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Can’t Buy me Love

I remember learning about the most comprehensive book of rules you can imagine in one of my marketing classes many years ago. I’m talking about the brand identity dos and don’ts as spelled out in a corporate binder that truly transmitted the culture of the company it was written for: AT&T. This is a conversation on what money can’t buy.

I remember learning about the most comprehensive book of rules you can imagine in one of my marketing classes many years ago. I’m talking about the brand identity dos and don’ts as spelled out in a corporate binder that truly transmitted the culture of the company it was written for: AT&T. This is a conversation on what money can’t buy.

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When I first came to the US more than 18 years ago, well I was practically a baby, I worked in an international medical center where long distance calls where the order of the day. I was used to dealing with AT&T operators to call collect in some countries when necessary, as the center was a nonprofit entity. I was used to it so much that I never even thought of shopping around for a long distance provider at home – AT&T it was.

Along with so many others, I had become a captive audience, yet when things started to go wrong with the service and other providers became more aggressive in getting the message out, I began to consider switching. The reasons will become apparent in a moment.

Let’s take a step back and consider some of the animosity that has started permeating conversations in the blogosphere over the recent announcement that our beloved Cingular is now the new AT&T. There are some obvious perception issues associated with the two brands: Cingular, which was launched at a considerable cost a few years ago, spells hip, young, and with it; AT&T, which has been around for a while, spells corporate mega brand the way telephony used to be. Is it just a marketing matter? Can this perception be fixed with a cool new advertising campaign?

I would wager that these opinions were formed in conversations with the people who represent the two brands on a day-to-day basis: the customer service, along with each company’s willingness to meet the needs of their customers.

Shall we compare? When I realized that the fixed taxes and fees associated with keeping a long distance provider on my home phone line where not outweighing the benefits of calling my family overseas, I dropped the service in favor of a calling card. After all, some months I would need to call more often than others, and the card was portable. It’s important to note that the calling card was with AT&T. Before dropping the service, I tried in vain to discuss options with my preferred provider. The answer in not so many words: no.

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This worked well until I had to charge minutes to my card on weekends, when I would make most of my calls. I distinctly remember trying desperately to recharge the card, which the voice prompt told me I could do, and then getting a message at the end of what seemed like an interminable chain of questions, including entering my credit card number, etc. that the service was not available on weekends. Wait a moment? You tell me that at the end and I haven’t even talked to a person? In summary: no.

When I finally got hold of the system — note that it wasn’t a person yet so no need to record this conversation, it’s already recorded — I learned that if I wanted to have the privilege of using an AT&T calling card, I had to pay some taxes and fees every time I charged. Back to the long distance service at home: no.

No problem, there’s other providers who will be just as happy to help me and for less cost per minute in my favorite country.

I’ve been a Cingular customer for several years now. My first contract was with an analog phone. I signed up with the provider not on the strength of its fun orange and hip logo, although that helped me in noticing the company. I chose Cingular because I had heard from friends that it was a good provider with a decent network, even internationally.

Three contracts later and a portable mobile number to boot, I am still a loyal Cingular customer. Why? I have had to call the company late at night and on weekends to change my plan so it could suit my needs and it was done, on the spot. The last time I had to do that I was standing in front of the Bavarian Lodge in a small town nestled between the mountains in Washington State late at night. The pleasant customer service person I talked to hit a few keys and I was on my way. No worries.

On another occasion, I was receiving spam text messages on my mobile on a Saturday afternoon. I counted fifteen before I was able to finish dialing the Cingular 800-number and talk to a person on the other end. She seemed to have no other pressing matters that day than helping me figure out how we could track the source number, stop whoever was sending the messages from sending more, and recording the incident for the company alert system – so other customer service people could learn about it. No problem, it took only a few minutes and I quickly forgot about the spamming.

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But the best example of superb customer conversation I had was a little over a year ago with Tony at a Cingular store at the Mall in King of Prussia, PA. Nokia had just launched its new flip phone in the US, the 6102, and it was going to be available at Cingular. I called the store to inquire and was told that they had received only a limited quantity and were already sold out. What a clever way to roll out a new product, I thought. I still wanted one.

Without too much prodding on my part, Tony, the person on the other end of the phone, the Cingular representative, said: “If you’d like to leave me your phone number, I can call you when the next batch comes in.” Has that ever happened to you? Maybe. Has it ever happened to you with a phone company? Has it happened with a wireless phone provider?

And Tony kept his word. As soon as the phone came in, he called me to inform me that if I was still interested, he was going to put one aside for me to pick up at my convenience. Now this was a hot item at the time, he did not need to do that to sell it, anyone could have walked in that day and purchased the phone and he would have gotten his sale. I was so impressed, that I was touched by the gesture. No worries, it can be done.

From the AT&T Web site: “What does the AT&T-Bell-South merger mean to you? It means that BellSouth and Cingular are now part of the new AT&T. The BellSouth Name will soon become AT&T but you will continue to get the same level of affordable products, etc.” No mention of service as in customer conversations.

Want to know why I’m still under contract with Cingular? In my experience AT&T has meant: no, not even a voice on the other end of the phone. Cingular: can do, pleasant people in problem solving mode, and no rush to get away from you. I wonder what will happen to Tony now that Cingular is, alas, the new AT&T. Are you listening now? Money or affordable products as it may be can’t buy me love.

Valeria Maltoni • Conversation Agent • Philadelphia, PA • ConversationAgent@gmail.comwww.conversationagent.com

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