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Lamont Wood
Lamont Wood

Customer Service Nightmare Bodes Ill for SMBs

Phone support proves to be of negative value, paralyzing my work for an afternoon after rashly switching carriers.

Phone support proves to be of negative value, paralyzing my work for an afternoon after rashly switching carriers.It sounded like a good idea: switch from Time Warner Roadrunner to AT&T U-verse service for phone, Internet, and TV service at my home-office. The latter was cheaper and included a DVR and a Wi-Fi access point, and was based on fiber to the curb with the access point only two blocks away. Throughput was 10 megabits downstream and 1.5 megabits upstream, with dedicated bandwidth. Roadrunner had worked fine but its throughput of 10 megabits in both directions was not based on dedicated bandwidth and certain digerati in my family were dissatisfied with the uneven ping times. And the person who paid the bills was scandalized by the way Time Warner billed for the next month the moment they got payment for the previous month, apparently hoping you would not look at the calendar.

The technician installed everything and left. So far so good.

But I wanted to use my new AT&T internet service to access the third-party e-mail account I had been using for business since (believe it or not) 1994. SMPT lets you send and receive POP mail across vendors and carriers, and I had managed to do so in the past, even from hotels in Las Vegas.

I could not get it to work, generating error messages rather than mail. (Incoming mail, vectored from the third party account, worked fine, but I could not respond to any of it.) One of the error messages mentioned an AT&T customer support web page, so I went there, and found instructions for "verifying" the third-party e-mail address, something that has not been necessary with Roadrunner.

I proceeded to follow the instructions-and discovered that they did not match what I found on the web pages in question. I was supposed to click options that did not exist.

After considerable floundering I called their toll-free customer support number and was greeted by a fulsome, glad-handing robot that led me down a response tree until it finally acknowledged that I was having e-mail problems. It then listed a web page I should try-and then told me what number to push to hear my options again.

Sometimes with these systems you can get to a live person if you keep pressing zero, so I tried that and eventually encountered a human being, who (like the robot) kept apologizing. I asked her to skip to the chase, and she came up with one setting after another to try, all the while typing frantically. I wondered if she was writing a novel in the background.

Nothing worked. Finally, she announced that she was out of options and could offer no further help-except to send me to a commercial service (AT&T ConnecTech) with certified technicians and guaranteed results, for about $30. So I had to pay $30 for their failure? She went back to apologizing. Hours had gone by and my e-mail was still paralyzed with no fix in sight, so I bit.

I was transferred to a friendly woman in the Philippines who took my credit card number, and transferred me to someone who had the best command of English I have ever encountered with overseas tech support. He snorted at the idea of failure and had me download a support tool that gave him control over my computer. I watched as he moved the cursor and walked through the AT&T pages that had defeated me earlier, noting that their help files had not been updated. He then went to the e-mail settings and addressed options I knew nothing about. He had me fill in any required personal data from my computer.

Finally, it worked.

It had taken 20 minutes and there had not been a single apology. I was in business. But my blood pressure had peaked and worse it was quitting time and the e-mail responses I hurriedly sent were irrelevant. AT&T had put me out of business for an afternoon and charged me $30, while spewing a cloud of robotic apologies.

Then I realized that I needed to set up my wife's new AT&T e-mail account. Since it was not a third-party account there should be no mystery, I assumed, but I could not get it to work. So I called the customer support robot again, and again invoked a human being. She was surprisingly unapologetic about Microsoft Outlook being an "unsupported" product. (If that is not supported, what is?) We wrestled with obscure options and tiny typos, and finally got it to work.

It "only" took an hour. As Huckleberry Finn once said, that is nothing.

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