The Meanderthals

Dear AT&T Wireless….

Dear AT&T Wireless:

As a recent customer who had a fascinating experience with your products, franchise team members and customer service staff, I am writing to congratulate you on providing me with the second most ludicrous experience I have had with worldwide mobile phone service providers.

I’ll get to the story about the Big Winner  of the Mobile Telephone Service Incompetence Sweepstakes in a moment, but first I’d like to share my thoughts on my “customer service experience” with AT&T Wireless.

Essentially, there was none. But the devil is indeed in the details, so I’d like to pass along the painstaking elements of an experience that probably would have made a Christian out of Beelzebub himself.

Here’s what happened.

I bought a prepaid AT&T Wireless SIM card from a store on Pleasant Street in Northampton, Mass., which is a town in western Mass. populated by college students, aging hippies and fans of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Anne Lamott. Northampton is definitely not a Stephen King kind of town, which is why it baffles me that my nightmare with AT&T Wireless should have begun there.

I paid cash – I know, I know, silly me for my old school behavior – for a $50 phone and data plan that your very helpful, competent and friendly team member assured me would adequately cover my needs for the month I planned to be in the US. He helped me load the card, tested the phone number by exercising a technical maneuver he referred to as “calling me,” and walked us to the door after a nice, personal chat while we waited for someone to run to the bagel store next door to get change for my $100 bill.

Over the next few days I used my phone to call my daughters, sisters and some friends as we visited loved ones in the United States, which is a country that is reputed to be the technological center of the universe, if you’re not, like China, counting Hong Kong as a country. One day, I had the audacity to try to access the internet from my unlocked, perfectly functioning Samsung Galaxy S3. Network unavailable. No worries, I thought. I mean, here I was in western Mass., a hay wagon day’s ride away from the Canadian border, for cryin’ out loud. Of course there would be signal issues in a place with towns like Heath, Florida and Peru.

I continued to make phone calls, interrupted every other attempt by what is fondly referred to by consumers as “Another &$%#@ Dropped Call”, a phenomenon which in my experience having traveled a fair piece of the world continually since 2010 is disproportionately frequent in the United States. In over three years’ living in Cambodia – a country that is well known for its advanced mobile phone technology and bootleg rice wine – I never had one dropped call, even from the middle of rice paddies, on a ferry in the middle of the Mekong River, or from remote jungle towns in Kampot Province.  In all fairness, my previous experience as a contract customer of Verizon Wireless would indicate that all US carriers have difficulty allowing their customers to finish copying their mother’s recipe for macaroni and cheese without having to call her back five times.

I digress.

My time in western Mass. having ended, I returned to the confines of Marblehead, a small town north of Boston (which, if you’ll check your Google maps, will confirm that this is the capital of Massachusetts, a state in the US which is considered by many to be at the epicenter of the technological center of the universe. At least that’s what MIT students believe.)

One might think that accessing data via a fully-functioning mobile phone on one of the world’s most recognized mobile phone services that close to the epicenter of the technological center of the universe would yield positive results. It’s like expecting to be warm while vacationing on the sun.

But no. Nothing. No internet so I could find nearby restaurants. No access to Facebook while sipping a $5 latte in my favorite coffee shop. No GPS so I could find my way to meet my wife, and that’s what troubled me most.

So I took my phone and SIM card to the very helpful, competent and friendly team member at the franchise location located between SuperCuts and Dunkin’ Donuts at Vinnin Square in Swampscott. (Please do not make fun of the town’s name. Its residents are very sensitive about it, as I’ve learned. I used to remind them it could have been worse: they could have lived in Belchertown, but being from Massachusetts I can get away with comments like that. You might not be so lucky.)

Judging from the extra large iced coffee containers each team member clutched in their hands as they waited for customers to arrive, they give the DD location a regular workout as they wait for a customer not to serve. Not  so much on trips to SuperCuts, judging from their hair cuts, but now I’m just being mean.

I digress.

A very helpful, competent and friendly team member tried to access the internet and, having failed, performed a series of advanced technical maneuvers she referred to as “shutting down and restarting” to obtain a satisfactory result. Nothing. Undeterred, she called your crack technical service team on a landline telephone – a fact I found odd, like an automobile mechanic riding a horse to retrieve a needed part to complete a repair.

I say “crack” team not because whoever was on the other end of the phone exhibited knowledgeable, solution-oriented technical advice, but because they were so unhelpful they simply must have been on crack.

