Friday, March 27, 2015

Why dealing with AT&T Customer Service is the worst (business DSL and phone edition)

I have lived in third world countries and worked for governments. I have never experienced any organization being as disorganized and dishonest as AT&T, per my experience yesterday.

The non-profit I volunteer for has telephone and internet through AT&T, the only option in a rural area. I will skip the story of 2014's hassle with customer service except to share the highlight that the operator I spoke with (an American) did not recognize the name "Cincinnati," and asked me to pronounce it. In short, we only want internet and do not want our telephone line but it was significantly cheaper for us to keep it as a phone (with long distance) + DSL bundle, so we had little choice. That was August, 2014.

We received a letter in March 2015, an excerpt of which I paste below.

Note the line that says "a new term with the same rate, with the same terms and conditions, will commence on 6/25/2015." (emphasis mine)
Since we had negotiated with them in August on the plan, I thought June was a little soon for the expiration. But I called to see if it might be a time where we could drop our phone line and get on a new internet-only plan for less money and just to confirm that there would be no changes as we'd already budgeted the $80/month they had promised us in August.

Keep in mind: We have never seen a copy of a contract (much less signed one), or know exactly what discounts we have or don't have-- all we get is a bill and have to believe what they tell us about the contract whenever we call. (That's red flag #1.)

On my first call, I spoke with "K" who informed me that while our DSL expired in June, our phone line was due to expire in April, and we might see an increase in charges that month. We would definitely see an increase in charges after June because we were receiving a promotional discount that would disappear in the renewed contract.

Me: "But I'm holding a letter from AT&T right here that says 'same rate, with the same terms and conditions.'" You're telling me this letter is not accurate?

K: "Your contract rate stays the same, but the discount is not part of your contract. Your bill will go from $80/month to $110/month after June. And it will be more if you want long distance on your phone."

Me: "Why isn't that information in the letter? This definitely makes me believe my rate won't change. We definitely have long distance now. And you're telling me that it may also go up after April? Why does our phone have a different expiration, and why haven't we received notification about it?"

K: "I understand it's frustrating. I don't know why you were given a discount in August, it must have been something randomly available at that time. You shouldn't have that discount. AT&T actually does not do contracts anymore, but everyone who was previously on a contract was kept on the contract. Your contract's rate is set to go up after June and you will lose your discount. That is how your contract works." (Red flag #2)

Me: "That's not good enough. This letter clearly says that the contract rate is not going up. We can't afford an additional $180 for the year when we were promised $80/month in August."

That got me an "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do." I explained that we didn't really want the phone line, only wanted internet. I just needed to know the best deal I could possibly get from June forward.

K: "I can sign you up for our U-Verse service, it runs on a different line than the DSL. You'll still have your phone service in a bundle, but it will all be under U-Verse and not separate contracts. You'll have the same speed internet (6mbps). It will be $80/month, the same price you pay now."

Me: "Okay, I can agree to that." (I repeated all the above back to her to make sure I understood.)

K: "I need your tax ID#, and we can get it set up right away. But we need to move fast because rates could go up this week." (Red flag #3)

I didn't have it on-hand, so I asked her to call me back in the morning. In the meantime, I found it and called back. She didn't give me her extension, so I just called the same 800# on the letter. The person I spoke to ("A") did not know her, but offered to help.

A: "Okay, I see in the notes here that 'K' offered to sign you up for our U-Verse. Uh, oh, it looks like she quoted you the wrong price. The service is $85/month, but you also have to pay the modem fee which is $10/month. That's $95/month."

Me: "She clearly quoted me $80/month, and would have signed me up at that price if I'd had the EIN handy. I can just wait until she calls me back..."

I went through the same spiel-- I didn't want a phone line in the first place.

A: "Well, let me see what I can do." *pause* "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't know why she quoted you that price. Well, let me see. Do you just want 6 mbps? Ah, okay, I was putting in 12 mpbs. It looks like we can move you from DSL to U-Verse for $60/month plus tax. Just call and cancel your phone after the technician comes, and you'll only have the $60/month to worry about. So, your bill for the year will go down."

Me: "Really? Even better."

A brings on "DS, Billing Supervisor" to confirm my order. I repeat all of the above. She confirms that our phone contract expires in April. AT&T will call before sending a technician out, etc. Before we hang up I make sure to get A's extension if there is a problem later. DS then tries to sell me a "free" tablet with $15/month wireless service (Red flag #4), which I decline.

