What happened when Watchdog Nation ate lunch with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

My #shameATT campaign on Twitter landed Watchdog Nation in the office of AT&T CEO/Chairman/President/Big Kahuna Randall Stephenson.

Hear what happened when we gave him a red binder full of complaints

Here’s the story that originally appeared in the Dave Lieber Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News.

  • A mistake I made about AT&T led me into AT&T Chairman-CEO-President Randall Stephenson’s office last week. That’s right. The C-Suite. Suite 400 at AT&T world headquarters in downtown Dallas.

    Guys like me can’t get past a company’s PR gatekeepers. But here I am being escorted in the elevator by a building guard. I bring a message from you to him. I carry a large red binder with more than 100 complaints about his company.

    Previously, I had written that “the big kahuna at AT&T” doesn’t list improving customer service as one of his top three goals. I launched a #shameATT Twitter campaign.

    After that, the big kahuna himself calls on my AT&T cellphone to alert me of my error. He says making customers happy has always been and will always be his numero uno. He invites me to his office for a chicken salad lunch (for which, incidentally, I pay).

    After spending 90 minutes in his office last Wednesday, I attest that the big kahuna cares about customer service. Absolutely.

    The natural follow-up I ask is: How does it feel to fail?

    And I give a little speech: “The reason I’m here, though, is specifically — besides the honor of coming to meet you — to present to you my dilemma. I really have a dilemma. And the dilemma is this. I made this for you.”

    I pull out the large red binder. The cover title I created is “The Last 100 Days.” What’s inside? 119 emails from 119 customers and employees — more than one a day — from the last 100 days. I deleted the senders’ names and other personal information to protect their privacy. But these little stories are the saddest tales of corporate failure and customer frustration one can imagine.

    “This is what my life has been like for the past 10 years,” I say.

    I explain that since I became The Watchdog in 2005, not a day goes by, hardly, when I don’t receive a complaint about his company. Stephenson is tall. Dark hair and glasses. Friendly and courteous. When I talk negatively about his company, he listens intently and doesn’t get defensive.

    “Is this something I can keep?” he asks, pointing to the binder.

  • Dave-Lieber-and-ATT-CEO-RANDALL-STEPHENSON
  • “Yep.”

    “OK, good,” he says. “Did they ask to have the names stripped out?”

    “No,” I explain. “They wrote to me.”

    “So you don’t have their permission?”

    “Yeah. I want you to see what people say about this company.”

    “Good. I want to see it.”

    • “It’s shocking,” I warn. “Such a terrible reflection on this company. And I’ll be honest with you: When I give speeches, I will say that I think AT&T is the worst large-scale company in America. And nobody really ever argues with me.

      “This is just amazing — the level of ineptitude, of carelessness,” I continue. “And it’s shocking to me, and it’s been happening to me every day for 10 years. I’ve always forwarded these to your PR guys. But I’ve stopped.”

      “Why don’t you just start forwarding them to me?” he asks.

      “I would love to do that,” I say, “but here’s what I started sending to people.” I pull out a sheet that shows a keyboard shortcut I created to answer AT&T complaint emails. The shortcut is a link to the complaint website of AT&T’s regulator, the Federal Communications Commission.

      He says that’s an option for people. AT&T gets monthly reports to which it must respond.

      He taps on the red binder again: “I’ll be on an airplane tomorrow. And I’ll spend time going through it.”

      I say, “So that’s why I’m here, OK? I’m here on behalf of what I would call the ‘Make it stop’ campaign.”

      “What is that?” he asks.

      “Make this stop. For every 60 I get about AT&T, I get one about Verizon. For every 90 I get about AT&T, I get one about Time Warner Cable. So your ratio is so far off the charts.”

      His main point to make to me? “If you leave here with nothing else,” he says, “know that this is a priority of mine. This is my No. 1 priority. This is where we invest more capital than anyplace else.”

