How AT&T failed its customers in a crisis

Colin Shaw
Founder & CEO
Beyond Philosophy
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After Hurricane Irma’s recent march through Florida, millions of people lost internet, phone and cell phone service. Frustrated by an inability to contact loved ones, conduct business and get news, they looked for answers from their cable, cell phone and internet providers.

Well, they didn’t get much. “I wish they would tell us what was going on,” complained one AT&T UVerse customer. An Orlando-area gas station owner said he had lost about $10,000 in business because without internet, he could only handle cash transactions. When he called his provider, Spectrum, he was told that the best way to reach the carrier was via the internet! That’s an outrageous thing to say to someone who’s internet service isn’t working.

Customers were so upset that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) stepped in and wrote a letter to nine telecommunications companies asking them to provide rebates for service fees during outage periods and issue a 60-day moratorium on late fees. “Now is the time to lend a helping hand to your fellow Americans,” he wrote, “to help them meet their immediate needs without the added stress of excessive financial demands.”

Telecoms Put Cost-Savings Ahead of Customers

I used to work for a large telecoms company and my impression of the industry at the time was that it was inward-looking, focused always on internal politics, cutting costs and earning more profits. Providing customers with a better experience was not on the company’s radar.

You would have thought that this would change over time, but about five years ago, we conducted research where we asked customer experience professionals at about 40 telecom companies worldwide to name a company in their industry whose customer experience they admired. You could have heard a pin drop!

So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise, that, faced with an outage crisis, the telecoms paid attention to work crews and getting service restored, but gave little thought to communicating with their customers. The telecoms didn’t provide outage updates, maps or service restoration schedules. They were vague and opaque about billing – would you be charged for the days you were without service? What if you were impacted by the storm and couldn’t pay your bill on time?

AT&T, for example, sent this text to its wireless customers in Florida: “...we’d like to help out during this difficult time. You won’t be charged for any talk, text and data overages from 9/8-9/17.” This was helpful, but the explanation on the company website left customers worried they would be charged, if, say, they used extra data during the storm but didn’t have an overage until later in the month. And AT&T’s promise to credit customers in two or three billing cycles made people wonder if they’d have to pay up front for the overages after all.

One local newspaper reported that some telecom companies had agreed to handle rebate requests on a case by case basis, and aptly observed, “That is unreasonable.”

Helping Customers in a Crisis Starts with Communication

It’s obvious to anyone that storm victims are stressed and anxious. They may have lost their homes and their livelihoods. They cannot begin the process of applying for aid and cleaning up the mess without access to a phone or a website. Businesses lose tens of thousands of dollars when they cannot reopen because they do not have phone and internet service.

Telecoms can only do so much to restore service quickly. However, their own communications and billing practices are fully within their control and this is where they failed so miserably after the storm. A telecom company that was focused on the customer would communicate with its subscribers, who are looking for answers and a return to normalcy. It would build goodwill by adjusting its billing practices to alleviate customers’ financial stress, instead of maximizing its own profits by forcing customers to apply for rebates on a case by case basis. In short, it would be attuned to its customers’ emotional reactions. It is proven that ultimately, this drives value rather than destroying it.

Unfortunately, telecoms are still inwardly focused and have a long way to go to become customer-centric. Let’s hope their dreadful storm response will serve as a lesson to other companies looking to meet the needs of their customers after a natural disaster.

Were you affected by any of this summer’s storms? What did you think of your cell and cable providers’ response? Share your experiences in the comments box below.

Emotions comprise more than half the typical customer experience and it is during such difficult times that their emotions should be considered more than ever. Join our next webinar to find out how to embrace your customer's emotions: Customers Are Irrational - Don't Fight It, Embrace It!

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Are Telecoms the World’s Worst at Customer Experience?

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Outrageous! How Tech Support Makes You Mad – On Purpose!

Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

About Colin Shaw

About Colin Shaw

 Colin Shaw is founder & CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of worlds first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of four best-selling books. Beyond Philosophy has a proven track record. They provide consulting, specialised research & training from Tampa, Florida and London, England. Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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