Nicole and I bought two iPhones on iPhone Day, June 29. I ported my number from my old T-Mobile phone without incident. Nicole was not so lucky.
She wasn’t really trying to port a number at all; her old phone was with AT&T, and she just wanted to keep the same number while moving the whole business to our iPhone family account.
When she initially set up the phone in iTunes, it told her that there was a problem in transferring her number, and that she’d have to contact AT&T customer service; the phone was assigned a new number.
She contacted AT&T customer service using their online support system, which amounts to IRC with a terrible Java client. You’re stuffed into this channel with x other customers and an AT&T support guy. I suppose the idea is that a lot of people have the same questions, and that if you see yours asked and answered in there while you’re waiting, you can save some time.
This would work nicely — or at least not incredibly badly — if the AT&T guy had had any information, or if he had been able to do anything but trigger canned responses. It was one of those conversations like this:
customer1234: Are you a human, or a computer? I don’t think you read my message before sending that canned response, because it’s not relevant at all.
AT&T Steve: Thank you for using AT&T Wireless Chat Support. You will now be disconnected from this session. The chat window will remain open until you close it. For quick answers, make the new AT&T Mobility Help site your first stop. Visit http://help.sbcglobal.net where you’ll find pages of product information to assist you. Again, thank you for choosing Cingular Chat Support.
Ultimately, though, the guy sent a canned response to the effect that this was entirely beyond the capabilities of the chat support system, and that Nicole would have to call on the phone.
Since this was a Friday night, and since the least experienced people tend to work the Friday night and weekend shifts on customer support lines, she just forwarded her old phone to her new phone and decided to wait until Monday.
When she called on Monday, their call-handling system said that wait times were 21 minutes, so she decided to wait a few days and call back later.
With one thing and another, ‘a few days later’ wound up being Tuesday of this week. She was told that the problem was that there was still an AOL employee discount on the line, and that the number couldn’t be transferred with that in place.
Okay, so let’s remove that discount; Nicole doesn’t work at AOL any more anyway, and the discount was about $0.60 a month.
Well, they couldn’t do that, because there was something wrong with their computers. But — customer service win! — they’d call Nicole back Wednesday afternoon to take care of it. The important thing here is that they would call her back, rather than putting the burden on Nicole. As I said: customer service win.
Or it would have been, had AT&T actually called as promised. When she hadn’t heard from them by late Wednesday afternoon, Nicole called them. They were aware of the ticket and were able to remove the discount. At this point she was told, though, that it was impossible for her to transfer her number.
Not that it was difficult, or that it was complicated, or that it was impossible for that particular phone rep to transfer her number, but that it was impossible full stop. She was told to return the iPhone to Apple — paying a restocking fee in the process — and then call AT&T to ‘try’ — their word — to cancel the iPhone account by claiming ‘buyer’s remorse’. Then, Nicole was to buy a new iPhone and run through the activation procedure again, whereupon (she was told) her number would be able to be transferred.
It’s at this point that I took over the process. Nicole was asking them questions, trying to get some clarification that AT&T actually was telling her that she’d have to commit fraud with AT&T and forfeit $60 to Apple (which she couldn’t have, as the return period on the phone had already lapsed) in order to transfer her number; but she wasn’t having much luck. I only heard Nicole’s side of the story, but she was clearly being interrupted every time she opened her mouth.
I called not the regular AT&T customer service line, but the special iPhone customer service line. The guy there immediately said that this business about returning the phone was ridiculous, and that this was all screwed up, and that he wished we’d talked to him initially because what we were trying to do was really very simple. That the next four people I talked to all gave me the if-you’d-talked-to-me-instead-of-all-the-other-people-this-would-have-been-solved-quickly line, I somewhat doubt the actual truth of the statement.
Nevertheless, after about an hour on the phone, we’d arrived at this conclusion:
- The account needed to be switched from the ‘blue’ (legacy AT&T wireless) network to the ‘orange’ (Cingular) network before it could then be switched from ‘orange’ to the ‘new AT&T’ network. This network doesn’t seem to have a color, but I imagine it’s some kind of mauve.
