Top Nav

How to Get Respect When You Call AT&T Customer Support to Complain About Your iPhone

Those purposefully contrived, labyrinth-like customer support lines can feel truly dehumanizing. And the more calls a company gets, the more contrived and frustrating the system gets. Anyone who has been an AT&T customer for any length of time knows this already. AT&T is notorious for its —from dropped calls and poor coverage to controversial —and ongoing issues like these keep the phones ringing ‘round the clock in their customer service call centers.

As such, getting what you want from AT&T’s customer support line can be quite a challenge. This is partly because the AT&T representative has a duty to follow a certain protocol that’s in the best interests of AT&T’s bottom-line. But here’s something that  most customers don’t realize:

There are written and unwritten rules of engagement for the caller that play a large role in whether or not you get satisfaction.  Following these rules could mean the difference between getting stonewalled for your legitimate complaint or receiving a fat discount for your trouble.

Recently, Reddit user TheBoomGuy hosted an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session revolving around his experience as an employee at Stream Global Services, one of the main contractors that handles AT&T’s call centers. In his AT&T customer support representative tell all, he gave the Reddit community some insider insight into the way things work at AT&T.  TheBoomGuy is based in the U.S. and is part of the Escalation Team. That means he’s the first person you talk to before you talk to a supervisor, but after you get through the first wave of customer support reps who can’t really do much for you.  The thread elicited over 600 questions/comments/responses and delved into big questions as well as some minutiae.  Some other former and current AT&T reps chimed in with their two cents, too. For your convenience, I’ve summarized the highlights below.

Spoiler alert: You already know the main takeaway from this article: Treat the person on the other end of the line with respect, and in most cases, you’ll receive respect in return. But there are some insider secrets that can fast track you to a resolution, discount or credit, or at least increase your chances for success.

Lesson 1: Don’t Fail the “Attitude Test”

AT&T Attitude Test - Tony KentCustomer support reps deal with lots of angry, rude and sometimes crazy people all day everyday. And more than a few of these callers have a massive sense of entitlement. Unsurprisingly, many have an informal system for gauging your attitude and rewarding or punishing you for it accordingly.

As TheBoomGuy says, “If you’re a ‘d###’ you get nothing. If you are nice you have a better chance.

He also says that he sometimes puts rude customers on hold on purpose. That’s probably so he or they can catch their breath and come back to the situation with a cool head.

“Can I Talk to Your Supervisor?”

Another big fallacy is that customers can expedite the resolution to their problem by snubbing the lower level guys and demanding to speak to a supervisor right away. The exact opposite is actually true. In this rep’s case, his supervisor sits in the next room from him—so when he has an obnoxious customer on the line, he’ll poke his head around the cubicle and give him a heads up: “Hey, this a$$hole wants to talk to you.” As you can imagine, this primes the supervisor’s willingness to go the extra mile to help you or not.

Sometimes, a rep will put you on hold while they run something by their manager. Most of the time, they actually are doing this. But if you tick them off, they may just pretend to.

Also, note that going to the rep’s supervisor doesn’t get them in trouble. It happens all the time, and in most cases, it’s because the customer is stubborn.

With all that being said, the supervisor will fulfill his or her professional obligation to field your request regardless of your attitude. But there are many situations where protocol allows them to decide one way or another without getting in trouble. That’s why you want to get on their good side.

You can believe what you want about customer representatives, but for the most part, they do genuinely want to help you. It’s easier on the nerves and job security for you to have a positive experience rather than a crumby one. So don’t assume that they are on a power trip. Try to work with the solutions they are offering you before you get salty.

One last “fun fact”: If you escalate to a supervisor and then ask to talk to the supervisor’s supervisor, you’ll usually just be transferred to another supervisor, rather than speaking to someone higher up.

