How our political divide threatens our most cherished institution: capitalism. Oh, and AT&T isn’t great at customer service.
“Do you know how in Donald Trump’s organization all decisions stop with him?” the AT&T Customer Manager said to me, passion rising in her voice, “well, I’m like Donald Trump and this decision stops with me.”
In the early afternoon of January 21st, my partner Sasha and I exited the 6 train along with a small group of friends at 51st street in Manhattan. Placards in hands, we began the short walk to join the few hundred thousand who had gathered for the Women’s March. Sasha turned to me and asked, “if we get separated or if something happens, what’s our plan for communicating or meeting back up?” Instinctively I reached for my phone and was surprised to see that it was no longer on the network. I asked the others in our group, nobody else was having trouble.
“Should I take care of this now?” I asked Sasha.
She looked worried, “Yes, please, could you? For safety, I think it’s best. It’s going to be a big crowd.”
I borrowed her phone and dialed AT&T support. Within minutes an agent named Donny picked up and began investigating. (note, I don’t have a recording or transcript of this call, so recalling from notes I took shortly after the call)
“I see here you called yesterday and were considering leaving AT&T,” he continued to relay information from customer service records, “I see here that you were looking to lower your bill, and I see here that we transferred you to our loyalty department.” Our group continued to walk as he read, we began to approach 2nd Avenue. The crowd began to thicken. He continued, “oh, and I see here we were able to make a change to your plan and…” he paused, “…oh, you’ve been marked as ‘in hospice or deceased’ in our system, that’s why you’re off the network.” He chuckled softly, “well, I can tell you’re very much alive!” And in a more sincere tone, “I’m very sorry about this sir, I’m going to get this taken care of right away for you, I’m not sure how this happened, let me place you on a brief hold.” While we were holding, the streets grew choked with demonstrators. Passions rose and chants began.
“Donald Trump! Go away! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!”
I was relieved it was something so simple: I was dead to them. I found it funny imagining the user interface with two boxes “change plan” and “mark as deceased” right next to each other. Donny, returned to the call.
“Are you at a concert or something?” Donny asked.
“Actually, I’m at one of those rallies going on today.” I consciously avoided telling him which rally or from making any political statements. “I wanted to take care of this now, because as we were arriving here I noticed I wasn’t on the network any longer and felt a little unsafe.”
His tone became a little more serious, “ok sir I’d like to get this taken care of for you, I know we’ve already verified your identity, but being marked ‘in hospice or deceased’ requires additional security,” he said matter-of-factly, “we’ll need to send an email to the address you’ve got on file to further verify your identity.” Thinking fast, I borrowed a friend’s phone and turned on a hotspot. I received Donny’s email and read him the 6-digit pin. “Thank you sir, you’re identity has been verified, I’ll need you to hold briefly.”
After 5 or 10 minutes, Donny came back, “I’m very sorry, but I’m having some trouble with the computer. I’ve discussed your case with my supervisor and they are telling me you’re going to have to go into an AT&T wireless store and provide multiple forms of ID to get this cleared up like a birth certificate or social security card in addition to a photo id.”
“Really? There is nothing you can do?” I asked.
“No sir, being deceased doesn’t happen all that often and security is tight, for your protection,” he said frankly.
“But, earlier you said that it was your mistake,” I urged, “you had said I was marked as ‘deceased’ in error and you’ve verified my identity at least three different ways…”
“I’m sorry sir. The store is the only way,” he said frankly and offered, “would you like me to look one up?”
“May I speak to your supervisor?”
Without hesitation he said, “Sure, one moment.” Donny was a good guy.
A woman’s voice joined the line. Donny dropped. Her tone was annoyed, of one who constantly fields hostile complaints. “Yes, sir??” I sighed a bit. It’s a tough job.
“Hi, I’ve been mistakenly marked as ‘deceased’ in your system…” She cut me off.
“You’re going to have to go to a store and verify your id, for your own protection. It’s the only way.”
“But, I mean, I wish I could show you the situation I am in, I am standing in a crowd of a few hundred thousand folks, I mean, let’s think through this together, you folks admitted you made an error, I’d have to navigate through a crowd I feel unsafe in…” The crowd roared.
Her tone heated a bit, “you’re at one of those women’s things? We got something like that going on here in Oklahoma too, listen, if you’re feeling unsafe you can always dial 911.”
I asked, “listen, I’m not asking you to change your mind — but is there somebody else I can speak with…” before I could finish with, “…so if I hear the same thing twice, I’ll know that’s what I need to do.,” she interjected:
“Do you know how in Donald Trump’s organization all decisions stop with him?” She continued, “well, I’m like Donald Trump and this decision stops with me.”
I was speechless. I paused. She was trying to bait me. After a moment, I responded, “yesterday I called and was considering leaving AT&T, I feel like you’ve crossed a line right now, what would you do if you were me? Would you stay with AT&T?”
“Well, you’re already ‘deceased’ in our system.”
A second line was crossed. I asked politely for the data from the call and was declined. I regret not asking the agent her name.
Later, we left the march and walked to an AT&T store at 51st & Park Avenue. I told the store manager about the interaction I had. She rolled her eyes and said, “well, that’s officially the craziest customer service story I’ve heard in a while,” She dialed AT&T support on their store’s phone and told me to ask for her if I needed help. Within a few minutes, my phone was back on the network. No hoops, hassle, or multiple forms of in-store id. The agent, Ryan, told me the error that AT&T made was as clear as day in their system.
I was happy to be back on the network, but my previous customer service interaction left me feeling uneasy. At best, it was simply an act of poor service. At worst, it was an act of political discrimination. If it was the latter, AT&T’s “common carrier” status would render her actions illegal. To some, this may seem like an infringement on the right to refuse service to anyone. However, “common carrier” plays an important roll in our society. Consider how dangerous it would be if a doctor refused you treatment at a hospital based on an elephant or donkey tattoo. Do you deserve to die for your beliefs? What if you just really like elephants?
For large companies, allowing politics to seep in to service is a bad idea. It’s fair to assume that AT&T’s customer base reflects the political demography of the USA: roughly half-conservative and half-liberal. Political polarization risks alienating 50% of customers. Perhaps large institutions aren’t immune to the bifurcation we’ve seen in television networks, newspapers, and websites — but is this what we really want? A further divided society? I have doubts that a further divided economy is as productive as one that is unencumbered by political partisanship.
It’s been 4 full days since I followed up with AT&T and lodged a complaint with them. As of yet, I still have not received a response to this case. I am upset by how they’ve handled my case thus far. At a minimum, I would have expected an apology from the customer service agent (or a note that she had been notified that her conduct was inappropriate). Soon, I’ll be ending my relationship with them and heading to a, hopefully, more responsive carrier.