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.

Delicious Errors are Horribly Wrong

Most web 2.0 companies use a more colloquial language when ‘conversing’ with their visitors. From time to time their sites are upgraded or tweaked, or go down unexpectedly, and the company needs to create error messages to explain what has happened. This is often used as a (rarely seen) platform for the company to express it’s own quirky personality to its user base.

Twitter is notorious for this:
Twitter Error


YouTube does it sometimes:
YouTube Be Right Back Error

Pownce likes to be geeky about it:

Vimeo even curses the subject:
Vimeo Error Message

All of these messages are reassuring, humourous, or tell you what to do next. The tone and manner used is in keeping with the brand personality. They talk directly to the visitor and treat them like human beings. This is a welcome change from sites that issue cryptic and numbered alert pages that not even a computer can understand.

But yesterday (October 5, 2007) at 10:37am when PR maven Steve Rubel twitted that “Del.icio.us is down,” users of the Yahoo! owned bookmarking service were greeted by a disturbing message:

Apologies, it seems something is horribly wrong with our code

Horribly Delicious

I use all of these services to varying degrees, but del.icio.us is where I have put in the most work. For years now I have faithfully tagged and described 1158 pages on the internet. I use del.icio.us to track and categorize research projects, label tools, and mark future trends for reference. So when I read this my blood went cold. It looked like del.icio.us might have lost everything. It looked like the site might be terminally broken. Clicking on the ‘Return to the home page’ link exacerbated the fear by simply reloading the same error message.

Del.icio.us is slowly rolling out the new 2.0 version of their site, so it is conceivable that they might be down infrequently for maintenance. But it is another thing entirely to glibly claim that the code— the underlying framework of all our faithful taxonomy— is horribly wrong.

Yes, my reaction is exaggerated. I know the message was just a poor choice of words. But it made me feel paranoid instead of assured, which reminded me how important it is to speak to customers, consumers, users, with a consistent and authoritative voice. When there is trouble, be honest, let them know what’s going on, give them a laugh. But try not to scare them or undermine their confidence.

Because that message is your brand.