Lesson 2: AT&T’s Got Your Number (Lifetime Value)

As someone who’s never worked in a customer support department, this concept fascinated me. AT&T, like many other companies, places a numerical value on each customer based on how lucrative their account is or will continue to be. When you are a brand new customer, you are assigned a customer number of 0. Keep paying your bill on time, buy a more expensive phone or plan and pick up some extra lines and you can bump your number up to about 3. Level 5 is the highest level and is reserved for big business accounts that spend thousands and thousands of dollars a year.

A higher customer level means a better chance of getting a discount, credit, a free phone or an adjustment to your bill. But beware: if you call in with a lot of complaints and successfully appeal for credits, your customer level will go down. And being a level 1 is worse than being a level 0, because it means you’ve been demoted for some reason. (In this case, the squeaky wheel gets the shaft.)

In a way, your customer level is a little bit like your credit score. The length of your history with the company, your payment history and the amount you pay all factor into how valuable you are as a customer and how hard they’ll try to keep you.

image

Note: This chart is an approximation for illustration purposes based on what TheBoomGuy said. Those aren’t official figures.

Lesson 3: Threatening to Switch to Verizon Doesn’t Always Work

For some reason, customers always think that a threat to switch to Verizon or T-Mobile or Sprint is their magical ace in the hole—especially now that . But AT&T has an even bigger trump card (did I just mix card-playing metaphors?). It’s called the Early Termination Fee, and they know that you’re loathe to pay it just to break your contract. From the AT&T website:

New and renewing AT&T wireless customers who enter into a 1- or 2-year Service Commitment on or after June 1, 2010, and include certain specified equipment, have an ETF of $325, less $10 for each full month of Service Commitment completed. Otherwise the ETF is $150, less $4 for each full month of Service Commitment completed.

The iPhone and most other smartphones fall into that “specified equipment”  category. That means that you’ll pay a minimum of $95 in ETFs, even if you cancel on the day before your contract expires.

True, AT&T is aware that Verizon Wireless poses a threat to them—everyone knows that. But they’ve already thought of that, and their ETF is how they are protecting themselves from the threat of defection. Threatening to switch, or coyly mentioning an attractive offer from Verizon might get you some traction, but it all comes back to your attitude and your customer level/Lifetime Value.

Other Interesting Stuff

AT&T customer support secrets - Jordan Thevenow-HarrisonThere were lots of other topics discussed in the thread, not all of which were actionable. Some more highlights:

  • Ever wonder how reps keep their cool, even when you’re being a total jerkaholic? It’s all about the magical MUTE button. As one Reddit user described it, the MUTE button is their “sword and shield.” They’ll hit MUTE and then vent—screaming profanity, calling you names, etc.—and then pop back on the line, voice sweet as honey. Think about that next time there’s a long pause in the conversation.
    • Oh, also on that note, if you are also prone to venting profanities when you’re on hold, you should know that the customer rep you’re on the line with can’t hear you, but the quality control person can hear what you’re saying when they playback the recording.
      • On an even further tangent, the person at McDonald’s can still hear you after you place your drive thru order. And if you leave your radio turned way up as you idle in front of the menu, it completely deafens them.
  • Beware of phones sold from shady authorized retailers (i.e. mall kiosks). Sometimes, these are liquidated phones with no warranties.
  • If service sucks in your area, or you have a dropped call, call and complain. They’ll take a look at your call and verify that it was dropped, check to see if other complaints have been made in your area and then finally send out an engineer to survey your area. If they determine that your reception really does stink in your area, they’ll give you a free microcell.
  • AT&T call centers are mostly in the Philippines, not India.
  • A long time ago, The Consumerist published AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s contact information, including his email address and phone number. For awhile, customers could get issues resolved lickety split by bugging Stephenson. But now the jig is up, and repeated emails might just get you a cease and desist letter.
  • AT&T can’t tell if you’re tethering illicitly—say, with a Cydia app. They can, however, see that you’re using an unusually large amount of data and then they can flag your account. They have an entire department that investigates for fraud and abuse. So watch out.
  • AT&T can’t look at the content of your texts and SMS, though the recipients are shown on your bill. If they are subpoenaed, they may produce the content from your texts to a court of law.
  • The OP of the Reddit thread recounted how a customer once called in, threatening to kill herself and blame him in her suicide note. His response?: “We would hate to lose you as a customer.”
  • Trying to unlock your phone? Call AT&T and tell them that you’re traveling out of country and plan on using a local SIM card, and they just might give you an unlock code. Several customers testified to this working, though others had less luck. Again, your customer level plays a big role.
  • If you were grandfathered into an unlimited data plan, you’ll lose it when you upgrade to a new phone/renew your contract.

