, , , , ,

AT&TI almost feel a little sorry for AT&T. They provide a useful and necessary service for tens, even hundreds, of millions, and often, people try to stiff them. I am not among them. In fact, I recently worked very, very hard to pay them a great deal of money, and had a damned hard time of it. It turned into a two month long Kafkaesque commercial for blood pressure medication.

It all started because Mrs. Manor wanted a new iPhone6+. We’re both getting a bit long in the tooth, and with age, eyesight and hearing dim a bit. We’re far from impaired, but things just aren’t quite as razor sharp as they once were, and the much larger iPhone6+ screen would be a real convenience for Mrs. Manor. I could have survived with my iPhone 5 for, well, pretty much forever, but because we’re frugal people and actually manage to save for such things, we could afford it. On the day they became available, I drove a very happy Mrs. Manor to the local AT&T retail outlet.

Then it got interesting, as in the ancient Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times.”

We discovered our current cell phone contract hadn’t yet expired, so we couldn’t get the new phones yet. One might consider that to be bizarre. Here we have a large, publically traded corporation in the business to make money, and they were going to force us to put off giving them substantial money for four more months. I was willing to live with the horror of that; Mrs. Manor wasn’t.

This left the anti-Panglossian alternative: buy the phones for their full purchase price and forego any set contract term. We had the money, but I wasn’t the least happy about spending it. Still, anything for Mrs. Manor. That’s when things went beyond interesting into weird.

The only way we could buy them was on the installment plan–with interest, of course–added to our normal monthly phone bill, which includes not only our wireless service, but our DSL internet service (more about that later), satellite TV service, and our landline phone service (necessary for our home alarm system). That’s all rather convenient and is automatically withdrawn from a dedicated checking account each month, as it has been for more than a decade.

However, the friendly, helpful sales folk were pretty sure we could pay them off early–when they arrived. They didn’t actually have any iPhones, you see. So I was given a number to call when the phones arrived, and arrangements would be made. Of course, we had to pay sales tax on both purchases on the spot.

About two weeks later, my iPhone6 arrived in the mail, and as Conrad said in Heart of Darkness, “the horror” began.

In a phone call that lasted nearly an hour, a friendly, earnest AT&T representative put me on hold multiple times and had multiple chats with various co-workers and finally a supervisor. Why? They couldn’t figure out any way for me to actually pay them for the iPhone6 all at once! I was trying to pay them $622.90, and their system–as far as they could tell–wouldn’t allow anything so–so–irregular. Apparently no one, none of the millions, dealing with AT&T ever pays for anything on the spot.

Finally, after much incredulous “what?” “You’re telling me you can’t take my money?” “I’m trying to give you a lot of money; why is that a problem?” from me, an unknown supervisor and the friendly, earnest young female representative decided that only if they “de-bundled” all of my various services could I be allowed to pay for the phone. It was the only way their system would recognize my payment, she explained. She assured me she was making voluminous notes on my permanent record (I think they keep that under a reindeer chip in Siberia), and when Mrs. Manor’s iPhone6+ finally arrived, we could pay that off too, and they would re-bundle everything, but that could take several weeks to make its way through the system, so I’d have to pay everything separately by check, but it would take some time for their system to generate the separate bills, so who knew when all of that would start working?

Already in atrial fibrillation, I decided to roll with the insanity and take another pill. I gave her my payment information, which she dutifully recorded and asked if there was anything else she could do to me. I assured her she had done quite enough and put it out of my mind. For about a week and a half.

That’s when my monthly bill arrived. Nothing appeared to be “de-bundled,” but it was only about half of the normal amount. I called AT&T to inquire, and was greeted by another, different friendly, earnest young lady–every AT&T employee with which I dealt was friendly, earnest, and very apologetic. I also learned something interesting: they obviously have scripts they have to read. The first thing every one of they asked was “with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking.” No one speaks in reasonably correct English these days, so I replied, “you have the pleasure of speaking with Mike McDaniel,” which always evoked a giggle, even with the few guys, which I found a little unsettling.

The first call didn’t end well. I was put on hold and after about ten minutes, cut off. No return call after 30 minutes, so I tried again and got another friendly, earnest young lady who had the great pleasure of speaking with me. She eventually found voluminous notes, and after about 40 minutes of being put on hold, intense conferences with coworkers and supervisors, she discovered that instead of paying off the iPhone6, the $622.90 was applied to my normal monthly bill, which left about $200.00 for the next bill. I had not, after all that time and aggravation, paid a dime on the iPhone6.

Then the topic turned to bundling v. de-bundling. No, I couldn’t pay for the iPhone6+ until I received it, and we were still de-bundled–as far as they could tell–but when the iPhone–arrived–no idea when–we could pay for it and get re-bundled, but the best thing to do would be to leave things as they were and pay for both phones at once. Then it was decided that since I had been de-bundled, I could not be re-bundled–ever.