The very helpful, competent and friendly team member at your Swampscott location waited on hold long enough for six despots to be deposed in South American countries, alternately wincing and mouthing inspirational messages to me like “what an idiot” while she listened to the highly trained technical service agent on the other end of the landline read a service script from his or her computer screen.

Powered by another gulp of iced coffee, the friendly team member was smart, and had questions. I had answers, many of which I had already provided but was willing to repeat myself. After all, it was still early in the day, not yet noon.

Yes, the phone is unlocked.

Yes, it has worked perfectly fine throughout my previous experience as its owner.

Where? Well, such technologically advanced places as Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Greece, Cyprus, Belgium and Ecuador. I’d include England, but that’s a story related to the Big Winner of mobile phone customer service incompetence that is still to come.

She took the phone from me and shut it down. Restarted. Once. Twice. Again.

I was starting to think she may have accessed an online gaming website and was running up a big bill playing World Championship Poker when I realized that she, like me, would not have been able to access the internet.

Whew. What a relief.

After enough time for her to gulp the remainder of her extra large iced coffee while exchanging highly technical details with the technical service staff on the other end of the landline like “I don’t know”, she handed the phone to me and shrugged.

“ I have no idea what’s wrong. It’s the phone, maybe, but I can’t get it to acknowledge or access our towers. I’m sorry.”

Oh, an apology. I felt so much better, and this simple gesture of kindness justified the hours of my life and $50 I’d spent ludicrously trying to use the service for which I had paid.

I experienced more fun like this when I appealed to your customer service staff via your Facebook page, from which I believe I have been blocked, which is why I am writing to you directly rather than posting this story there.

After three or four days of helpful exchanges with your staff via a highly secure email exchange with the subject of “Ha, ha, Frank Yetter, you actually think we’re going to help you?”, Christina, one of your 1,347 Social Media Managers referred me to AT&T’s Wireless corporate policy which precludes refunds on cash purchases. She also apologized that no one had previously told me that AT&T Wireless would be keeping my money despite having failed to provide me with the products and service I had paid for. Then I think she found my name on the AT&T Facebook “Like” page and forever banished me.

Anyway, I’m glad I had a chance to write to you to explain my situation and share the details of the second most frustrating mobile phone customer service experience. I’ve been experiencing a bit of writers’ block, and sharing this helped me get uncorked and once again banging away at the keyboard. It’s been cathartic, not unlike the effects of a large cup of black coffee the morning after spending an hour at Charlie Chan’s 100 Item All You Eat Chinese Buffet.

Oh, and the Big Winner for the worst customer service experience I’ve had from mobile telephone service providers? It’s T-Mobile in London, England (a city in the United Kingdom where people speak English for the most part, and where they do far better service to fish and chips and a good curry than they do providing mobile phone serviced to its customers.) After a morning of failed service on the T-Mobile network I took my phone to a service counter near my niece’s home in Streatham Hill, which is a suburb of London, which is in England, not far from Stoke Newington and Paris.

The equally helpful, competent and friendly team member there stared at my phone as if waiting for a likeness of Jesus to suddenly appear, handed it back to me and informed me that I should probably call technical support for help. She informed me that I would be required to pay five pounds (British sterling, which is the currency of choice in England, unless you’re from Eastern Europe, in which case you would typically use either the Euro or trade large blocks of chocolate or in yearling sheep.) for the privilege of asking someone to help me use my phone.

So you see that you have a challenge before you.  Another revenue stream to develop, and another profit center to exploit. No, no, don’t thank me. It’s just a bit of free advice, an idea for you to use to bludgeon your remaining customers as you wind down and go out of business.

Even with the time-wasting incompetence consistently displayed by your helpful yet unproductive staff, you failed to get me to pay you MORE money for the FAILED service I had already bought? For shame.

I’d say I’ll look for that added charge when I next use your service, but I’m afraid I’ll not be back as a customer.

I’m headed to the US in a week and will be buying a new SIM card for phone and data service while I am visiting.

And I’ll be buying it from T-Mobile.

Very truly yours,


Frank Yetter

A fairly experiences mobile phone user who has successfully purchased and utilized mobile phone technology in over a dozen countries in Asia, Europe and South America in the past four years using the same unlocked and perfectly functioning Samsung Galaxy S-3. (Just because I know you’d ask, for the 357th time, if I had considered the problem might be with my phone.)

One comment

  • Howie sholkin

    This may be a stupid question but why did they not give you a new phone and a $50 credit. It’s not like you were holding up brinks. Usually, when a product does not work within a short amount of time a replacement is not strange.

    By the way, cell service in the Berkshires is spotty at best for any carrier just like it is for parts of the cape. Not enough customers to worry about.

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