Overall, it was a pretty interesting thread. Note, however, that (A) the identity of the poster was never verified, (B) that he was an employee of Stream, not AT&T, and of course, (C) his views do not reflect the official company stance and only speak to his personal experience. But his responses confirm and debunk some of the suspicions we’ve all already had about AT&T’s customer support protocols and practices.  If nothing else, it was a fun thread AND a fun groovyPost to write.  Hopefully you agree!

Featured image adapted from original by Katy Warner.

, , ,

11 Responses to How to Get Respect When You Call AT&T Customer Support to Complain About Your iPhone

  1. Steven February 8, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    Thanks for the Post, I had been an AT&T customer since Iphone 3 -2008, So far I am happy with their service. I do get some drop call at once a week, but I got use to it, As of their customer service, so far I am very pleased with them.

    • MrGroove February 9, 2011 at 9:14 am #

      Good feedback. I honestly don’t think any carrier is 100% perfect as there are so many variables both on the technology side and customer service side. That being said, feedback is feedback so thnx for sharing.

  2. Kelley February 24, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

    I was just hung up on by an AT&T rep. Here’s the convo:

    Rep:”Have I resolved all your concerns?”
    Me: “No.”
    Rep (in a sassy tone): “yes I have; I answered all your questions. Thank you for calling AT&T. Goodbye.” *click*

    How about that?!

    • Austin Krause March 14, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

      Sprint isn’t allowed to hang up on you. You have to end the call. Rather surprised me one time.

  3. D March 14, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    I don’t get this. BoomGuy mentions entitlement and you say rules of engagement. WTF is the logic in that? It’s a good habit to treat every person decently but when you pay for a service, you are entitled to a certain quality or exprectation of service. When you don’t, you get a lot of angry customers.

    And when companies starts gaming their provision of customer service by ranking it then everone suffers. Where I work, if yhou can’t resolve a customer issue within 15 minutes, you promptly tell them you’ll call them when a resolution is at hand or you tell them it cannot be fixed.
    Most folks understand if you are honest and knowledgeable.

  4. Pam Barge March 16, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    I really really can’t believe this. I have a cell phone that I use for everything. I’m a therapist and have recently had two more therapists join my practice. We wanted to have a voice mail routed through my cell phone with extensions for each of us. I walked into my local ATT store. The guy there said,”No problem. We’ll make your personal account a business account and sign you up for Office at Hand. Office at Hand is their ‘virtual cloud….whatever you call it. Basically a client was supposed to be able to call my cell phone number, get a menu where they could push ‘1’ for me and be routed to me, “2′ for my associate and be routed to her….exactly what I wanted.

    I was assigned a “Personal Implemention Specialist” who had an email with an auto responder saying he was out of the office and an extension that had a message saying that number was out of service.

    Bottom line….after over five hours on the phone with I think everyone who has ever worked for ATT on every continent in the world, my call has been dropped too many times to call (I’m on hold right now as I’m writing this with yet another person dedicated to my satisfaction). I’ve just been told that my business line (remember I’m a therapist…that means I have people who need to be able to reach me) is no longer in service. My number has been ported out and, of course, no one is taking ownership of the problem.

    What can I do???? My phone number is no longer active and it’s not my fault!

  5. Matt February 17, 2013 at 12:38 am #

    I work the Small Business Call center for AT&T Southwest and West region small business customers (specific states being California, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas). While this discussion is about AT&T’s mobility customer care group, it appears, I can flat-out tell you that procedure in my department is not like this at all.