      He adds, “I would like to convey that we have a plan and a lot of investment” in improving customer service.

      OK.

      He points to the red binder again, screaming brightly in his modern wood-and-glass office. “I’ll find this very useful. … I want to study it. I want to see if I can put together a plan and address this on a broader scale.”

      He tells me that a column I wrote last month describing a customer service horror story was studied intensely by his team. He calls these studies of what went wrong a “root cause analysis.”

      During the next hour, I glimpse what it’s like to run a company with 150 million customers and 280,000 employees. I learn how he monitors performance using scores and metrics and data, some of it independent of the company and some internal.

      I learn that customer service at AT&T is changing. Much of it will go online. Call center reps are going to get more training and better technology to help them do their jobs, he says.

      He glances at the screaming red binder again. “I don’t know what I’m going to find. I’m dying to dive into it. It will actually be valuable intel I suspect.”

      Then he says something that changes my impression of him in a big way. He is removing the gatekeepers. When I ask him again where I should send the daily complaints about AT&T, he gives me his email address.

      Do these emails go to your phone? I ask.

      “Yes.”

      If our little meeting improves customer service for one person, I’ll be happy. But my goal is bigger. His is, too. Let’s improve AT&T’s customer service for millions.

      Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

      Check out The Watchdog on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. Mondays, talking about matters important to you.

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      @DaveLieber

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WORLD EXCLUSIVE: AT&T will take $14 off your phone bill, but there’s a catch

   Here’s big news that could save you $168 a year on your phone bill. But of course, AT&T isn’t calling to tell you.

   Watchdog Nation is.

   You may be entitled to a $14 reduction on your monthly phone bill – plus another three months of back credit for another $42. Over a year, that’s $168.

   But there’s a catch. Only Watchdog Nation, the consumer rights movement led by founder Dave Lieber, an investigative columnist, can tell you how to do this. In four words.

   You. Have. To. Ask.

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   Here’s the deal. One of the many free-and-easy guiding principles of Dave’s Watchdog Nation is this: you have to remember to ask each of your providers (cable, satellite TV, Internet, phone, electric) every few months if they are running any specials that will lower your bill. Tell them their competitors are offering you better prices.

   Almost every time we do it, it works.

   The other day, we, at Watchdog Nation World Headquarters in Texas, called AT&T’s customer service line. It’s no secret that Watchdog Nation is no fan of this corporate beast. (See our post “Is AT&T America’s worst company?”).

   What we learned in that call surprised us.  Turns out that for the past few months, AT&T has offered a new discount program that it has not publicized. Remember: You. Have. To. Ask. 

It’s called the “All Distance Bundle Package.”

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    It’s called the “All Distance Bundle Package.”

   This is available to all AT&T customers who meet the requirements: aAnyone who has the “premium unlimited long distance and local calling plan” with AT&T and WHO ALSO pays for another AT&T service using the same name and Social Security number, can get the $14 monthly discount.

   Other services that qualify include: any U-verse product; any DSL Internet product (all speeds qualify); any wireless plan rated at $39.99 per month or higher, or anyone who subscribes to DirecTV.

   In other words, if you use AT&T, say, for your home landline and also have U-verse TV or DirecTV, you get $14 off your bill.

   But …

   You. Have. To. Ask.

   Remember the name: The All Distance Bundle Package.

   * * *

   Do you like this kind of up-to-date inside information? Learning how to save money, avoid scams and be smart about how you spend your dollar?

   You’ll love the new 2013 edition of the national award-winning book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong. Learn more at Dave’s bookstore here.

   Dave also shares Watchdog Nation’s simple concepts with a hundred or more audiences a year. Learn how to get Dave to visit your group here.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong won two national awards for social change.

AT&T starts charging for long-distance, whether you use it or not

Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation was among the first to report that AT&T has added on yet another charge to its dollar-socked customers. Readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned the news. Here it is:

For years, consumers have complained about extra third-party charges on their phone bills. Adding unauthorized charges is called cramming. The government says Americans pay hundreds of millions of dollars in extra charges for services never used. Cramming is annoying and illegal.

