Friday, October 03, 2003


Intractable service problems with large companies? Go right to the top. Call corporate headquarters. Personal experience shows this works 66 percent of the time -- meaning it’s worked two of the three times I’ve had to do it.


Yes, praise be. I’m breaking free of Cingular Wireless.

I was resigned to suffering through another nine or 10 month of wretched service -- the kind that has me begging people to call on a land line, and calling people back on a land line when they call me on the cell phone. But Cingular had to push it.

Here’s what happened:

For some reason, when I signed up for Cingular service, I was given one plan and, two weeks later, mysteriously switched to another. The first let me make calls from anywhere without roaming fees, and when I traveled to Maine and California this past summer, I made a bunch; the second charged me roaming fees, so every call I made from Maine and California cost plenty. My bill for that month was around $250, while my typical bill is about $50. Ouch.

I didn’t know about the switch in service until I called Sept. 8 to ask just what plan I was on. I frankly don’t know which plan I’d ordered, so I was prepared to suck it up and pay the bill. But I wanted to know why the plan had been changed.

Cingular offered to adjust my bill (downward, as the customer service representative couldn’t explain the switch in service either) but couldn’t say immediately what I would have to pay for that month. I waited a day or two for a call, but got none. I called back, worried about the looming Sept. 29 due date for my bill, and was told it would take seven to 10 days to figure out how much I’d have to pay -- but I would know in plenty of time to pay.

On Oct. 1, I still hadn’t heard back, which means I hadn’t paid anything and my bill, through no fault of my own, was late. Calling Cingular to find out what was going on, I found that not only had no action been taken on my bill, but I had been assessed a late fee for not paying on time. I freaked out, of course, and spent an hour on the telephone suffering various indignities too boring to deserve much detail.

Most striking was that during the several times Cingular put me on hold that first hour, even when I demanded they not, they lost me twice. This requires calling back and going through the entire process again, including waiting on hold for someone to pick up the phone and explaining the entire problem all over again. You must do this even though all information about you and your ongoing problem is supposed to be displayed on the customer service rep’s computer screen.

"There's nothing direct in this company," a customer service rep said coldly.

After the second time I was put on hold and found myself holding a dead phone, I tried to call corporate headquarters for Cingular, which is somewhere in Atlanta.

Right: “somewhere.” Good luck trying to reach it.

The company’s Web site is unhelpful, and information gave me eight numbers, none of which worked. (One was a fax machine; one never picked up; one call “cannot be completed as dialed”; one was a “conference bridge” requiring a security code; one was, similarly, an emergency conference number; et cetera.) I understand that a huge company such as Cingular doesn’t want to be bothered by its icky customers, who call up and make unreasonable and unrealistic demands probably about, oh, better service. But, frankly, being unable to reach the corporate headquarters of a company is creepy. It’s something you expect of a top-secret intelligence agency, not a phone company, and it just raises the horror-movie image of a clumsy, angry body walking around without a head.

I called the company’s media relations offices, which are listed on the company Web site, and went down the list until I found someone who actually picked up her own phone. I ranted to her for a while, and she promised to get someone from the president’s office to call me back. When that finally happened, I was so sputtering mad over the company’s incompetence and secrecy that I simply demanded to be let out of my contract.

The president’s representative balked at first, asking instead what the company could do to retain me as a happy customer, but I told her that in explaining why I wanted out, I’d just said what it could do, and that was, basically, to do everything differently and better. Never mind the bad sound of their phone lines, I said, or their failure to live up to promises or even prevent a late fee from being added, but how can I have any faith in a telephone company that can’t even keep someone on hold?

Her fatal mistake was that she’d called me on my cell phone. At times, I couldn’t hear her. She sounded distant, her voice dropped out, and the line was staticky.

In the end, she agreed to let me out of the many months remaining on my contract. My roaming fees from Maine and California were dropped. All I had to do was pay two months’ of service and return my phone.


The Cingular experience was similar to my experience years earlier with AT&T, which had been my local as well as long-distance carrier during the first year I lived in Connecticut. When I moved from Derby to Middletown, though, I found that AT&T was leaving the local business, so I would have to find a different carrier at my new address. But I kept the company for long-distance, I think, and for phone card services.

