An Open Letter to AT&T Regarding My Attempts to Buy an iPhone


NEW YORK (MainStreet) —

Dear AT&T,

Giving you money shouldn't be this hard.

At the beginning of August I finally decided to upgrade my old iPhone 3. I bought the device back in the spring of 2010, and years later it began showing its age. Never mind my complaints about well-maintained technology that expires faster than a can of tuna, and I forgave the dropped calls and failed connections that caused me to miss more than one interview. A new telephone might fix my problems, and I was very willing to try.

Besides, as one of the holdovers of the unlimited data era, changing service providers was never really an option. Thanks to the commoditization of wireless data, my phone plan has become the third rail of my life: it has unlimited data and so is not, under any conditions, to be touched. My best bet was in buying a new phone.

I wanted this to be easy. I would visit the (only) AT&T store near my apartment in Chicago, renew my plan and purchase a new phone to go with it. Your customer service had other ideas.

The first time I tried stopping by your store over lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon, one representative called out a cheerful "we'll be right with you" before turning back to her customer. This turned out to be wildly optimistic, and I spent the better part of an hour unnecessarily browsing cellular phones before eventually giving up.

On my second trip I tried to plan more carefully and arrived well after lunchtime, in an effort to avoid the rush. I did no better. My third trip ended before it even began. I marched out after noticing the haggard customers outnumbering floor staff by nearly three to one, more considering that one of those staff members had spent every minute I'd been in the store talking on the phone. This may seem like fitting bit of irony, but it was lost on me.

This continued for all of August. I've waited through endless chunks of "just 20 minutes." By now, I've browsed every gadget you allow confused customers to glare at through display cases full of products that no one can buy.

I have to confess that by my final visit I'd become unhappy and may have even stormed out on one of your salesmen when he assured me another 20 minute wait. (I apologize to this nameless salesman, but in my defense we both knew very well that you were lying.)

On my last visit I took advantage of an automated kiosk where I could pay my bill, because in the time it took me to get a new device from your back closet an entire billing cycle had passed. This apparently created a problem with the system, and I had to wait another hour to buy my phone. As one saleswoman pointed out, we should consider this my fault for not paying before coming in.

My apologies. From now on I will settle up all affairs 30 days in advance of trying to speak with your customer service representatives.

At first I assumed this was a clever attempt on your part to force me out of the brick and mortar stores. I have nothing but glowing reviews for your telephone agents, and doing business online is considerably cheaper than keeping a footprint in the real world. Maybe, by making my experience in your air conditioned Alcatraz as unpleasant as possible, you wanted to encourage me to become a customer online. It would certainly explain the staff suggestions that I do so, in what few interactions we had.

According to Michael Silverstein of the Boston Consulting Group, though, my theory doesn't hold water. "Retailers," he assured me, "don't organizationally make resource allocations between stores and online efforts... Store associate staffing is generally set by a math algorithm, staff levels set by forecast traffic."

Instead, this simply seems to be a case of captive consumerism.


The unfortunate fact is that we both know I won't be leaving any time soon. Like more and more modern companies, you've begun to exist in many ways independent of customer satisfaction. Don't worry, AT&T, you're not alone. I'll no more be giving up my phone plan over customer service than I will cheap airline seats or my e-mail address.

No matter how unhappy I get over Google's compulsive fixing of a system that isn't broken, I'm very heavily invested. Changing my e-mail would take a lot of effort, so I'll have to be very unhappy before I do that. The same goes for my telephone. Even with portable phone numbers, it will take more than a lousy day at your store to drive a wedge between us. The cost of making a change would be greater than tolerating a roomful of people who have no time for me.

I suspect you know that.

The next time, I'll most likely do the same thing as before. I'll show up early, stick around late. I'll call ahead and wait on hold to try and make an appointment. I'll work very hard in order to make a purchase, and try to hold down the feeling that a few years ago this would have been a whole lot faster.

I guess that's all this letter is trying to say.

It should be easier to give you money.

Yours (not necessarily by choice),

Eric Reed

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website

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