- I would need to get a new SIM card for the iPhone, because the SIM card already in there had been assigned to the random number ((540) MAC-HOLY as it happens) that had been drawn from the hat when it had been activated.
- I should then call AT&T back at (877) 800-3701, which is the general activation support line; they would arrange to do the blue-to-orange switcheroo and to help me reactivate the iPhone and assign the now-orange old number to it.
At this point, it’s worth noting that I, the customer, was getting involved in the distinctions between the ‘blue’, ‘orange’, and ‘new AT&T’ networks, and that I needed to understand the difference between a “Core” AT&T store and a “Non-Core” AT&T store. All of this is utterly ridiculous, but as I am a reasonably smart guy I was able to pull this off, and even to understand what was wrong.
Anyway, so I went to the nearest “AT&T Core” store — not to be confused with Bellcore — and, as directed, asked for Matt. Matt handed over a new SIM card without delay.
By this time it was about 5:30 p.m., so I clocked out of my new part-time job as an AT&T iPhone customer support gopher, and did my normal Tino things.
Thursday morning, it was back to the grind. I called (877) 800-3701, negotiated a lengthy phone tree, and was eventually put on hold. The AT&T hold music is the World’s Greatest Baroque Hits, but it’s being fed by some kind of satellite service or something that cuts out every couple of seconds, replaced with white noise. This sounds like a small thing, but it’s not: it’s maddening. The whole point of hold music is to let you know that you haven’t been cut off; when the music itself cuts off at random intervals, it’s a constant distraction from whatever else you’re trying to do.
When a rep finally got around to me, I verified my identity and explained the whole thing to him again, and told that I was to call this number, give them all the phone numbers, the serial number of the iPhone, and the serial number of the new SIM, and that everything would be handled.
He argued with me. This was impossible, he said, and if-I-had-talked-to-him-first-I-would-never-have-been-told-that etc., etc., etc., etc.
This phone call ended with me hanging up on him while he was delivering another long speech about how this was all my fault, and how they just couldn’t do this, and how I just ‘didn’t understand how things worked’.
I immediately called the iPhone line, and gave them the spiel, including the fact that I’d been told to call (877) 800-3701 but that the people answering that line were worse than useless. Oh-that’s-terrible-if-you’d-called-me-first-etc.-etc.-etc. ensued. Now, the procedure changed. The first thing that had to happen, I was now told, was that the financial responsibility for the account had to be switched from Nicole to me, because I was the primary account holder on the new iPhone family plan. This, of course, required talking to another person, as anything involving billing or finance often does. The helpful iPhone CSR called the financial-responsibility person and explained things while I was listening to the static on hold, and then connected me to the finance group.
The finance girl immediately told me that I’d be charged a service fee of $18 for switching the financial responsibility from Nicole to me. I said that this was kind of silly because the whole point of this was to work around procedural roadblocks that AT&T had put in its own way.
This was a mistake, because it triggered the “we’re doing you a favor” mode in the financial-responsibility girl. “You’re being charged this because this is something you’re choosing to do, okay? You don’t have to do this,” she said. But of course I did have to do this, because AT&T wireless seems determined to get in its own way at every step. I said that I wasn’t in fact choosing to do this, but being told to do this by AT&T itself. While I was saying this, the girl interrupted me to deliver the same message. I think that she meant that I was ‘choosing’ to do business with AT&T at all, and that if I didn’t like that they were going to charge me more pointless fees over and above the activation fees, this was entirely my problem and that I could go to hell. I told her to stop telling me off for trying to do business with her company, and to just transfer the account. The rest of the conversation was conducted with her voice dripping with contempt.
With that done, the next step was apparently to install the new SIM card in the iPhone and to re-activate it using iTunes. I did.