Months passed before I stopped to really look at my AT&T bills, finding they were very high and packed with calls to and from an area code in which I no longer lived. A call to the company conformed that my service in Derby had never been shut off; whoever moved into my apartment discovered this and happily made an impressive amount of phone calls on my dime. The customer service representative I spoke with was very helpful, even giving me an estimate of the hundreds of dollars I would get back from the company for the local and long-distance calls made from my old phone line since I’d called to tell them I was moving.

But more months passed, and I kept getting bills for the old service. Every time I got a bill, I called up to find out what was going on. I kept being told that the complication was that the calls were local and long-distance, and those were two distinct divisions of the company (even though I recall the bills being consolidated). As the months wore on, this seemed less and less my problem and more and more a bizarrely lame excuse for what is arguably the largest applied high-tech company in the world -- the old they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon argument.

My co-workers were amused by my calls, which were increasingly fraught with tension and invective. They seemed to relish the calls, made from my desk in the center of the newsroom, because from their side it just sounded like an hourlong experiment in low-volume, high-intensity insult, but with the volume rising by a notch every month.

I was hardly so amused. I decided that calling the customer service number on the bills was counterproductive. Instead, I tracked down the phone number of AT&T headquarters and called the office of the highest-level executive I could find. I discovered that, apparently just like Cingular, the president’s office retained its own elite customer service representatives -- the Special Ops of the customer service corps -- and, from this high level, the walls between local and long-distance divisions were insubstantial and irrelevant. Within a day I had my resolution. The check was on its way.

I told the elite customer service rep that I would never, ever use AT&T for anything again. So, with Cingular, that’s two companies down.


Despite what it sounds like from the examples above, Apple’s customer service department is the worst I’ve encountered, solely because -- beyond the arrogance and unhelpfulness of its front-line representatives -- its very structure prevents the solving of problems, or at least the knowledge that a problem has been solved.

Callers’ complaints are typed into a database that “management teams look at from time to time,” a customer service rep told me, and “as issues need to be addressed, they are.” This really means that a customer with a complaint is never contacted to be told that a problem has been fixed, or even considered. Problems are not necessarily dealt with quickly and may not be dealt with at all.

What’s worse about this is that Apple’s technical support department is about 95 percent wonderful; it was just a customer service representative that I had a problem with. I asked for the rep’s superior and left a message with her saying that I wished to speak with her, but that if I couldn’t, I didn’t wish to be called by anyone. I got a call back -- from the original customer service rep. I tried again and had yet another bad experience with a representative. I tried once more and, in a final wretched experience, was at last told that the manager doesn’t talk to customers, because she’s too busy, so I really had no choice but to complain about the department and a customer service representative ... to a customer service representative working for that department.

This is like getting bad service in a restaurant and wanting to complain to a manager or maitre d’ but having the manager send the same server back to the table. Or another server, who admitted to being a friend of the first one.

To show what a bad idea this was, I not only called Apple headquarters, but told a contact there that I was going to send letters to the editors of Consumer Reports, MacAddict and Macworld magazines (which I did), stay away from the Apple store in my hometown that holiday season and instead gave my money to MacWarehouse and Staples (which I did, enclosing receipts showing Apple it had lost more than $266) and buy Apple stock (which I did) so I could be at the next shareholders’ meeting (which I wasn’t) specifically to complain about the customer service system.

I also listed all my connections in business journalism and noted that “if any of these journalists need examples of poor customer service in the technology sector, or context for an article having to do with any future poor quarterly or annual results for Apple, my information can be of help.”

“All I want,” I told them, “is for someone at Apple to contact me with the news that it is acknowledged that the company’s customer service system is arrogant, unhelpful and alienating, and that this should and will change.”

Apple, damn it, was unfazed. And since it is the anti-monopoly monopoly, I had no recourse but to stick with them and keep buying their products -- which generally work very well. I still feel its attitude is dangerous and wrong for a company to have, especially one that claims as little of the market as Apple does, but this is one of the few companies in the world whose misbehavior I have to accept.

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