8 March 2012 Jay Shepherd

How not to do online-chat customer service, by AT&T

Calling customer service can be very frustrating. Some companies realize that, and have begun offering online-chat services as an alternative. This makes sense. I would rather type a quick summary of my issue and read the answer realtime instead of waiting on endless hold. Plus, online chat allows you to avoid insipid remakes of Christopher Cross songs or worse, advertisements for other things sold by the company you’re currently unhappy with.

So when I had an issue come up with my AT&T, I noticed that they had a button for online chat. I had become a reluctant customer since the iPhone was introduced in 2007. I live in a major suburb of Boston, and yet in the four years I had an account with AT&T, I had an average of three to five calls drop a day. Every day.

So last November, when the iPhone 4S came out, I pulled the plug and moved my number to Verizon (actually, back to Verizon, because I had ported it to AT&T to get my first iPhone). This, of course, led to an unexpected complication.

You see, last summer, before I quit AT&T — “Ah wish Ah knew how to quit you” — I gave my 11-year-old daughter one of my previous iPhones and added her to my AT&T account. But after I moved my phone to Big Red, AT&T somehow forgot how to process my autopayments for my daughter’s account. Which led to my daughter getting pestered with texts and phone calls. “Daddy, what’s a deadbeat?” (OK, possibly not an actual transcript.)

Finally, I got a letter stressing the dire need to pay my daughter’s phone bill (which I had thought was getting paid automatically). I didn’t want to call their 800 number for customer service, because that’s a hole whose gravity well is so strong that neither light nor helpfulness can escape. So I went to att.com and found a button that said “Click here for an incredibly helpful online representative.” (Again, I may be embellishing what the button said.) Since I was pretty sure that no one had figured out how to play shrill on-hold music on a chat button, I went for it.

After a short wait, words magically appeared on my screen. The words purported to be from a customer-service representative named Julius Ray Something (he gave a actual last name, but I won’t share it). I explained that I could no longer access my account and therefore couldn’t pay my daughter’s bill.

Julius Ray (who perhaps was just a computer algorithm) helpfully described the process for setting up a brand-new account. So I explained why that wasn’t what I needed.

What follows is the exact chat conversation between Julius Ray and me, cut and pasted from the chat window. The only changes I made were redacting J.R.’s surname and my and my daughter’s phone numbers. Read it and tell me what you think:

Jay Shepherd: Uh, OK. Here’s the thing: I had a wireless account with the number 617-XXX-XXXX from 2007 until November 2011. I added this phone for my daughter (age 11) this past summer. When I moved my phone number to Verizon, my daughter’s was left somewhere in space. Or something. [Yes, I always write this way. It’s a personality flaw.]

Julius Ray XXXXXXX: I apologize but you will have to call Customer Service at 1-800-331-0500, Mon-Fri 7am-10pm, Sat-Sun 9am-7pm, for assistance with that. I can provide only limited assistance through Click to Chat.

Jay Shepherd: Fantastic. Thanks.

Julius Ray XXXXXXX: You are very welcome. I was glad to help you today! Is there anything else regarding online account access that I can assist you with?

Jay Shepherd: You didn’t help me at all, Julius Ray. My “fantastic” was sarcastic.

Julius Ray XXXXXXX: Thank you for visiting myWireless at ATT.com/wireless. We appreciate your business, once again my name is Julius Ray XXXXXXX.

Chat session has been terminated by the site operator.

Seriously? So in the end, the online chat was actually worse than calling customer service, since it accomplished nothing except wasting time. But the insult-to-injury part was the gleeful “I was glad to help you today!” That’s when I thought that maybe Julius Ray was a computer. You didn’t help me at all, Julius Ray. You didn’t fix my account. You didn’t open the pod-bay doors.

Online chat can be a useful customer-service tool, if done right. But don’t offer up a cut-down version of your regular phone customer service and expect me to be appreciative when you can’t help me. Don’t be like AT&T. Don’t be like Julius Ray.

Update: I was able to create a new login account on my own and link it to my daughter’s account, thus sparing her a lifetime of credit woes.

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