    Before I discuss my department, let me clear up the “ETF” – the contracted purchase price you got on your iPhone? The reason you got it is that AT&T paid Apple the bulk of the normal price of the phone, on the condition that you commit to two years of service, so that your payment of monthly recurring charges eventually reimburses AT&T for paying a LOT of the purchase price of your phone. If you decide to bail because Verizon wants to give you service $30.00 a month cheaper, AT&T just gave you a really cheap iPhone, which you now own and can probably sell for more than what you actually paid AT&T. If you don’t want an ETF, don’t get a contract – the monthly price for the service is the same, but you’re going to pay for the fact that you could simply move the phone to several other carriers to save yourself money.

    Granted, AT&T could probably better explain this to customers when they purchase phones at prices contingent on agreeing to a two-year service commitment, but to be fair, you also get 30 days to cancel the service after purchase. So if the thing works terribly because of dropped calls or whatever else you don’t like, you return the phone, and end up being billed a $36.00 activation fee.

    Now, in my department, the general rule is that a customer can be as rude as they want. Frankly, with the way the “automated system” routes customers who are trying to get help with their account (frequently, to the wrong department), they should be rude. If they’ve been transferred 4 times before they get to me, they should be rude. In fact, the only thing we are told we can threaten to terminate a call over is either foul language or threats. If somebody wants to yell for 5 minutes straight about how screwed up their account is, they can yell away. The split-second the customer’s account is accessed, the billing system notes the account with the AT&T email address (sans the @att.com) of the individual accessing the account. If somebody told you they have your account pulled up, and then they disconnect you for being pissed at what AT&T has screwed up (without cussing and swearing or threatening to blow up an AT&T store or whatever), the next time you talk to somebody, they can literally send a message right over to the previous agent.

    It is also company policy that, immediately upon account access, the name and callback number of the customer calling in must be taken. If the call is disconnected, for any reason, prior to resolution, the agent must close out from inbound calls (and potentially complete the next call that came through immediately when yours dropped), and then call you back. Failure to do so constitues what the company terms “customer mistreat”, and is grounds for immediate termination.

    Now, let me tell you how it actually goes:

    AT&T is actively converting call centers from pure customer service to customer service and SALES. Yes, that’s right, call center reps now work on commission, based on what products they sell to either existing customers calling in, or new customers calling in to establish service.

    To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, there are agents in my call center – in a Midwest city with comparatively low cost of living to the rest of the nation – that are making 6 figure incomes.

    Now for the dirty part: If an agent hits exactly 100% of their sales targets in a given month, their pay is about 40% hourly, 50% commission, and then there is a flat $500.00 at stake for scoring maximum on customer survey. That $500.00? Miniscule portion of a commission check. Tiny. Furthermore, the survey system can be manipulated so that customers never actually receive a survey call (if the rep notes the call as a transfer to another department, even if no transfer occurred – yes it’s actually possible to do this – then the customer never gets a survey on that rep).

    So, a rep can basically crap on you, then flag the call as a “transfer”, and you get no survey. If a rep receives no survey responses in a month, then they are paid as if they made 100% of their survey score requirements.

    The ETF about cell phones I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it makes sense for cell phones because AT&T is basically floating you a loan for a lot of the purchase price of your phone. What is inexplicable is the fact that AT&T does the exact same thing for wireline services for small businesses, even when no equipment was purchased, and AT&T is using the same infrastructure it was using for the last person who occupied the office building/suite/whatever.

    A lot of businesses have multiple phone lines. The ETF for terminating a phone line under a 1-year contract (basically all small business products come with one year contracts), is $15.00 per line times the number of months left on a contract. Terminate 5 lines 6 months early, $375.00. But it doesn’t stop there. They put long distance plans on an entirely seperate contract. The early termination fee is half the monthly price of the plan, times the number of months remaining. So if your 5 lines had unlimited long distance on all 5, you may have gotten an introductory rate of $10.00 per line. $25.00 ETF times 6 months remaining means an additional $150.00 long distance ETF tacked onto the $375.00 ETF already billed for the local calling plan.