This time, I didn’t bother even trying to call (877) 800-3701, because everyone at that number had been consistently rude, misinformed, and seemingly pleased by customer dissatisfaction. It wasn’t just indifference: they actually seemed to take glee in telling me (incorrectly) that I was Fucked, to put it bluntly. I called the iPhone people instead.
Oh-that’s-terrible-if-you’d-talked-to-me-bla-bla-bla. This particular phone call lasted for a little over an hour, with me on hold much of the time. I was told that it would be ‘impossible’ for me to re-activate the iPhone, because I was in St. Louis, and my account was in what AT&T calls ‘the Baltimore-Washington Market’. Apparently, I was told, the SIM cards were all locked — locked! to the market in which they were sold. I pointed out that I’d bought the iPhone in St. Louis and activated its pre-installed SIM card with a Baltimore-Washington account; but then this was only possible (they said) because the pre-installed iPhone SIM cards were special SIM cards that could be activated anywhere.
Were any of those special SIM cards available? No. Could they have FedEx knocking on my door at 8:30 the next morning with one of these special Baltimore-Washington SIM cards? After about 30 minutes on hold while they checked into that: No.
Did they understand that this was ridiculous? To their credit, they did. In a lot of customer-service dealings, you can recover a lot of goodwill simply by acknowledging that your customer is not insane for thinking that your company’s policies are a bit counterproductive.
Anyway, I was told to reinstall the old SIM, read all kinds of numbers off to them, etc., etc., etc. I’m not really clear about what was wrong at this point, and from what I was told AT&T wasn’t either. Eventually I was told that they didn’t know what was holding up this activation, but that if it somehow succeeded we’d have a problem again. On the other hand, if the activation went into some kind of limbo, we were in business because the humans could hijack the process at that point.
I was told to call back in an hour. I did. I explained all of this again. If-you’d-talked-to-me-in-the-first-place and so forth. Reinstall the new SIM, the market-locking thing having apparently been B.S. all along. This phone call took another hour, and the only result was that I was told that ‘experts’ were still actively looking into the matter, and that I should call back — to the (877) 800-3701 number — in two more hours.
If ‘experts’ were looking at it now, who had been looking at it before? I suspect that I know the answer to that, but that it wouldn’t be polite to say. I mentioned that every time I’d called the (877) 800-3701 number, I’d wound up hanging up in disgust; I was told to ask for ‘Roxanne’ — in the world of customer service, nobody has extension numbers, direct inbound dial, or last names — and that things should be handled expeditiously.
As it happens, I didn’t have to call back in two hours, because in about an hour and fifty minutes they called me back to tell me that the experts were still hard at work, and that things should be fixed imminently.
Ten minutes later, they called me again, and told me that things should be working. I was instructed to activate the iPhone in iTunes again, specifying Nicole’s phone number but my social security number. The phone immediately activated with the correct number.
So apparently all along the problem was that someone with access to at least one clue needed to look at the situation and take the proper action. Fine; this is how most things work. AT&T’s real failures here were two:
- Employing any of the people I talked to via the (877) 800-3701 in any capacity whatsoever. Not only were they not helpful, but at every turn they actively set the process back. They’re so bad, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that they’re all Verizon moles, sent to infiltrate AT&T and chase away customers.
- Not being able to identify the issue with my account and properly escalate it until after I’d been on the phone multiple times for multiple hours, repeating myself and growing more and more frustrated with AT&T. It appears that once the issue got into the right hands, everything was resolved pretty quickly. I’ll accept a delay while a problem is solved, but I will not accept having to project-manage the solution for a company to whom I’m paying money.
Speaking of which, I expect to have a followup to this when the bill comes. Right now, according to the AT&T website, I owe them either $240 or $68, depending on where I look. I fully expect the activation fees and first month’s bill on this to be fully comped; or I can pay them and then bill them for my project-management services in connection with the activation — which bill is, at my normal rates, a hell of a lot higher than their bill. At the moment, though, their system is far too disorganized for me to tell what the heck is going on.