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 service issues—from dropped calls and poor coverage to controversial changes to their iPhone data plans—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 issue is partly because the AT&T representative has a duty to follow a particular 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 significant 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 handle 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 do much for you. The thread elicited over 600 questions/comments/responses and delved into significant issues 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, credit, or at least increase your chances of success.
Lesson 1: Don’t Fail the “Attitude Test.”
Customer support reps deal with lots of angry, rude and sometimes crazy people all day every day. 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 ass####’ 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 true. In this rep’s case, his supervisor sits in the next room to 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 are actually 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 large 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.
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 Verizon is getting the iPhone. 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 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
- Ever wonder how reps keep their cool, even when you’re acting like 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, know that the customer rep you’re on the line with can’t hear you, but the quality control person can hear what you say 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 significant role.
- If you were grandfathered into an unlimited data plan, you’d lose it when you upgrade to a new phone/renew your contract.
Overall, it was a kind of 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.