    DSL internet also has an early termination fee for business service, U-verse internet does not.

    Now, keep in mind that small business customers are a TINY TINY FRACTION of AT&T’s subscriber base. It is largely residential users. But let me tell you some of the things AT&T does to these people:

    1) That local calling plan I told you about that comes with a one year contract? Here’s what the customer doesn’t usually get told: When you order that service, AT&T sales/service reps have the ability to set the contract to auto-renew (literally, place you under a new 1-year commitment) up to two times. Since I listen to people sitting right next to me every day sell this stuff, I can tell you, they don’t even ask the customer if auto-renew is desired. Instead, they just pick “Y” (for yes) in that field, the customer knows nothing about it, and if they don’t open the contract expiration alert mail that is sent to the billing address on the account, in a seperate mail from the bill, and in the same envelopes as all the mailed advertisement existing customers get every month – if customer says to themselves “I already paid my phonebill” and has spent 10 months getting a bill and then 2-3 pieces of advertising mail – they assume it’s advertising and trash it.

    Then, maybe 14 months after they initially established service, they say “One year contract is up” and go to another carrier. Since going to another carrier and keeping your phone numbers automatically disconnects service with the previous carrier, the customer’s first time being informed of the auto-renew is when they get a final bill from AT&T with 10 months worth of early termination fees. Why not simply stuff the contract renwal notice with the bill, and actually make it the first page of the entire bill, in huge letters?

    Because, when customers refuse to pay the ETF, AT&T proceeds to start making collections calls, and if that doesn’t work, they turn it over to collections and report either the customer’s SSN (for sole-proprietors) or Federal Tax I.D. number (for corporations) to the credit bureaus!

    Now, on to the next problem:

    2) The environment in AT&T Small Business call centers for my regions has become one where, before anything else, sales numbers are the most important thing. If it’s taking me 20 minutes to resolve a customer’s issue so they can get off the phone, that’s really too long. AT&T tracks the average call handle time of all their customer service reps, but it is not even a component of our annual performance review. If I spend an hour on the phone with every customer, but meet my sales targets, AT&T is totally indifferent to the fact that most customer service issues should probably be addressed in 5-8 minutes.

    Additionally, the hiring standards in these call centers is “high school diploma, previous call center experience a plus”. The reason for this is that ALL of the California call centers are being shut down, because they have an average right now of 60% of employees calling in sick EVERY DAY (that 60% number was shot out on a conference call with management the other day). They cannot fire them because of California labor laws and absurd CWA (union) demands, so they are simply closing those call centers, because they don’t have enough people showing up for work to handle the California accounts.

    The flip-side of that is that they are hiring about anybody who asks, touts their up-sells of candy bars at the register at Walgreen’s as “sales experience”, and knows how to use a computer.

    The result has been that service representatives (the ones that work on commission), are using increasingly fraudulent sales practices to falsify their sales records and increase their commission. I’ll give you a very brief example: Customer calls and asks for a single business line, long distance service, and broadband. Price of that service on one year contract is $75.00 per month prior to taxes and surcharges.

    However, here’s the catch:

    Company directive is that sales reps that aren’t also selling AT&T Webhosting services, as well as AT&T technical support services for customer computers – they are going to be subject to discipline. Same situation if the reps aren’t selling cell phones.

    Keep in mind that the commissioned sales position in my department is something like 3 years old. Prior to that, it was pure customer service reps who got their hourly rate that was largely based on how long they had been with the company.

    So, in my office alone (I work in the biggest small business call center for the AT&T region I service, about 200 customer service/sales reps), select reps have started telling the customer that the service they are requesting is $89.00 a month, and includes technical support for their DSL/U-verse internet connection. A lot of customers buy it. What the customer doesn’t realize is that the actual price of the local phone service, long distance, and broadband is $75.00. The reason the customer was told $89.00 is that the sales rep added Technical Support services to the order that cost $14.00 a month, didn’t tell the customer, and the rep just made a substantial bump to their commission check.

