian

  5. Bob Thompson May 23, 2012 at 10:16 am (875 comments) #

    With all the talk about customer experience, it’s amazing to me that telecom operators are still making such little progress.

    Maybe it’s lack of real competition. Maybe cross-channel CX is too complicated.

    You’re right, it is a massive opportunity. I wonder when the right leader will emerge to capture it.

  6. Bob Thompson May 23, 2012 at 10:21 am (875 comments) #

    My guess is that AT&T has made some progress, but is still stuck in the optimizing silos phase. Each group has its own objectives, but they lose sight of the bigger picture – me.

    The sad thing is that I would have given an excellent rating after nearly every interaction I’ve had with AT&T reps. They are well trained, courteous and seem motivated to do the right job.

    And yet, when you put all the pieces together, it didn’t add up to a highly satisfied or loyal customer.

  7. Bob Thompson June 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm (875 comments) #

    After more than a month after the flurry of activity by AT&T, I’m happy to report that our DSL has been stable.

    It’s not clear exactly what “fixed” the reliability problem. Maybe it was the adjustments made by the technician. Maybe it was the new modem I installed. Maybe AT&T did something else back at the home office.

    But still, without a concerted effort on the part of all concerned (including me), the problem would not have been solved.

    I wish AT&T had a monitoring device that would help them “see” the experience that its users are getting. If the connection is dropping intermittently, AT&T could then be proactive in contacting customers and trying to fix problems that customers may not (yet) be complaining about. Being proactive, rather than waiting for customers to complain, would really set them apart.

    Another approach would be integrate a brief survey into the usage experience. Like Skype. Right after a call, I get a short survey asking about the quality of the call, with five buttons from Excellent (5 stars) to Very Bad (1 star). If anything other than excellent is selected, then Skype presents a list of 12 different specific problems with checkboxes. Depending on which checkbox is selected, Skype gives some links to explain why the problem may be occurring and what to do about it.

    Calling, or visiting a web site, to complain is a barrier to feedback. Make it easy like Skype! Then AT&T would have some data it could correlated with, say, the the age or type of modems customers are using (assuming they collect this info during the setup).

    Of course, all of this presupposes that AT&T really cares about doing more than solving problems the customers report. That’s important, for sure. But if they want to “delight” customers and build advocates, they need to be more creative and proactive.

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