An hour later, my phone rings.

A: "Sir, this is A. I want to apologize to you for the misinformation you were given today. 'K' is here with us now so she can hear this as well, we frown on giving our customers the wrong information (note this sentence later as it turns out to be a bold-faced lie). We were incorrect-- your phone line's contract doesn't expire in April, it expires in September. So, if you switch to U-Verse and then cancel your phone you'll be paying the $60/month plus the early termination fee on the phone-- $150. (Red flag #5, neither AT&T nor myself knows when my land line's contract ends. See below.)
My advice would be for you to call back in June and make the switch, that way you won't pay any early termination fees for your DSL (which they neglected to mention before) and a smaller fee for your phone's early termination."

I agreed and hung up. I had now wasted a couple of hours with two calls and three people and nothing changed.

30 minutes later I get another phone call, it's K, the woman I spoke to the first time.

K: "Sir, did you ever find your Tax ID#? We need to make this move now because I just found out rates are going to go up tonight."

Me: "K, I was just on the phone with you all twice. In fact, you just called me back with A. She said you were sitting right there."

K: "What?"

Me: "Well, earlier in the day they told me that you had quoted me the wrong price and forgot to throw in the modem fee. They said the best I could do was $95/month with your package...."

K: *frustrated* "Let me see what department they were in! They have no idea what I can quote for you or can't quote for you. It was $80/month."

She looked up the notes and saw I had been offered the U-verse internet-only at $60/month.

Me: "But they just called me back and said you were on the line with them since you'd make the previous mistake."

*K snickers annoyedly*

Me: "They also said our phone line doesn't expire until September, so we should wait until June to make the switch."

K: "No, they're incorrect. Your phone line definitely doesn't expire in September, it expires in April. Our U-Verse rates are going up tonight, so won't be able to get that deal then anyway. But let me check one more thing...."


K: "Okay, I see now that in August the discount on your bill was set to stay on the bill for 36 months. It looks like it applies to your phone as well. You will be paying $80/month until August, 2017. So, I don't think you could save money by switching to U-Verse now. My advice would be to stay with that."

Me: "Seriously? 2017? Why didn't we know that before?"

K: "I had to check the information in a different system. I didn't know that before."

Me: "Okay, so no changes."

K: "I hope you have a nice day, sir."

The other red flag (#6) about AT&T is the comment they make to you at the end of the call about possibly receiving a survey about their effectiveness and that the survey is about the operator, not about AT&T. They ask you tell them that you're "completely satisfied" with the service you received. It's not the operator's fault that the entire system is screwy, everyone I dealt with was pleasant enough in conversation and tone.

So, it appears that whenever you call the 800# you end up in departments that don't talk to each other, on systems that have different information, and that one person is authorized to offer discounts that others can't. And that they don't understand what you've been offered previously. There is no central repository of information or a document confirming all rates and discounts-- no actual contract document containing that information which has been signed by the customer. I was quoted multiple prices and told previous quotes were not possible. I was called back and told I'd been given wrong information only to be told later that this was also incorrect. I was verifiably lied to at least once. 2.5 hours, ending up in exactly the same place as I was before. 

I still have no idea when my phone line actually expires. I fully expect to see a rate increase before 2017 and my organization will have to repeat the above conversation. That's why I posted this-- these are the notes. Believe me, if they didn't have a monopoly on internet in our location we would switch in a heartbeat.

I've dealt with getting a green card in Moldova, the Medicaid system in the U.S., residency and a work permit in Azerbaijan and Turkey, and other such hassles in the paper-based former Soviet Union and have never come across anything this bad.

*UPDATE* 4/9/15. I received a call from the "President's Office" last week letting me know a representative would be contacting me the following day, and that the President's Office would follow up later to make sure my questions were answered. That represenative, "S," assured me that the telephone contract ran September-September (not April) and that our rates were good at $80/month until 2017. When I asked if I could have a copy of our contract in writing, she explained that "all of our contracts are verbal" (red flag #7), but that we could see most of our account information online. The discount we're getting that makes it $80/month does not show up online because they no longer offer it. She gave us a specific email and phone number to call if there were any issues in the future. The President's Office rep called me a few days later to confirm that my questions had been answered. (He did not ask if I was satisfied, that's another matter.)

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