Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Business

Customer service, without a touch of humanity

Breaking up isn't hard to do, an AT&T wireless customer learned. It's getting back together that's the trick.

Kate Anger, 49, has been an AT&T wireless customer for 15 years. As her family has grown, so has her relationship with the company. There are now five phone lines on her AT&T family plan. The University of California, Riverside lecturer is also an AT&T broadband Internet customer. She is, in other words, well-known to the telecom giant.

Four years ago, Anger shifted her own wireless line to the real estate company where she worked at the time. Her employer had offered to cover her cellphone costs. All other aspects of Anger's relationship with AT&T remained unchanged.

She recently left the real estate firm and contacted AT&T to say she wanted to return her wireless line to the family plan. No problem, a service rep told her. All Anger needed to do was authorize AT&T to perform a credit check.

That's where she dug in her heels. First, she wondered, would a credit check mess with her credit score? Second, what's the point? Hadn't AT&T already given her a clean bill of credit health when she signed on with the company?

"I know this is probably dumb," Anger told me. "But why should I authorize another credit check when I'm already a customer? All I want is to transfer a line back to an account that already exists so they can get more money from me. I shouldn't have to let them do a credit check for that."

I have to admit I admire consumers who stand tall in the face of what they see as unreasonable corporate demands. Most of us would probably cave in a situation like this and say, "Fine, do the darn credit check."

Anger (it's pronounced French-style ahn-jay) chose to draw the line. And she may have been wise to do so.

"It's entirely reasonable for a consumer not to give in to the overuse of credit checks," said Joe Ridout, manager of consumer services for the advocacy group Consumer Action. "They can be punitive to consumers."

There are two types of credit checks. There's the so-called soft pull that allows a company to simply see whether you're up to date on payments and thus worthy of possible special offers. Then there's the hard pull, which is the closer look at your finances a lender does before extending a loan or issuing plastic.

"A hard pull can lower your credit score by a few points," Ridout said. "If you get too many of them, it can be the difference between getting a favorable rate and an unfavorable one."

An application for cellphone service typically involves a hard pull on your credit file.

Anger said that when she made her preference clear to AT&T's rep, he said it was an all-or-nothing deal. The "button" on his screen allowed him to proceed only if a credit check was authorized.

Anger thanked the rep for his time and went to a local AT&T store. The workers there, she said, believed no credit check was necessary to restore a line to an existing account. "But they couldn't do that at the store," Anger said. "I could only do it by calling the company."

I just love it when companies don't just make strange demands of customers, but then complicate things with utterly ridiculous business practices.

You can't handle something as mundane as this at an AT&T store? Is the company going out of its way to be unfriendly?

No, responded Georgia Taylor, an AT&T spokeswoman. This was all just a misunderstanding. "We don't do credit checks for existing customers," she said. "We check on your payment history. If you're a customer in good standing, we'd bring you back on."

Taylor was unable to say why Anger was told she'd have to undergo a credit check as part of the process of restoring her line to her family account.

AT&T stores, Taylor said, can help people restore residential lines to an existing account, but not lines that previously were connected to a business account. She couldn't say why.

• • •

This all strikes me as a classic case of a way-large company being unable to show even a modicum of flexibility for a customer in good standing.

Maybe restoring a former business line is more complicated than restoring a former residential line. Maybe there are some bureaucratic hoops that need to be jumped through. But there's no excuse for a company rep being unable to get past a screen on his computer, or a store that is authorized to perform some but not all customer services.

Anger told me that after I contacted AT&T on her behalf, a service rep called to expedite the transfer of her line back to her family plan. The rep, Anger said, acknowledged that "they really need to change the wording of their script."

Here's another idea: Get rid of scripts altogether and train your service reps to actually deal one-on-one with customers to address their needs.

"All they had was a script and a button on a computer," Anger said. "There was no one who could talk like a human."

The human touch is more expensive. But AT&T pocketed $18.2 billion in profit last year. You'd think some of that money could go toward helping this communications company actually communicate.

David Lazarus is a consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times

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