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it wants phone companies to clearly identify and separately list any third-party charges on bills. That’s fair enough. Consumers can also ask their phone company to block third-party charges permanently on their account.

But what if those annoying charges on your phone bill don’t come from a third party? What if they come from the phone company itself?

That’s what two AT&T customers claim after they discovered that last month AT&T quietly changed its basic long-distance plan for customers who rarely make such calls on their residential phones.

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Remember that after deregulation years ago, customers could select a local phone service company and a separate long-distance company. Now, though, most cellphone plans offer free long-distance. Many residential customers no longer use their land lines for long-distance.

When AT&T residential customers without a long-distance service occasionally used their AT&T land line to make a long-distance call, the charge was usually a whopping 39 cents a minute.

Now, use a land line or not for a long-distance call, residential customers face a minimum $2 charge.

AT&T’s new basic long-distance plan is a bit complicated, so permit me to quote AT&T spokeswoman Carrie Corey in full:

“Beginning on June 14th, we added a minimum usage fee of $2 a month for AT&T Long Distance customers who have not chosen a domestic calling plan and whose current long distance rate is 39 cents per minute.

“If a customer uses $2 or more in domestic direct dialed long distance calling minutes during the month, the fee is waived.

“Also, if a customer’s domestic long distance usage is less than $2 for the month, the minimum usage fee will be reduced for the difference. For example, if a customer’s usage is $1.56, the fee will be 44 cents.

“Also, customers will not see this charge reflected in their bill if they have six-plus minutes a month. Customers on calling plans other than basic long distance will not be impacted.

“AT&T implemented this change in order to provide our customers with basic long-distance service, including account maintenance — even if no calls are made. This charge allows us to continue providing affordable service to our low-usage long-distance callers.”

I checked with Verizon, and that company also assesses a monthly recurring charge along with minimum usage requirements on its long-distance plans.

“This practice makes sure that all long-distance customers contribute to the cost of maintaining the network,” a Verizon spokeswoman explained.

When customer Darlene Grantland of North Richland Hills alerted me about the new charge, she said her long-distance bill went from zero to $5.26 in one month.

“I don’t want long-distance,” she said. “I have a cellphone for that.”

She’s angry that “customers have to pay for a service they don’t require or want.”

“Quite a profit for AT&T,” she added.

John Cotter of Fort Worth complained that taxes and fees are thrown on top of the $2 monthly minimum.

“I feel something is grossly wrong, and this is consumer abuse,” he says.

Watchdog Tip: Even if you use AT&T for local service, you don’t have to use the company’s long-distance plans. Hundreds of companies offer competing plans.

Be forewarned. Research a company before signing up. The Watchdog sporadically receives consumer complaints about little-known long-distance companies that don’t keep promises. So check a company’s complaint record on the Internet and read the terms and conditions before signing up

Final note:  Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation depends on readers to help supply further information on subjects I cover. So thanks to Heath Parker for discovering another alternative to handling AT&T’s recent decision to start charging a minimum fee to customers who don’t have long-distance service but still occasionally make long-distance calls.

“Instead of trying to switch companies for something I don’t use, I just had them deactivate long-distance service on my phone altogether,” he explains. “That way, I don’t have to worry about the next company doing the same thing to me somewhere down the line.”

Can long-distance service be canceled? “That’s correct,” an AT&T spokeswoman says. “You can choose another long-distance provider, or you can eliminate long-distance from your phone.”

And you can still use it for free on your cellphone if your plan allows.

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 Dave Lieber shows Americans how to fight back against corporate deceptions in his wonderful book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong. Are you tired of losing time, money and aggravation to all the assaults on our wallets? Learn how to fight back with ease — and win. Get the book here.

Read The Watchdog Nation manifesto here!

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