    The “tech support for your internet service” part is where the rep misled the customer: Technical support on broadband is 100% free with the broadband service. Repair of inside wire isn’t free, but actual technical support and troubleshooting on issues outside the building is totally free.

    That’s one example. There are a BUNCH of problems in the AT&T Small Business department right now.

    When approached about this, managers state the N.O.T. team will catch these people and they’ll be fired.

    The problem with the N.O.T. team is that it’s in INDIA. Unless the individual in India is dyno-supreme at English, they may not have even caught the manipulation of verbiage by the salesrep in regards to the technical support;.

    This situation started appearing more extreme, when I began seeing indications that managers (sales reps are divided into teams of 12, under a manager who also gets paid on commission based on the sales performance of their reps) were actively instructing their reps to do this.

    So, my point is that if you think AT&T mobility customer service is terrible, you haven’t even seen the surface of things.

    not going to try to be the grand-champion of the premise of mobility early termination fees, but I will tell you that if early termination fees didn’t exist, and carriers kept paying a huge chunk of the retail price of smartphones, then Verizon and AT&T could effectively start taking huge shots at the bottom line of the competition by running a promo like this:

    “Just recently bought an iPhone from Verizon? Switch to AT&T within 10 days of purchase, and we’ll provide service for 20% less a month than your Verizon service!”

    If it’s an iPhone 5, and the customer got a $400.00 discount off the normal retail price when purchasing, and then cancels 5 days in, Verizon just forfeited about $400.00. The reason they ask for term commitments is so that, if AT&T attempts something like I just mentioned, then Verizon has a way to recover the costs via the ETF they bill.

    • Diane May 24, 2013 at 8:13 am #

      Matt, Well maybe I should call your center, because, Florida’s 360 Tech support stood there ground and wouldn’t help out our situation which incidentally ATT screwed up when the tech came out, thanks to Business class it started from there then escalated. ATT 9 members were all nice and apologetic, but, so was I, I have been bounced back and forth I feel like a Ping-Pong. I guess when you are a BIG conglomerate business little businesses don’t matter…..Little business is what built our Country.

      I am still waiting, not holding my breathe for the “Supervisor” to me in touch with me cause I am in my gestation time of 5- 10 days I was told.

      Is this great customer service, NOT, I wouldn’t treat my customers like this.

      Diane
      Discover Automotive

  6. Terry Sumpter December 26, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    I sam an older man and am having trouble with my DSL. After going through all the automated questions trying to get to Tech help, I finally got there and then I trying to get help from someone who does not speak clear English. I could not understand the woman and ended up just totally frustrated then I hung up the phone

  7. Carrie May 19, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    AT&T is absolutely awful! I had their service for two days before my new Nokia completely died and they wanted to charge me to send me a new phone. So, I decided to cancel my service within the 3 day period. AT&T then sent me a bill 2 months later saying my account was delinquent. I spoke with a rep who told me that he saw the history and would get it adjusted. A month later I receive a collection letter. I talk to two more reps who tell me they are going to ‘zero out’ the balance and take care of it. Then 2 weeks later, I get another bill saying I’m delinquent. I am totally amazed that this company is actually in business with the crappy customer service that they provide. No one can actually do their job or do it well.

  8. Tom June 12, 2014 at 10:38 am #

    I got a phone upgrade after over 2 years with AT&T, and was told that my plan and discounts would not change. 6 months later, they are still billing me with a $30 higher bill. Been in contact every month and get a different story from each rep. I asked to put me back at my plan I had for 2 years, or I will cancel, and they threatened an$285 ETF (fee).

    I think the legal term for this is “Bait and Switch”. and they get by with it.

Leave a Reply

 

×

Subscribe to our free newsletter and have our tips delivered to your inbox. Free Signup