When I worked closely with Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine, the authors of the customer experience book Outside In, I learned how most customer experience problems are rooted deep within corporate systems. That’s what happened to me this week in an interaction with AT&T.
The odyssey of dropping a line from AT&T
My son, a recent college graduate, has started a job and moved to his own apartment. He’s eager to take charge of his own finances, which includes his mobile phone bill, while keeping the same phone number. (It is some sort of a right of passage when you separate your mobile phone account from Mom and Dad.)
He showed me that there is a a link on the AT&T site to start the process: “Transfer of billing responsibility.”
That looked pretty simple, so I started it.
AT&T helpfully tells you what the bill will look like after you drop a line. Their graphic clearly showed that there would be a $35 a month difference. And I almost missed the startling fact that that would be a $35 per month increase, because that couldn’t be right, could it?
This was a mystery: why, when you drop from four phones to three, does the cost per line rise from $15 per line to $40 per line?
So, of course, I called customer service — after which I was prompted to pick an option for why I was calling. Nothing seemed to make sense, so I picked “billing.”
After a few minute I got on the line with “Ash” who was extremely talkative with a thick Indian accent. He wouldn’t shut up, in fact, despite the fact that he wasn’t saying anything helpful. There is something very frustrating about a customer service rep that talks when he can’t actually help.
Ash eventually transferred me and after five minutes on hold I was talking to “Brian” in the “Transfer of Billing Responsibility Department.” Brian said he’d look into it. He said his computer was being slow. And we waited for the information to show up on his computer for five solid minutes.
Eventually, he told me that there were some discounts that the new graphic didn’t account for, and that most likely I wouldn’t end up paying more after the transfer than before. I pressed him on that — could he guarantee it? He was unwilling to do so. He just said, “Don’t worry about it.”
We have completed the transfer and I just checked the monthly bill information on AT&T’s site. What do you think — am I going to pay more or less now that I have three lines instead of four?
Well, here’s what it says on the site:
It looks like I’m going to save $15 per month. But I’m not very confident in the result.
Customer experience, systems, and trust
Telecom companies consistently end up at the bottom of Forrester’s customer experience rankings. But it’s instructive to look into why AT&T had this problem, and what it means for them.
Why did the original query on their site, using their transfer-of-billing-responsibility tool, show that my bill would go up by $35? Some system within AT&T was incapable of recalculating the bill with the appropriate discounts. If that system had worked properly, I never would have even gotten on the phone with AT&T’s customer service.
Why was “Ash” unable to help? Because the phone response system was unable to recognize that I needed to talk to somebody in the “Transfer of Billing Responsibility” Department. (I still hold him — or whoever trained him — responsible for the fact that he couldn’t help but wouldn’t shut up.)
Why was “Brian” unable to give me the assurances that I needed? Because his own customer service application was unresponsive and he couldn’t get at the information he needed.
In each case, the root cause of the problem was that systems within AT&T functioned in such a way as to undermine customer trust.
And trust is the issue. I’ve been an AT&T mobile customer — with the same phone number — since 1995. That’s 26 years! I’m carrying four lines with them and have been for at least five years. I’ve used their service all over the world. All that information is in their systems somewhere.
At this point, I have no confidence that my bill will end up being what Brian promised it would be, or what the AT&T customer web site says it will be. Nothing that happens now will surprise me. I have no idea what to expect.
I’m thinking it’s time to bolt. And I never would have considered that, if only their systems had functioned in a rational way.