AT&T Lets Their Brand Burn

AT&T DeathstarMany companies have call centres that are incapable of improvisation. They have absolutely no leeway for sympathy or compassion. No flexible imagination. The short term view is that caring costs money. If they keep the calls short, force everyone to pay what is due without exceptions, there will be a better bottom line.

At the moment AT&T has a few negative branding issues. It is embroiled in a class-action lawsuit for participating in illegal wiretapping with the NSA. They are accused of censoring politically sensitive broadcasts, like the ‘mistake’ made during a Pearl Jam concert when the sound was cut as Eddie Vedder sang, “George Bush, leave this world alone.” Even their own privacy policy (according to the San Francisco Chronicle) states, “AT&T — not customers [emphasis added] — owns customers’ confidential info and can use it ‘to protect its legitimate business interests…” The only shine on the ‘Deathstar’ (as it is sometimes referred to) is that they are the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States. And look how eager programmers are to make sure each update to the iPhone is cracked and open as soon as possible to bypass the need for AT&T’s services. (see Wikipedia article for more context)

Now witness AT&T’s treatment of Matt and Danelle Azola, a couple from Ramona San Diego who return from their honeymoon to see their California house burn down in the 2007 wildfires. They call AT&T to cancel their services (since they don’t have a house, never mind a television, computer, or phone), and are asked if they managed to rescue the satellite receiver. When Danelle tells them it was destroyed in the fire with all her other worldly possessions, AT&T informs her she will be sent a $300 bill for its replacement. She pleads to a supervisor, but there was no leniency and AT&T policy is strictly enforced. The mail carrier will just have to place that AT&T bill on a smoking pile of ash where the front door used to be.

[UPDATE: One of the many drawbacks of youtube is not only the horrible quality, but of course, you can never control the reliability of the link. Sorry.]

AT&T, and let’s be honest— MOST cable/phone/internet providers— take a short-term view of their customers. There is so much churn, and so many choices, that they go for the bottom line. They outsource, they create confusing plans (and groups of bundles of plans), and they treat people like robots. It is dangerous to act this way because without loyal customers, a company is vulnerable.

AT&T had an opportunity to do something extraordinary. They had an opportunity to create some goodwill, to give these customers, who are in extenuating circumstances, an exceptional experience. Imagine if they had offered to give this couple free cellular service for a few months until they were back on their feet, as well as wave any new installation or set-up fees that might be incurred at their new location. How much would that have cost this communications giant? And would that cost not be offset by a completely reversed TV news item, where a couple extolled AT&T as the one bright light in their storm?

Instead AT&T makes sure to kick them when they are down. And that creates negative equity, bad word of mouth, and Brand Decay sets in. The Azola’s didn’t even make this video. It was created by yet another disenfranchised customer who wanted to broadcast his or her unhappiness with the brand. AT&T isn’t seeing a lot of love these days. Without treating their own paying customers with respect, without creative solutions to unique problems, it will become increasingly difficult for them to keep and acquire customers. They need to start thinking more about the long term.