The Customer is Always Wrong

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Wait," you say, "don't you mean 'the customer is always right'?" No, I don't.

Thursday evening I kicked off my slippers and sat back in my recliner to watch new episodes of "Househunters" and "Househunters International" on HGTV, which was part of our AT&T U-verse subscription. When they were over, I went to bed happy.

Friday morning I wanted something to watch while exercising, so I turned on HGTV. Did I get it? No. I got TLC instead. I like some TLC shows, but others are rubbish, and this was one of the latter. (I think the title was, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant.") A news feed scrolling across the bottom stated that Scripps (the owner of the HGTV channel) was denying us our HGTV. The news feed also provided information on contacting Scripps through AT&T U-verse.

I don't know who's at fault, and I don't care. I realize there are more important things in life than TV, but HGTV and some of the other Scripps channels involved in the dispute (including DIY Network, Food Network, and the Cooking Channel) are among the few wholesome offerings out there.

Unlike the news feed suggested, I didn't want to contact Scripps. Nor did I want to use a cookie-cutter complaint. I wanted to send AT&T an individual message that said something like, "If you think Scripps is engaging in unfair practices, file a complaint with the FCC. If you think Scripps' conduct is anti-competitive, file a complaint with the FTC. But if you want to keep me as a customer, get HGTV back."

The problem? No matter how much I searched the AT&T website, I couldn't find an e-mail address. I couldn't even find a contact form or an online chat room. When I thought I was filling out a contact form or an online chat inquiry, I received an automated response that no FAQs matched my search. Even my computer-savvy son couldn't find what I wanted.

Yes, I know that AT&T is running a business and times are tough. I understand that customer service representatives cost money and that many questions can be answered as FAQs. I also understand the efficiency in making customers check online FAQs before sending an unnecessary e-mail that someone must sort through and respond to. But AT&T seems to have forgotten who's generating the company's income. If it can't keep its customers happy, it won't have a business to worry about.

AT&T does provide a telephone number to call, and the number does reach a real person eventually. And maybe a customer service representative could have provided me with an e-mail address. But why should I have to go through all that trouble? Especially since the frustrating process could (and surely often does) lead callers to take out their frustration on a customer service representative who is doing the best he or she can.

I sympathize with the people who answer customer service calls, and my complaint isn't about them. Once I reach a live customer service representative (at AT&T and most places), I'm usually satisfied with the response. No, my argument is with the companies that think efficiency and cost-savings are more important than customer service.

If customers are even sometimes right, companies should want to hear from them. The men and women who panned for gold in California and Alaska were willing to sift through tons of gravel and sand and pyrite to find an ounce of gold because they knew the result was worth the effort. By making it so hard to contact them, companies like AT&T are saying all customer input is fool's gold. Or, to phrase it differently, their actions have coined a new slogan: The customer is always wrong.

Someday they'll discover how short-sighted that is.

Postscript: Sometimes companies do get it right. I use Verizon Wireless for my family's cell phone service, and my husband and I recently upgraded our phones. Each phone was supposed to come with a $50 rebate, which I sent in right away. One of the rebates went smoothly, but today I got a card in the mail saying there was a problem with the other one. The card gave me a telephone number to call, and although I had to go through a menu to get there, it did give me the option of talking to a real person. The wait time was just a minute or two, and the person looked up my file, put me on hold for another minute or two, and returned to tell me the problem had been fixed and I would receive the rebate in the mail in about 15 days. I wish I could remember the woman's name (she did give it), but Verizon gets five stars for its customer service.

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