What The Telecoms Could Learn from Nordstrom and Why I’m Finished Doing Business with AT&T


I just got off the phone with Nordstrom.  It was another easy, well-oiled customer service experience.

By contrast, a few days ago, I had yet another head-on with the AT&T brick wall.  It will be my last.  We’ve decided to unwind all of our residential, cell and business telephone relationships with them.  I wouldn’t even consider U-Verse at this point.  

Yet, the headline from yesterday’s NY Times was: "AT&T Downplays Damage From Economic Slowdown"

Rick Lindner, the chief financial officer, said AT&T, like other communications companies, was indeed seeing the impact of a softer economy on its operations. But, he added, “they are not very severe at this point.” Even in a downturn, consumers are going to want to stay connected, either online or on the phone. “I think for us that continues to point to more of the defensive nature of our business,” he said.

Well, for me, the end-user and lowly consumer, the cost and the hassle of doing business with this company outweighs the benefit. 

The dramatic contrast in customer service interaction has me wondering - why can’t AT&T and Comcast take a page from the Nordstrom playbook?

A little Equifax alert (nothing serious) reminded me that I hadn’t seen a Nordstrom bill for awhile.  Nervously, I called customer service at 8p.  There was no voice mail hell, no forcing the captive customer to listen to annoying promos etc.  I keyed in the requested info.

My account was fine, per the automated system.  But I hit “0” anyway.  I wanted to confirm with a real person.

Instantaneously, a nice man picked up.  I didn’t have to repeat any information.  He knew my name and other relevant details and he asked one other question to confirm my identity.  Everything was current, he assured.  But – oh, btw - I could pay my latest bill by phone.  It’s free. 

Sure – why not.  Thirty seconds later we were finished.  I jotted down the confirmation number.  Total time on the phone:  three to five minutes.

Compare and contrast this experience to my attempt to pay my Comcast bill last September.  Silly me.  I wanted to pay my bill but Comcast wouldn’t let me. 

After a few crazy-making days, the problem was resolved when a hardworking customer service agent stepped in.

For years, my Comcast bill was set to autopay on Amex.  But last September I opened my bill to find it was 30-days overdue.

Comcast claimed initially that Amex rejected the charge, something I knew absolutely to be next to impossible.  When I called Amex, they were close to horrified.  They said they approved the charge but Comcast never collected it.  Amex offered to get Comcast on a conference call. 

“You’re a customer of twenty years,” said Amex, “we want to work with you.”

For customer service, Amex runs a close second to Nordstrom – which is why (big surprise!) I’m a twenty-year customer.

Then Comcast changed their story.  They said my Amex card was expired.   No, I said, only the expiration date changed, and that was months ago. 

Amex said they were flummoxed by Comcast’s behavior.  Two agents, including a supervisor, said they’d never run across a situation where a company refused to collect an approved charge. 

Besides, they explained, my Amex card number was exactly same.  Only the expiration date had changed and all recurring charges simply roll over.

After a total of 90 minutes and two days on the phone, I gave up trying to coax Comcast into collecting the charge APRROVED BY AMEX.

So I said to Comcast – look, just take the new expiration date over the phone.  Let’s bring my account up-to-date and back on autopay.

No can do! said Comcast.  You have to write a letter and FAX it to our credit department.  (It’s a long distance call, too.)  Then, the credit department will approve the autopay.

I’ve never had more trouble in my life trying to fork over hundreds of dollars.

At the time, I also saw a little note on my Comcast bill touting Visa, so my paranoid suspicious self wondered if Comcast was deliberately making life difficult for their Amex card holders.

Finally, I called Comcast again – from a different phone in the house.  Inexplicably, the heavens moved.  A nice customer service agent took care of the problem immediately, and even left a message several days later to me know the problem had been handled.

I’m pleased but…why did my problem with Comcast require several hours of my time, over the course of several days, to resolve?  Why can’t the process go as smoothly as it invariably does with Nordstrom?  Or American Express?

Am I ready to stop doing business with Comcast?  No, not yet,  although the last fiasco – when Comcast recently shut down port 25 without notice and with it, my outgoing email– was definitely a sore point.

Nevertheless, my problems with Comcast are eventually resolved to my satisfaction.  It takes some kvetching, but it gets done.  Plus, the service in our area is so darn reliable.  It just (knock on wood) never goes down.  As long as we have electricity, we have cable and Internet.

