AT&T’s Customer Service Goes Downhill

December 12th, 2016

Perhaps more often than not, when two large corporations merge, the executives speak of efficiencies and “synergies” resulting from the deal. But that usually means that employees considered “redundant” will be given their walking papers. Indeed, I sometimes wonder how many large corporate alignments actually end up being successful, beyond possibly killing a competitor.

The merger between AT&T and DirecTV, the largest satellite TV provider, was completed in mid-2015. Since then, support systems have been combined, and customers can take advantage of bundling deals where, if they have both services, they can save a little on their monthly bills. AT&T also promises to give you a better data plan for your wireless service.

Now I’ve been a customer of AT&T wireless — then Cingular — since 2007. A major part of that decision was to be ready for the iPhone. In the early days. only AT&T supported that device in the U.S. Verizon Wireless didn’t make a deal with Apple until 2011.

In the early days, AT&T’s service quality was just adequate in the Phoenix metropolitan area. I’d drive through areas where making a connection was difficult, and sustaining a connection was even more difficult. Overall, however, audio quality was a tad less digital sounding than Verizon, and customer service was pretty decent. In recent years, service and support has been mostly good overall, with the emphasis on “mostly.”

Until that merger was completed.

I first encountered trouble when I attempted to see if I could continue to use to DirecTV after moving to a new home in August. The subdivision offered a mid-level Dish Network package free, and I had to get approval from the homeowner’s association to establish service with any other provider. Unfortunately, the restrictions they imposed were so strict that there was no way for DirecTV to actually set up a dish and intercept the wiring to reach the family TV set, which is located in the master bedroom.

In any case, actually cancelling DirecTV proved difficult, since every attempt to reach customer service required talking to multiple people and often making a second call just to get to the right department. AT&T and DirecTV offer the usual phone menus. Press 1 for this, 2 for that. But as often as not, I’d be connected to the wrong division. On several occasions, I reached AT&T U-verse. which is the Internet and cable TV plan offered in some states. Nobody could explain why, since I clearly dialed the DirecTV support line, and I do not live in a U-verse service area.

I finally managed to cancel the service. I hesitate to estimate how much time I spent on the phone dealing with this frustrating endeavor.

The other day I ran into two problems with my wireless service. The first amounted to a billing error, where I was charged erroneously for international data roaming. This despite the fact that nobody on the account had actually used any data roaming anywhere, and I haven’t been outside the U.S. in over 30 years.

Just resolving that problem required multiple calls. In addition to the erroneous connection to U-verse, I kept reaching their offshore support lines, where the reps had serious problems with English. Each time I explained the nature of the billing error, they’d stop in their tracks. On three occasions, they put me on hold, and the music presentation soon ended with a disconnect. I gather this is one way a support person can dispose of a customer with a problem they cannot understand or solve.

I finally reached someone who hooked me up to the “loyalty” line, where they promptly addressed the issue, and gave me a service credit that covered the error plus an additional sum for my time and trouble.

All this after nearly three hours of trying.

The second problem was stranger, but I didn’t encounter a support issue. On a few occasions in recent weeks, I’ve confronted a weird connection glitch with my iPhone. It starts with the ringing tone sounding as if it’s running in slow motion. Imagine playing a recording at half speed or, as I suggested on my tech radio show, playing a 78 RPM record at 33-and-a-third RPM? The voice at the other end of the connection was equally afflicted with this symptom, and I was told that my voice sounded too slow as well.

The quick fix was just to hang up and call again, in which case the problem would disappear. Well, until the next time.

The first tech representative I spoke with did a simple refresh of the network connection, and asked me to power cycle my iPhone. The problem repeated itself a few hours before I wrote this column, and I reached another AT&T rep, someone who said he had been a communications operative with the Air Force before joining AT&T. He had a better handle on the technicalities involved, and did a more advanced fix. He also said that he escalated the matter to AT&T engineering. Give it five days, he said. and if the problem repeats itself after that period, I will need to contact support again and they’ll have information on my account record about what steps to take next.

Since these problems all occurred within 10 miles of my home, I suppose it’s a problem involving the interaction between my iPhone and the cell tower. We’ll see.

Long and short: Getting technical support from AT&T seems easy enough. But dealing with billing and other customer service problems, with AT&T or DirecTV, has become near-impossible unless you have a lot of patience.

Now that AT&T wants to add Time Warner to its corporate roster, I fear things will only get worse.

All right, I suppose I can switch my service to another carrier. I’ll probably save some money, but I wonder if I’ll be confronting a different set of support problems. My previous experiences with Verizon Wireless and especially Sprint were not terribly impressive either.

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3 Responses to “AT&T’s Customer Service Goes Downhill”

  1. JPO says:

    I just ordered DirectTV Now. There is only web chat and forums to connect with DTV Now team for support. If they respond at all it’s usually with generic solutions or links to supposed fixes. I left ATT for T-Mobile. So far no complaints. I had Fios TV and now just Internet. Verizon seems to be fine. No down times unlike my experience with Comcast. I just believe customer service is a dying service for large corporations. Especially those that have Monopolies. It’s time to fight back. Drop Cable – find a reasonable offer on internet and find content through free or OTA solutions.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    Our favorite technical support story:

    Some years back we had some trouble with our satellite internet connection. We called Hughes technical support several times, and each time they would heroically spend hours with us working on the data link, the account, updating the satellite modem and so on. Nothing worked. Eventually, I called accounting to see if we could close the account and get credit as of the day that the link failed. “Oh, didn’t you hear that they totally reprogrammed the satellite on that date. No modems lower than the x-thousand series can work with the new protocol.” Some how or another none of the six or eight people I worked with in technical support had gotten the message. They sent me a new modem and we were connected again.

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