I do not lose my temper or yell, not at my students, not at friendly, earnest phone company representatives, whose fault, after all, it is not. But after assuring her that I knew it was not her fault, I’m surprised the frigidity of my tone didn’t snap the phone line. I explained that the only reason I was de-bundled was because they forced me to do it so I could pay them a great deal of money if they’d ever get around to accepting it. I explained, logically, how insane that was, that I had been a fully bundled AT&T customer for more than a decade–at AT&T’s insistence–and that anything other than paying for the phones and being re-bundled would be absolutely unacceptable. I didn’t do the “don’t you know who I am?” schtick, because I am tired, after telling people who I am, of hearing “who?”

In any case, something in my tone must have convinced her and her supervisor that I might be, if not an important, at least a persistent who, and more voluminous notes were made and slipped under the reindeer doot–I know because she said so–and I was assured all would be worked out when the iPhone6 arrived, which it did about two weeks later. Then it turned into a Twilight Zone episode.

I called again–friendly/earnest–but by this time, even with voluminous notes that took an entirely different young woman a good 30 minutes to find, I had to spend another 20 minutes going through the entire story to that point. Finally, I was allowed the great boon of giving AT&T $622.90 and $749.99. Of course, both payments had to be processed separately, which took about 10 minutes each to process and confirm. I printed and kept the receipts, which I will save until my dying day, just in case.

Bringing up the de-bundling disaster, after another 30 minutes of being put on hold and presumably hushed conferences, I was assured I had never actually been de-bundled, and all was well. I asked for clarification. I asked if she were certain. It was as clarified as a conversation with AT&T ever gets, and she was certain–she thought. I was as bundled as ever. And so I ended the call, if not satisfied, at least temporarily mollified.

Several weeks later I began to get text messages suggesting my wireless account was past due. They too were persistent, so I called them and navigated my way past the annoying synthesized voice. Helpful Hint: When the annoying non-person asks the nature of your call, say, in a loud, firm voice: I have a complaint.” Say this whether you do or not. They’ll immediately–sort of–connect you with a human being. If you don’t, you’ll be pecking at your phone for hours without getting anywhere. I’m sure they do this on purpose, secure in the knowledge your blood pressure will spike and you’ll stroke out, you’ll have a heart attack and die, or simply give up and go away, which seems to be what they’re hoping for in any case.

Following another 20-minute explanation, and five minutes of clarification of the explanation, the friendly, earnest young woman still was working from her script. I suspect this was largely because she had a strong Hispanic accent, stereotypical Hollywood comic, almost-impossible-to-understand Hispanic accent. Because of my experience as a police officer and teacher, I can read just about anyone’s handwriting and make out what they’re saying, but she was a tough act to decipher.

After about 30 minutes of being put on hold and various conferences, it was determined that I had, indeed, been de-bundled, and since I was de-bundled, everything they ever had on me, including my account number for automatic withdrawal, was apparently no longer computing. She was most insistent that I pay the overdue bill, which I did, but she could not bundle me, and transferred me to a new friendly, earnest representative, this time a young man, with a Hispanic accent even more difficult to understand. Think Ricky Ricardo times ten.

Twenty minutes of explanations, five minutes of clarifications, and I was put on hold. It would have surely taken at least another 30 minutes if I hadn’t been cut off after about fifteen.

This led to another phone call with an earnest, friendly young woman who actually spoke unaccented English. Twenty minutes of explanation followed, but amazingly, no need for clarification. Perhaps she was just humoring me. In any case, she put me on hold, but kept coming back on the line every few minutes to apologize and assure me she was still there. After awhile–I was beyond caring about the time anymore and was essentially floating near the telephonic black hole, expecting to enter the event horizon and digital oblivion at any moment–she told me that she had entered all the pertinent information in the system, and I was then a proud applicant for bundled status.

I was “applying” for bundled status? What did that mean? Why wasn’t I simply bundled? She earnestly and in a friendly manner explained that they really don’t bundle people much anymore because it’s a pain and she was pretty sure I’d be approved for re-bundling because I had already been bundled and all, and that happens about nine out of ten times.

I asked her, considering my previous luck with AT&T, what would happen when I was the tenth person and was turned down for bundling. I asked for the name and number of someone high enough in the company to ensure that I was not only re-bundled, but that all of this billing lunacy was resolved, fixed, and repaired once and for all. All I wanted, after all, was to be assured conclusively that I would get a single monthly bill, conveniently and automatically debited from my checking account, just as AT&T, lo those many years ago, begged of me. That caused another 10-minute hold and a conference with a supervisor.

Finally, she told me that it now seemed that the $200+ payment I made shortly before our phone call wasn’t “processing” on their system, and so I showed “zero balance,” which apparently means that I was or was not bundled, but she was going to make sure someone called me in two days to make sure my payment processed and I was bundled or something. I asked again for the name and number of someone to call when no one called me two days hence, and she assured me that she, personally, in a friendly and earnest manner, would call me in two days to tell me something or other.

And so I hung in telephonic payment purgatory, waiting to be prayed into bundled, automatically debited, fully paid heaven.

