Saturday, November 19, 2005

Cingular = Painful Payments, Backwards Phone Routing, and Offers for Services You Can't Have.

"Stitch Talks to Cingular's Christian"
This is another one of those posts I wish I didn't feel the need to write.  Somehow I feel like a whining little brat when I bring up issues like the ones I'm about to mention.  On the other  hand, I feel strongly that if I don't make my thoughts known then I have no right  to complain when the situation doesn't resolve itself.
Here's what happened.  I live in Los Angeles, which means, among other things, that a good portion of my driving is spent on roads wider than football fields that are nevertheless so packed with cars that many times it resembles a parking lot more than a thoroughfare.  Fridays are the worst and Fridays between 3PM and 8PM are the worst of the worst.  So of course I have to drive to Orange County right at 5PM on a Friday.  Perfect.
So I'm sitting on the Interstate 405 parking lot and I realize that I may as well make good use of my time so I decided that I would call Cingular to check my mobile phone bills and pay them.    I won't bore you with the details, but I have several phones, some belong to other people so I don't have them all in my possession.
Anyway, I work my way through their IVR...incidentally, if anyone knows why you have to either speak or physically enter your information while they route your call and then the first thing the customer service person does is ask you the same questions you've already been inconvenienced to answer; why is that?  Can't they  just get it off the same system?  It's annoying.
Ok, moving on. (well, I wasn't moving, but was trying to make progress paying my bill) I get my balance via the IVR and I need some additional information so I press ZERO for the next customer service person and I'm treated to a hold time of about 5 minutes during which I  hear...nothing.  Except about every 30 seconds the words "please wait".  This is also annoying, but nothing worth blogging.
I finally get my call answered and get to repeat the information I've provided to the IVR and then the representative asks me for my password I put on the account.  I give the rep a string of numbers he says that I am incorrect.  I try again; still wrong.  A third time.  Nope.  "Am I really Oliver Starr?"  I ask again if he's certain it's not the first string I had provided.  Turns out it is.  I should have realized at this point it would be better to do this whole thing another time for obvious reasons, but instead I push on.
Now those of you that have read this blog for a while might recall my trials and tribulations with this carrier, but let it suffice to say I am no stranger to this, as I used to spend a couple hours a month dealing with problems with my bill.  As a result, I don't ever pay these bills without at least a rundown of the charges; they're always billing me for something that I shouldn't have to pay for and at this point I no longer believe this is merely an oversight.  In fact, I suspect that this is symbolic of corruption in this industry on a vast scale as I have never once seen a phone bill were I couldn't get a credit for some mistake or other -which over the course of a year could add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  From the carrier's perspective (since the mistakes are ALWAYS in their favor) this amounts to quite a substantial source of revenue though I don't think they'll ever admit this.
In fact, I have a question for a carrier's representative (I know there are a few that read this blog); what does the carrier do when they've received funds for charges that don't belong on a customer's bill but for  which the customer has not made an inquiry?  Please don't tell me they issue a credit.  In a decade and a half of paying for mobile services I have never ONCE received a credit I didn't demand.  Can you say "slush fund"?  I thought so.
Due to this issue, I have the representative read me my bill item by item.  When he gets to the charges for SMS messages I am surprised that I am being billed for each message rather than the lump sum I expected.  The month before I had received a notice in with my bill that said that if I texted *smspromo (or some such) to their short code I would be subscribed to unlimited SMS messages for just a few bucks. I had done this and even received the "subscribed" response back from Cingular that was supposed to be my confirmation.  But now I'm finding that I didn't get the deal I was promised.

The representative explained that I couldn't possibly have this promotion as it was for Cingular customers and that as a former AT&T customer I wasn't eligible.  I asked why I had been mailed the promotion at all then.  The rep explained that the company that did the mailing had no way to distinguish between AT&T and Cingular customers so everyone got them, and AT&T customers got shafted.  The rep told me that I was far from the first customer annoyed that I didn't get a promotion to which I'd thought I was subscribed. 
Cingular; TIP NUMBER ONE.  Save time, your CS Rep's Mental Health and avoid customer ire...learn to use the asterisk!  If you can't discern your customers from a mailing perspective (which is ludicrous) then at least put an asterisk next to promotions for which certain groups aren't eligible and let them know.  It's simple and it won't cost you a penny (unless of course you wanted the extra money generated by people like me using twice as many SMS messages because we thought we'd purchased an unlimited plan when in fact we were still paying per message.  Silly me...that's exactly what you want.  Why would you EVER use an asterisk and miss out on that found money?  I mean, you're not going to  lose me over that right?
Well, I finally get my bill paid for that number and now the fun begins.  The third phone I have to pay for is no longer an AT&T pal Freedom (who's phone bill I seem to have inherited though I don't know why I am still paying it), wanted a newer snazzy phone so he went in and upgraded to a new plan.  Now all the AT&T side of Cingular sees is an account closed record for that number.  The rep is going to transfer me to the Cingular customer service to pay that bill.
After clicks and beeps and ten minutes on hold the line goes silent and I realize the call has been dropped.  Luckily I have the direct Cingular number committed to memory.  I call, work through IVR hell once more, enter the numbers...but wait...the phone I am calling from does not match the number of the account I've dialed.  I must speak to customer service!
Please hold...after five minutes I get my call answered and explain the situation to another CS Rep.  Although he is pleasant enough, I don't think he was trained to deal with the likes of my problem and perhaps he wasn't having his best day.  After about ten minutes of going in circles and being quoted the amount I had previously paid on my AT&T lines it becomes clear that he can't access my other record for the Cingular number.  Why?  He's on the AT&T side of the business. 
Get this:  Cingular's customer service closes at eight.  So where do they route their inbound customer service calls?  AT&T!  Only AT&T reps can't access Cingular account records.  Brilliant!  An endless loop.  What Cingular's rocket scientists that came up with this routing need is a cyclic redundancy check.  Or maybe a simple IQ test?  In any case, this is where my annoyance with the carrier goes from hovering to pegged in the red.
CINGULAR TIP #2:  make it possible for a customer service rep to handle accounts if you are going to route the calls to them!  (this should be a no brainer.  I am not a mechanic, that's why I don't put up a sign in front of my home that says car repair; yet the way your system is routed this is EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE DOING TO YOUR REPRESENTATIVES AND CUSTOMERS!
I request a supervisor to whom I am eventually transferred.  I explain the situation.  She's a bit defensive but does listen, and, thankfully, is able to process the payment I want to make.  Only took me an hour and thirty seven minutes to pay my phone bills this month, which was less time than it took me to reach my destination.
During the call, I explain to the representative that although it certainly isn't her fault, her employer really needs to fix some things.  I tell her that I am a person that has something of a following on the Internet for topics of this type and that I am going to be writing about this today.  I do. I am. I have.  Christian (this is the name she provided) this post is for you.  Please run it as high up the flag pole at Cingular as you possibly can.  I'd gladly talk to a few executives there if they want to do more than annoy me with a survey at the end of a call.  I promise I can tell them a dozen places where things are broken.
Heck, I won't even charge them my usual rate.  If they can just get my bill right so I don't ever have to call again, that would be payment enough!
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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Will Disrupting Carrier Domination Free Content?