However, the company I’m slowly and tediously cutting ALL ties with is AT&T.  This divorce has been a long time coming.

We are not willing AT&T customers.  We landed at AT&T because of the AT&T/SBC mergers, after the former SBC assumed the AT&T name. 

That’s kind of like Satan changing his name to Lucifer and thinking it’s a great pr move.

My first dealings with SBC a few years ago were a jaw-dropping, unmitigated disaster.  I changed our phones to SBC and my nightmare began.

SBC switched me to their system but never applied the promised plan.  Unbeknownst to me, my bill was skyrocketing.  When it reached $400 in a couple of weeks, SBC cut my service without notice - over a weekend.

Then SBC said the plan they offered me (but never applied) was no longer available.  I’d have to go with a more expensive plan.  This went on for months.  The charges were rescinded after the intervention of  Seven on Your Side, the consumer advocate segment of KGO/ Channel 7 (the local ABC affiliate).

Consumer hint:  if you’re having trouble with a telco, contact the consumer editor of your local television station.

I gave up and slinked back to my old provider (AT&T), tail between my legs.

Then SBC swallowed up AT&T.   All of our accounts – three land lines and three cells (formerly Cingular)  - were now under the umbrella of the new AT&T. 

Here in San Francisco, the merger dogged our new ball park.  First, it was Pac Bell, then it was SBC, and now it’s AT&T – the third name change in eight years!

Can’t keep it all straight?  Well, Stephen Colbert has a chart!

Last summer - after phone charges for two, barely used residential land-lines ballooned to $1,200/year - I told the old SBC/new AT&T to close down the lines.  AT&T forwarded my call to “retention,” that department of last resort. 

I didn’t like their offer.  Close down the lines, I insisted. 

“Retention” finally figured out I wasn’t kidding, so they offered me a deal I could live with, a plan  - they claimed - that’s no longer available to the general public.

$6/month for 200 long-distance minutes, shared between the two residential lines.  Fine, I said, let’s do it.

Six weeks later, the old SBC/new AT&T pulled a bait and switch.  They raised the charge to $8. 

When I called to inquire, they stubbornly refused to adhere to the original (and thoroughly documented) commitment.  Their circular reasoning: “That plan is no longer available.”

Déjà vu.

The next month, I was charged for some long distance calls even though I hadn’t met my 200-minute minimum.  Customer service was evasive.  They said they needed to “research” the problem.

A month later I received a letter saying I would be reimbursed.

But it’s always something.  The bills are unpredictable. There’s local calling (free), then the murky extras which can quickly run up a bill:  zone 3 and “local long distance.”

The bill are so complicated that many customers may not spot the overcharages.  The entire set up is absurd.  It’s chaos. 

Fed-up with the former SBC/now AT&T’s bait and switch and inaccurate phone bills, last month I pulled the plug on ALL the long distance plans. 

Then, we spent an hour on the phone with AT&T last month, re-engineering our family cell phone plan – three cell phones.  We thought we had settled on terms.  AT&T told us we would have to agree to a new two-year contract, something we subsequently learned may not be true.  They promised to send us one new cell phone.

Several weeks passed.  No cell phone.  An AT&T supervisor said the order had been written up but not submitted or approved, or something of that nature.  Nevertheless, AT&T had still charged us a fat activation fee for this new plan – the one they never applied.

Boy – did this all sound familiar!!! 

SBC – you can change your name to AT&T but your behavior speaks for itself.

Frustrated, we cancelled the entire arrangement and a supervisor reversed the charge.

Now I’m preparing to close down all three of our AT&T cell phones as well.

I haven’t decided on alternatives.  In the meantime, I’ve reduced my land-line phone usage to the bare minimum and I rarely use my cell. 

Do I miss using my phones?  Not in the least.  It’s liberating.

The cost in time and money of dealing with the telecom companies is starting to outweigh the benefits of the technology.  “Staying connected” is an over-rated and expensive luxury. 

I predict that quite a few people will soon discover the joys of disconnecting and extricating themselves from the overbearing, and over-priced telecom companies.

UPDATE:  Fed-up?  I am.  I’m now a card-carrying member of UCAN, The Utility Consumers’ Action Network.   (P.S.  A San Diego newlyweds’ house burns in the big San Diego wildfire; AT&T charges them $300 for the sat box and refuses to wait for payment.)