All of this is not the fault of the earnest, friendly people who, reading from their prepared scripts and working within their corporate rules, did their best to help a lonely, cranky who out there in the wilds of Texas. It is the fault of their bosses, and the self-imagined smart people who designed the processes and materials that make it nearly impossible for customers to actually BUY THEIR PRODUCTS AND SERVICES! Whew. I’m OK now…just give me a minute…

If I had viable alternatives, particularly for Internet service, I would leave AT&T in my figurative rearview mirror. Unfortunately, I don’t, and I have had a very long relationship with AT&T. I’m old–and foolish–enough to still retain a bit of brand loyalty. I just didn’t realize until recently how dysfunctional that brand was. So I waited for two days to begin the next chapter of this never-ending Twilight Zone episode, and in the meantime, wondered how AT&T corporate headquarters isn’t daily besieged by torch and pitchfork bearing villagers.

Pre-Publication Update: As I suspected would happen, the friendly and earnest young lady who promised to call me in two days did not, in fact, call me in two days. Perhaps she fell ill. Perhaps she went on vacation. Perhaps she was accidentally locked in a restroom and they haven’t noticed she’s gone and mounted a rescue party. In any case, she didn’t call back.

So the next day I called AT&T again, and a very earnest and friendly young lady transferred me to another young lady (earnest and friendly) who, after several attempts, informed me that I would not, after all, be able to have all of the services sold me by AT&T combined into a single bill that would be deducted from my checking account on a monthly basis. At best, I would be getting two: three of my services on one, and one on the other. She said combining all might be possible in the future and they would get in touch with me then.

I pointed out that the last person from AT&T that swore to get in touch with me on a particular date, to say nothing of some possible date in the future, did not, so I was not optimistic about her assurances. I assured her that I knew it wasn’t her fault, suggested that since AT&T corporate headquarters was in my neighborhood, I was seriously considering dropping by in person and sticking around until someone was able to actually deal with this issue properly. I then–having LSD-like flashbacks to every AT&T friendly and earnest representative phone call of which I’d ever had the pleasure to be a part–told her I’d had enough and bid her adieu.

Apparently the idea of me bearing a torch and pitchfork to headquarters–it’s actually only about 40 miles away–was sufficiently disturbing, so an AT&T supervisor called me minutes later.  She was something less than completely friendly, actually more Johnathon Gruberish, and told me she would connect me with someone in a department having to do with combining things so I could personally speak with them and presumably be straightened out. She also assured me that they would know what was going on so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself again.

After about five minutes on hold, a friendly and earnest young fellow who said he was in Wichita, KS (been there, seen that) asked to whom he had the pleasure of speaking, and, of course, he had no idea why I was calling. So I went through the entire mess again–this time recently updated–and just when he said “I think I understand…” we were cut off, which I think pretty much sums up my AT&T customer service experience. The something less than friendly supervisor who called me displayed in my recent call list only as “unknown,” and the young fellow didn’t bother–as most did–to ask for a call back number. I waited, and wait to this day for a call back.

But there is good news–of a sort. Not about my bill. As I publish this, that’s still a probable disaster. To keep my blood pressure at a reasonable level, I’ve decided just to wait to see what happens. They’ll want their money one way or another, and I will have had sufficient time to pray for calm and grace by then.  My apologies to all those friendly and earnest young women, a few young men, and the less than completely friendly supervisor for being less than completely friendly and perhaps a bit too earnest.

I have also had a problem with my high-speed (ha-ha) DSL Internet connection for more than two months now. The problem: It’s supposed to be running in the 6MBPS range, and I’m lucky to get 2 MBPS–upon occasion. Usually it’s lower. What this means is that it takes a very long time for things to load–often they don’t load at all–posting any article with photos is a very time-consuming matter, running videos has more stops and starts than turtle racing, and often, Internet access disappears entirely.

My contacts with the DSL folks have been about 30% as frustrating as my contacts with their billing people, but finally I learned that it wasn’t just me, my modem, my home, my wiring, etc., but my next door neighbor, most of my town, and a neighboring town, etc. that were having the same problem.

I learned this only because I finally met David–his real name–an outdoor technician, who actually replaced quite a bit of cable, equipment, did some rewiring, and after stopping at a local quick shop on the way out of town and discovering their AT&T DSL service was entirely offline, decided to take it upon himself to make sure the problem is repaired, not only for me, but for the entire area. This will take some time, but I have no doubt, for the first time in months of dealing with a ridiculously wide variety of AT&T employees, that someone has a clue, gives a damn, and will do all they can to get the job done. That’s rare these days in any business.

David even left me his personal phone number, and the number of his boss–Kyle–who he tells me is a great guy. I believe him. David also told me that Vince, another outside guy who also called me, was doing his best to deal with the problem as well. Maybe outside air helps?

Just for the heck of it, I’m going to try to get in touch with the AT&T executive cadre and see if they give a damn. At the moment, David, Vince, and Kyle, who I am reliably informed is a great guy, are the primary reasons I’m not switching to anything else, including tin cans and string.

I’ll keep you informed. By the way, gentle readers, would you care to share your AT&T customer relations horror stories?