Locked Down Mobile Content
My recent post on Walter Mossberg's thoughts had the good fortune of catching the eye of none other than Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly Media, Inc who re-blogged it over at the O'Reilly Radar blog
In the comments there, a reader by the name of Douglas Turner (sorry no link provided) made the following astute comment:
"Since the carrriers so completely suffocate innovation in the mobile wireless space, I'd like to hear from folks about scenerios for how they get disrupted, routed around, etc.

Mossbergs prediction are essentially meaningless unless there is a way to displace the carriers."


Posted by: Douglass Turner at November 14, 2005 10:21 AM

You can read my lengthy response here:  Mobile Weblog

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Wall St. Journal's Mossberg says "Mobile Phone Most Important"

You can't help but know who Walter Mossberg is if you've got any tech pedigree whatsoever.  Even my Mom has probably read the words of Mr. Mossberg.  His Wall Street Journal Personal Technology column has appeared every Thursday since 1991 and he's been a part of the technology scene almost as long as there's been a technology scene.
As talented a speaker as he is a writer, I was eagerly anticipating Walter's lunch time Key Note at the Venture Wire Consumer Technology Ventures conference.  Speaking to a capacity fact the biggest crowd I saw assembled during the entire conference, Mr. Mossberg made my day when he echoed a number of things I've just recently predicted including the fact that mobile devices will far exceed the PC in importance for most people, that security is something that must be addressed before the enterprise will be able to successfully accommodate mobile devices and that the ultimate incarnation of the ideal mobile device is something that still hasn't been realized and which might end up being quite surprising when it finally is.
Among the other comments that I felt were important to be reiterated, Mossberg's views on the role of the carriers was interesting and could be crucial to consumers though it probably didn't make any representatives of Verizon, Cingular, or Sprint terribly happy as he feels that these companies have spent quite a lot of money to build out their network infrastructure and that they do deserve a return on their investment, but that's it.
He continued by saying that he didn't think it was right or reasonable for the carriers to exert control of the devices that use these networks.  He feels that unless this changes it could stifle innovation and put the brakes on progress.
Another trend Mossberg identified is this he means all wireless, but particularly WiFi and how much range and speed has improved.  He also spoke about the deployment of Verizon's National Broadband Network, claiming that he has been online with this network, that it is 3 times as fast as the European 3G and that it is available essentially nationwide.  (I haven't been a Verizon subscriber in a few years and never with their EVDO product, so if someone has some comments on this statement I would love to hear them and so, I'm sure, would all the readers of this blog.
I think it is worth mentioning as we begin to see more and more kinds of content migrate to the mobile device that Walter made some very strong statements about copyright laws in this country.  He feels that they have the potential to negatively influence advancement of technology and he believes that they need to be changed.  While he agrees that some form of protection must be in place, his view; that copyright laws only protect the publisher were certainly popular with the audience though I am sure that others in positions of power might not agree with this opinion.
Personally, I think we are going to see huge challenges mounted in this space over the next decade or so.  Every time a technology is deployed to limit the consumer's ability to use, share, morph or duplicate content, before the standard can even begin to become entrenched, some brilliant geek smashes the encryption and publishes the hack on the Internet. 
It was exactly for this reason that Sony is in the news right now.  For those of you that have somehow missed the news, Sony's new DRM for CD's installed a rootkit, which is essentially a covert program installed in such a way that it is invisible to the end user and can't even be viewed via the registry editor. 
Mark Russinovich of Sysinternals (an amazing FREEWARE program that you really ought to try) has written on this extensively.  The point being that it is this sort of draconian behavior that can have incredibly negative consequences for both the consumer and the company that DRM and Copy Right need some serious revisions.
All in all Walter Mossberg's keynote was entertaining and informative and I considered myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear his thoughts on the future of consumer technology.
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