Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Supersize me, the AT&T way

File this under "etc."

I had one simple goal -- add a line to my AT&T family wireless plan for my son. I know, I know, I did check other carriers' plans and deals, since my contract with AT&T ran out long ago. But for various reasons I decided to stay with them. Why trade a known headache for an unknown one? Anyway, I went online with every intention of being finished in the space of 10 minutes. How naïve...

I wanted to get a basic plan, with just voice and minimal text messaging -- say 20 texts per month -- so that he can reach us in case of an emergency, but not abuse this disembodied conversation mode. And you would think that it would be easy to get this, right? Well, not so much. The only text option that came up on the screen was unlimited texting for $20/month. This was infinitely more than I needed, so I initiated a chat with a representative. He was effusively polite, and every time I volunteered information or responded to a question he thanked me very much for sharing this information. After several volleys, in which I thought I had conveyed my dilemma clearly and succinctly, he came back with "So, if I am understanding you correctly, you wish to change the text messaging plan on your phone." I did a rapid-fire "No, no, no," trying to get ahead of his rogue fingers as I imagined them poised to hit "change plan." You see, I am still traumatized from a recent experience with the cordial AT&T customer service representatives who "helped" me with an issue.

Just to give you the flavor for that episode, in the process of resolving a signal issue, they implemented such changes in my texting and data plans as to require several weeks of phone calls with the AT&T business office, a call and a correspondence with the Attorney General of Massachusetts, and a follow-up call with AT&T on the heels of their communication with the AG. So, no, I am not interested in having them "help" me with plan changes. I politely excused myself from the chat and decided to tackle it on my own.

But first I chose to distract myself from the problem at hand by doing another task that I had meant to do: increase my monthly minutes. This I was able to do without any glitches, and my success encouraged me to try again with the new line. Perhaps I missed something the first time?

Having considered my choices at this point, I made the decision that I would pay for a limited number of text messages for my son, at $.20/message, and this would take care of things. Smugly congratulating myself on such a creative solution, I went to complete the purchase. After addressing just a couple of minor issues stemming from the fact that my billing address is a PO Box and not a street address, and because lately everyone except the USPS has decided that I have played a joke on them by giving a non-existent address (don't get me started on the joys of living in rural America), I was almost home. I just needed to input my credit card information and... Wait a second! What's this? A credit check consent? I had to give them my social security number and consent to a credit check? Because I tacked an additional $9.99 monthly service fee to my (much larger than that) bill? After being a customer for nearly 6 years? After being able to up my monthly minutes by more than $9.99/month, without being subjected to a credit check?!!

Well, I did what anyone in my position would have done: I ignored this prompt hoping that it was optional. But it wasn't. Fill it in or else take yourself to a brick-and-mortar store to get this settled. Which is what I am choosing to do. But there is a larger moral here.

How did we get to this place, where our anti-trust protections have resulted in basically two gargantuan corporations essentially screwing the public in any way they see fit? Why do they get to dictate the devices and services that I need to purchase? How is this a free market? And how is it that this technology, whose intent is to make our lives so much easier, made me go through a bewildering amount of useless machinations only to end up with what? An offer to take my social security number and subject me to a credit check? Really?

And lest AT&T feel singled out by my rant, this is the trend with many events and purchases in life. Home insurance, for example, which, despite rising premiums, does not give you a penny towards rebuilding a retaining wall that collapses in a flood. In fact, the system is set up in such a way as to require you to file a claim, get it rejected and give the company the reason to fire you as a customer for filing too many claims. Health insurance (I don't have to remind you the galloping pace of the rise in those premiums), which covers less and less every year. Cable companies, computer manufacturers, automobile vendors, they are the ones that seem to know better than I what it is that I need, and they constantly and with impunity wrestle me into straightjackets of their packages. Where am I, the customer in all this? This old familiar strategy to maximize returns has been so successful in the food business that its legacy is the obesity epidemic, proliferation of chronic disease and shortening life spans. Is this really how we want to continue?  

I will get that line for my son, and I will get only what I need. I would prefer not to be so dependent on this stuff; alas, I am. But mark my words, there is enough bad taste building among my fellow humans to start exploring alternatives. I only wish that the government were really in the business of protecting its citizens from unethical practices rather than pandering to the highest bidder. I am ready to stop being viewed as a giant walking ROI potential, and start being respected as a citizen and a human. How about you?                


  1. Hi Marya- I am with AT&T and saw your post. We would like to assist with and answer any questions/concerns that you may have. Please email your contact information to one of our managers at attcatherinew@att.com and include your name in the subject line. Thanks.

  2. Thanks to all of you who tweeted and facebooked (as a verb?) me about this post. My impression that there is growing dissatisfaction out there with the way business is done is being confirmed.

    I wanted to update you all on what the follow-up has been. I e-mailed Cathy (see comment above) yesterday. Last night I got this message from her coworker:

    "Hi Dr. Zilberberg,

    Cathy is out of the office so I am reaching out on her behalf. In order for me to research your wireless account further, I would need either the account number or the mobile number in question. In additionally, a good contact number for you would be great.

    Once I receive the information, I will partner with a wireless customer service manager to see what we can possibly do.

    I do hate to see the frustration in your post. While I cannot guarantee, I will do my best to see what can be done to provide the extra line without the credit verification. Of course we will not make any changes without your consent.

    Please email your contact information, account number or mobile number to me at attannellem@att.com and include your name in the subject line. Please provide a best time to contact you. Thanks and have a good evening!


    ATTAnnelle M"

    OK, so again I am the one wasting my time having to contact yet another person because the original individual I was told to contact for customer service is not there? Wow!

    Nevertheless, this morning I e-mailed Annelle and let her know that I simply do not have the time to keep explaining the issue, and that unless she can do what I need without wasting my time, she should go ahead and let me know by mail. I reiterated what the issues were and also that this is a corporate culture problem that needs to be rethought in light of its ethical implications.

    Will let you know what happens.