My Schizophrenic Experience at AT&T

25May12

I recently left AT&T and thought I would share my perspective on this cell phone carrier as an insider.

I worked as a Retail Sales Consultant and spent time in two stores. I have a unique perspective on AT&T and it’s largest cell phone manufacturer, Apple, because I worked for Apple for nearly five years. In fact I worked for both AT&T and Apple at the same time for several months.

It was clear, from the start of my employment, that AT&T envied the success of the Apple retail stores. Upper management was keenly aware of Apple’s emphasis on the “customer experience” and were actively trying to transform it’s retail experience.

I credit those leaders at AT&T for recognizing their retail experience as being just a few steps short of water boarding for many customers, and taking steps to improve it.

Changing the culture of 1,900 odd retail stores with an entrenched, unionized, commissioned sales force is an ambitious undertaking. It’s like turning around an aircraft carrier, while wrestling with the crew for control of the ship’s wheel.

In the two plus years I was there, the company made huge strides in the retail stores. They tried to elicit customer feedback via survey delivered in a variety of formats. The surveys were not perfect, they sometimes caused more customer irritation than provided valid feedback, but it was an effort.

In my store, I saw several reps who could not or would not improve the quality of their customer interactions let go. They were never terminated for treating customers badly because there was no mechanism for doing so. They were let go for a variety of reasons, but the undercurrent was clear – take care of the customers or we’ll be gunning for you.

AT&T worked hard at improving their systems but it was so awkward to process an upgrade that it was virtually impossible to get a customer in and out of the store in less than 30 minutes – and it was often a 60 plus minute ordeal.

The schizophrenic part began when AT&T eliminated the unlimited data plans for smart phones – when I say “smart phone” you should read “iPhone.” The policy was for all smart phones, but it was the iPhone users who were using the bulk of the data services. I think we’re all familiar with the network capacity issues AT&T struggled with in the first few years of iPhone exclusivity.

AT&T grandfathered the unlimited data plans that were already in place but new smartphone activations were given a choice of 200MB or 2GB of data per month. They also added a tethering feature that, while not unlimited, gave users the capacity to share their data connection with laptops at a premium price

At the retail level, we were told “only about 2% of all iPhone users ever exceed 2GB of data in a month.”

Fast forward a year, and the company is requiring that 15% of all smartphone users be enrolled in the tethering data plans. In that year I had sold a grand total of 3 tethering plans and suddenly the sales reps are being compelled to push 15% of their smartphone customers into data plans that are overkill for almost everyone.

What happened to the 2%?

Did everyone suddenly start using gobs and gobs of data more than last year?

That was the first signal that things had changed. Later it was a push to sell tablets and their associated data plans and accessories.

We saw the virtual elimination of the basic phone. At one time, the retail sales reps in my store were not allowed to acknowledge that we still AT&T as the evil empirecarried flip phones.

We were encouraged to push people into smart phones with data plans instead of the texting “feature” phones that dominated the store for years.

AT&T developed it’s own version of an extended support program for smart phones in conjunction with their insurance provider – including iPhones. As a result, the commissions for Applecare were slashed by 50% for the reps. Despite the customer-facing employees insistence that Apple provided better support for their phones than AT&T could ever hope to provide, we were incentivized to push the AT&T protection package anyway.

The result was a 40% to 100% increase in the cost of insurance and support for cell phones and, in the case of iPhones, a vastly inferior user experience.

It was profits not user experience that won out.

That’s who finally got control of the ships wheel, the folks more interested in quarterly profits than the long term growth of the company.

The good ship AT&T had turned but not in a direction favorable to the customer. There was a brief time when it looked possible that AT&T might be able to transform itself into the Apple of the cell phone industry, but it reverted to form – and reverted with a vengeance.

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2 Responses to “My Schizophrenic Experience at AT&T”

  1. I feel like this post cut out right in the middle or something. Like you were about to go on and on about the atrocities at att and why you quit and all that and then it just stopped. Oh well

  2. 2 David M

    AT&T’s customer service is absolutely garbage


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