Disrupting Customer Care: AT&T Wireless Customer Care Fail

It won't take my AT&T Wireless bretheren long to figure out what's going on here. That's right. I was on the phone with an AT&T customer care rep for over an hour. In retrospect, my issue could have been resolved in less than 2 minutes.

Some context: a few months ago, my wife's phone completely died. It had to be replaced, and the only option at that point was to leverage the manufacturer's warranty. I headed to the nearest AT&T Wireless store with a device support center inside, on 3rd and Market St. The gentleman working there confirmed the malfunction, and said that a new device would be mailed to my house within 2-3 business days. And it was, along with a return label for the faulty device, and some language around how if it were not mailed within a certain time period, I would be charged the full value of the phone on my next AT&T bill. Not wanting to let proscratination creep in with over $500 on the line, I immediately boxed up the old phone, slapped the return label on, and mailed it out at the nearest USPS office.

Fast forward to last week, and it doesn't take a genius to guess what we saw on our bill - the $500+ device charge on our phone for supposedly not returning the old device. Except I knew this not be true.

For over one hour, the AT&T Wireless customer care rep, (who was just doing his job), danced between asking me go-nowhere questions and putting me on hold; questions like whether I remembered the tracking number, whether I remember if it was USPS vs UPS, etc. At approximately the 45th minute, the rep calls the device support center, gets some additional information, and eventually calls the AT&T Wireless warehouse where old devices go to get buried. And at approxmiately the 55th minute, we have a breakthrough:

"Sir, we've located your old device in our warehouse."

And yes, though there was a sense of helplessness after burning over an hour of my life to confirm what I already knew to be the case, I couldn't help but think how ripe for disruption, how vulnerable industry stalwarts like AT&T Wireless were for a very simple reason: they are not in the business of customer satisfaction. They are in the business of appeasing Wall St., and that provides startups an ample enough wedge to launch competitive products and services, and ultimately steal market share.

Let's re-imagine my scenario with Startup Wireless:

Me: "Hi, I think there's been an error in my bill. I returned a malfunctioning device over a month ago, but I seem to have been billed for it nonetheless"

Startup Wirless Rep (SWR): "No problem sir, I am going to remove that charge from your bill immediately. After I do that, I will investigate this on my own time, and if I find the device, great! If I do not, we will put the charge back on your bill the following month, and will email you next steps in case that happens.

Me: "Great. So if I never haer from you guys on this, I'll assume you found the device and all is good."

SWR: "That's right sir. Is there anything else I can help you with?"

Me: "No, that's it! Thanks."

SWR: "My pleasure. Have a great day and thank you for being a customer of Startup Wireless."

I calculated the above conversation, and it clocks in under 2 minutes each time. The benefits of this approach? Higher NPS, less churn, higher LTV, higher ARPU (customers feel confident they can use other services and not be cheated), lower cost structure, etc. And in all fairness, perhaps the AT&T Wirelesses and Comcasts of the world have crunched the numbers on what a shift in approach like the above would cost, but I'd be very surprised if that were the case. The more likely scenario? Instutionalized mindsets and approaches to "commodotized" challenges (like customer care).

So hackers and founders, while building disruptive technology and product will always be at the core of what we do, don't underestimate how far you could get by simply disrupting customer care. That large immovable object, that legacy player may find its most formidable opponent in someone that does nothing but vastly improve the customer care experience.