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Customer serviceEach and every one of us could write stories about less than perfect Customer Service. Recently, I wrote about a venture to find a GSM Provider that I could use with the Sony Ericsson P900. AT&T Wireless turned out to be the best in terms of coverage and, in spite of their ratings, their customer service has been pretty good. Cingular is a different story. I can accept that every provider is not going to have great coverage where I live, but good customer service is something that every provider should have.
The sales person was very nice. She captured all my information – name and address, ssn, driver’s license number, date of birth, etc. — using an online application. I was impressed (except for them insisting on so much personal information). I thought we were ready to insert the chip card , but then out came the paperwork. I had to fill out an application form with all the same information that they had already captured in their system! Go figure. Unfortunately, as I previously reported, I got home and found there was no signal. I immediately called the store and they said they could open accounts but they can’t close them. I would have to call 1-866-CINGULAR.

Three weeks later I received an invoice from Cingular for $231.66. The activation fee was $36, the contract termination fee (even though I had signed up for a 15 day trial) was $150, prorated monthly service fees were $31.65, and the remaining $14.01 was for various taxes. I called 1-800-CINGULAR and explained that the total time between opening and closing the account was approximately one hour and I did not feel that the invoice was correct. The Cingular customer service agent agreed that the contract termination fee should not have been applied and he removed it. The rest of the charges $81.66 were correct and there was nothing he could do.

I escalated to the customer service manager. She agreed that the $31.65 for prorated services could be removed based on my one hour of having the account open, but she said that the contract provided that an activation fee must be paid. I asked her if the activation fee was fair in my case. She said activation fees are never waived — under no circumstances, period, end of discussion. I acknowledged that this is probably true but asked if she thought, given that I had the account only for one hour and made only two calls (one to the phone itself and the other to Cingular), whether the activation fee of $36 was fair. After a long pause, she said “yes”. More and more companies are empowering their employees, within some reasonable limits, to make adjustments that in their own judgment seem fair. It is clear that Cingular first line managers have been trained to follow the letter of the contract regardless of whether it makes sense or is fair to the customer.

In contrast to my Cingular experience, another recent incident exhibited quite a different attitude. Believe it or not, it was with the Internal Revenue Service. I won’t bore you with the details, but as a result of some Social Security tax issues, it turns out I owed the IRS some money. Upon receiving the IRS letter outlining the reasons and doing some checking, I concluded they were correct. I sent them the amount of tax due, but wrote a letter asking that they waive the penalty charge, since there was no intent on my part to under-pay. I received a second letter saying I still owed the penalty and interest. I called the IRS customer service line and after a couple of reasonable prompts was connected to a very polite gentleman. He looked up the history, put me on hold for a few minutes, and then returned to say that since I had a history of paying my taxes on time and not under paying, that they would waive the penalty. It was made clear that the IRS was not obligated to do so, but based on the specific circumstances they were making a judgment that waiving the fee on a one-time basis was the right thing to do.

Cingular and AT&T Wireless have now merged, and I am quite confident that both companies actually do believe in customer service as an imperative. They are undoubtedly working extremely hard to improve in this area so they can become a global powerhouse and an on demand business.