We hope you enjoyed excellent customer service, 25% of the time

Editor's Corner Dan Frankel

It was yet another row in my uneasy 14-year relationship with AT&T.

In late June, we sold our home in West Adams, near Downtown Los Angeles, and moved 12 miles up the freeway system to Glendale. I wanted to transition my terrible 6 Mbps DSL service to a more respectable 75 Mbps product. I was sticking with AT&T — I didn’t have a lot of time to shop around. And we’re hopefully going buy another home and move again soon, so I wasn’t willing to get locked into a contract.

The initial call with a friendly AT&T domestic call-center rep on June 29 was smoothly — took only around 10 minutes to execute on the plan. The friendly rep with a vaguely Southern accent said an AT&T tech would be out to my new place on Tuesday, July 5 to set up our new service. That would be a work day, but I could get by in the morning using a bridge — or a local Starbucks — until the installer showed up.

But things escalated quickly. I was notified via email by AT&T that my order wasn’t completed, and I needed to call back. It was a busy week, and by the time I got around to responding, it was Saturday, on the Fourth of July holiday weekend. I ended up talking to a rep at what sounded like an overseas call center, who told me the soonest a tech could install my new service would be July 12.

“I can’t go a week without the internet,” I told him, consumed by my little First World problem. “Both my wife and I work from home. The internet is an essential utility.”

And besides, I was told that I’d get hooked up July 5. We based plans on that.

The rep assured me there was absolutely nothing he could do. After a back-and-forth, I finally asked to speak to a supervisor. The rep told me to hang on, then hung up on me.

Angry, a little desperate —  but also somewhat fascinated by the willful ineptitude — I called back, spoke to a different rep at what sounded like the same call center, and ended up with a nearly identical result. Fooled twice but apparently unashamed, I tried a third time. I was again told by the rep that he was utterly powerless to affect U.S. technician schedules. I implored him not to hang up on me as he transferred me to a supervisor. I was placed on indefinite hold this time.

With gloves off and four-letter words filling my head, I called back a fourth time — got the same or similarly situated call center — and spoke to a female rep this time. Like the others, she said she was sorry I was frustrated and not enjoying excellent service. The paralyzing ennui I’ve experienced since childhood. My fear of abandonment but inability to truly connect. My growing middle-age dread of mortality. She understood. She was sorry. For all of it. She put me on hold, but — to my astonishment — actually made a phone call and addressed the issue. A technician would visit my home on Wednesday, July 7.

That would work for me. The solution was there all along. And AT&T’s offshore service vendor was willing to provide it for me, 25 percent of the time I asked. 

But AT&T is hardly alone in regard to the customer service issue. Stepping back, I wondered, why, oh, why do these types of things happen so often in the telecom industry, where billions of dollars are spent on network infrastructure and customer premises equipment, and executives wax on for cumulative hours during quarterly earnings calls about the impact of “customer experience” on churn and the overall bottom line, even though they never seem to be asked about customer service improvements by analysts?

Why is customer service so hard for these guys?

Taking this issue directly to AT&T’s PR firm, I was given a no comment. I sought out answers from analysts.

Scott Broetzmann, president and CEO of research company Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, was careful not to single out the telecom industry as specifically having terrible customer service. But when the company conducts its “Customer Rage Surveys,” services like pay TV and wireless calling have solicited the strongest responses from consumers.

“In an industry like the communications sector, it is true there are plenty of complicated problems that aren’t going to be easily solved,” Broetzmann told me.

He added that large companies tend to view customer service in three ways: some embrace it as a qualitative component of the overall product they’re offering; there are those who see it as just a marketing asset; and there are those who view it merely as a cost center.

Broetzmann refused an overture to condemn telecom as a bastion full of the latter.

But certainly, change is hard.

Comcast publicly declared 15 months ago that it would spend $300 million on new customer service tools, training, personnel and call centers. Progress has been made. When the American Customer Satisfaction Index released its latest consumer survey results in late May, the telecom industry was again at the bottom. Comcast wasn’t near the top of the industry, but it was no longer at the bottom, either.

“We do see continued and significant progress across all of our metrics,” Tom Karinshak, head of customer service for the MSO, told me. “For now, we’re working on continuing our plan, keeping our heads down, and still recognizing that we have a lot of work to do.”

So $300 million only gets you your head down and a long way to go? Change is hard.

“It takes a long time for these things to take root,” Broetzmann said. “You’re trying to change the entire culture.”

Are overseas call centers the problem, I wondered?

During Charter Communications’ second-quarter earnings call this week, President and CEO Tom Rutledge noted the company’s ongoing “insourcing” process, in which it will hire 20,000 domestic workers and ditch outside vendors. The process has already started, he said, with the hiring of 600 workers for a Spanish-language call center in McAllen, Texas.

“Ultimately, with a more local workforce, we'll perform higher quality transactions with customers, which we expect will improve customer satisfaction, reduce transactions and costs and extend average customer lives thereby growing our customer base and cash flow efficiently,” Rutledge said.

For his part, Broetzmann says the problem isn’t with outside call centers. If a company hasn’t invested in developing good processes, training and technology to deliver service, “it’s garbage in, garbage out,” not matter who answers the phone.

It all comes back to the culture, he added. Those who don’t have it “float in the wind.”

And they’re probably right about 25 percent of the time. -- Daniel