Memo to AT&T: Get with the times

Fierce competition on the way could mean a welcome attitude adjustment

I don’t often use this column to share warnings about companies whose business practices leave me (and others, no doubt) feeling used and abused. But one can only take so much. So, here goes.

You see, when I was younger I used to fantasize about how to get my complaint to the top of such companies, in hopes the CEO would take his or her underlings to the woodshed. One flight of fancy involved a scenario in which I’d find myself seated right next to a CEO on a long plane ride. The CEO would have the window seat, I’d have the middle, and I’d read him the riot act about his company’s inexcusable behavior. And of course he could forget about making any trips to the bathroom!

Alas, it never worked. CEOs always tend to favor first class. And I’ve since mellowed out about the few companies I hated most.

But there’s one bad experience I keep having over and over that is so deeply rooted and so offensive, I must speak out. I’m referring to telephone companies — and in this case, specifically AT&T. These companies were the only game in town for so long that they just can’t shake the take-our customers-to-the-cleaners mentality.

Their traditional landline business now faces fierce competition from cable and VoIP providers. Ironically, they respond by segmenting their base into customers they need to fight to save, and customers they feel safe about whom they continue to milk egregiously.

So, I’ll just pretend I’m in first class, sitting next to Ed Whitacre (CEO of the new AT&T, formerly SBC). I’ve been a company customer for 10 years — 10 years full of bad or non-existent ISDN and then DSL support, voicemail jail, ever-changing rate plans, and billing gotchas. I would delight in telling him that he and his colleagues have truly outdone themselves.

Recently I tried canceling three AT&T services I had subscribed to: international calling (so I had the option to call London for less than $4 per minute); an 800-number service (that I thought it would be fun to try out); and Wi-Fi hotspot services (for which I had signed up at an airport). I never could get the hotspot service to work as expected — still, that didn’t stop the bill for $2 per month showing up like clockwork for two long years, despite my complaints.

All three services added up to $10 per month — enough to warrant a phone call to cancel the whole lot. I was told by the rep that I’d have to cancel each separately — which meant dealing with three separate departments. I quickly got bounced around from one to the next — a laborious, repetitive, and not terribly convincing cancellation process, despite an elapsed time of more than an hour.

Sure enough, three months later, all three charges are still appearing on my bill. Here’s a company that’s in effect telling me in very plain terms: We own you. Therefore, we can ignore you, take advantage of you, and further insult you by assuming that you’ll continue to put up with our arrogant business practices.

As an aside, I won’t even mention (yes, I will) that the company sends me e-mails every week advertising super fast DSL for less than $20. I know better than to get my hopes up, so I still manage to get in a call, only to be told I’m too far from the central office DSLAM and can only get the slowest service (“up to” 786Kbps) … in the heart of San Francisco!

So my message to AT&T is this: Change the way you provide service to customers before they all bail. Your gotcha approach may have worked throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but times have changed. Think about these three words: negative brand equity. What goes around comes around. You’ve no time to lose.