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Why I left AT&T forever and why you should too!

We love this blog post from happy Ting customer Felix Whelan on why he made the switch from a major carrier. We’d love to hear your story, too! Let us know in the comments.

Everyone who’s ever had AT&T as their land line, wireless, or Internet carrier has at least one customer service horror story to tell… Well, I’ve got a million them – and it’s my own darned fault for not waking up and walking away sooner. Until a few weeks ago, I had been an AT&T customer, writing them checks of various sizes for diverse services every month since I got my first land line way back in 1982. That’s over thirty years of continuous support of a company I’ve known from the very beginning that I could not trust.

My Sad Story

My tale begins with that very first land line, way back in the days when land lines were all we had, and AT&T was still the megalithic monopoly Southwestern Bell. I was a twenty year old kid, on my own for the first time, supporting my first apartment with a dead end minimum wage job. It was bliss! But talk about living paycheck to paycheck. I barely made ends meet from week to week. I lived on fried potatoes and canned soup (in 1982, a can of tomato soup cost under a quarter). My basic land line telephone service cost, I think, $26 a month, so long as I eschewed long distance, which I never, ever used. I was frugal in the way you have to be when you’re twenty, single, and living on the edge…

But I did make ends meet. I always paid my bills, in full, on time, every month. Always.

Then one day I got a letter in the mail from Southwestern Bell. They had not received my payment. They were going to shut off my phone. Getting it turned back on was going to cost an arm and a leg.

I looked back at my check record. There it was. I had indeed written my check and mailed it off to them, a full week before the due date. I called customer service.

“We have no record of receiving your payment.”

“Can you just not shut off my phone for a few more days? To give my payment time to show up, in case the mail is just running slow?”

“I’m sorry, we can’t do that. Your disconnection is already scheduled.”

“Not even a few days?”

“If your payment got lost in the mail, the money is still in your account. You could write another check to replace the lost one. If you’ll agree to do that, I can put a hold on the shut-off till Wednesday.”

“Okay,” I agreed, butterflies in my stomach. “But I really don’t have enough money in the bank to cover both checks. You have to swear that if the first check shows up, you’ll shred it.”

“I’ll make a note on your account, Mr. Whelan. Get that replacement check in today’s mail, okay?”

I did exactly as I had agreed. Both checks landed at the SWB office. Both were cashed. My checking account cascaded into ruin, as other checks I’d written bounced, triggering massive bank fees that caused other checks to bounce, ad nauseaum. When I called SWB customer service again to demand satisfaction, there was, of course, no record of anyone on their staff making me any promises… Of course they were in no way responsible… And no, my extra payment could not be refunded, but it would be applied to my next bill…

A few years later, Ronald Reagan busted up the Bell Telephone monopoly, and AT&T rose like a fiery demon out of the ashes.

I’ve had many annoying encounters with AT&T’s so-called “customer service” along the way (and not a single positive that I can recall), but let’s fast forward now to 2010, and my family’s entrance into the wonderful world of wireless.

Curmudgeon that I am, I was the official last person on earth to get on board with cell phone service. I would never have signed on at all, just for myself. But my family eventually wore me down with their incessant demands for entry into the 21st Century, and I finally acquiesced. As abusive as AT&T had been all my adult life, they were the only telephone provider I knew of, so I called.

The customer service representative was so glad to hear from me! He’d be happy to send me three FREE phones, waive all activation fees, and set me up with a plan that would meet all my family’s wireless needs for a mere $125 a month!

My first bill was over $400.00. Each phone showed a $50 activation fee. The base rate was considerably more than the promised $125. Charges I couldn’t even begin to decipher made up the rest.

When I called customer services again, I was livid. I explained as calmly as I could what I’d been promised. I kept the lid on the pressure cooker…

Of course there was no record of my previous call.

“I can’t imagine how anyone could promise you that,” the understanding voice of the CSR cooed. “We don’t have any plans that cheap. But let me see what I can do for you…”

Two hours later, I found my way to the customer retention unit, the place they route your call once you start threatening to cancel all your accounts and call a lawyer. The customer retention tech waived the activation fees and promised my bill would be $125 a month.

My revised bill, when it arrived, was for just over $140. I ground my teeth and let it pass. Not having to call their miserable customer service line again was worth $15 a month to me…

In 2013, I added a fourth line, for my son, age 11. That brought my bill to $150 something.

Then, around mid-August, I stumbled across the website of Ting Mobile. I’m going to tell you all about Ting Mobile in the “My Happy Ending” portion of this blog post, but first let me finish “My Sad Story.” Suffice it to say for now that Ting was love at first sight, and after 30 years of abuse, I was more than ready to divorce AT&T forever.

I was so cautious and responsible. I called AT&T to make sure when my contract with them was going to end, so I could avoid any early termination fees. The AT&T customer service representative assured me that my contract had ended on July 31st. I was eligible for an upgrade!

I didn’t want an upgrade. I wanted out and told her so.

“You’re free to go any time,” she said, and that’s an exact quote. “Just call us back when you’re ready to cancel service.”

I signed up with Ting. It was so easy. Sign-up went smoothly. Their service was superlative.

Then I call AT&T again. “I want to cancel my service.”

“An early contract termination fee of $82 will appear on your final bill.”

“WHAT? My contract expired July 31st. I called and confirmed that last week.”

“Three of your phones are off contract. But you added a line in 2013, and that one will have the ETF.”

I’m pretty sure blood was spewing like burning lava from my ears at this point.

“No,” I said. “No, no, no. Let me talk to a supervisor, right now.”

She connected me to Gerald, or Jerrard, or something similar. “Please hold while I review your account.”

I held. A few minutes later, Gerald was back on the line.

“I’ve reviewed your account, Mr. Whelan, and the $82 early termination fee is a legitimate charge. It can’t be waived.”

“Of course it can,” I said. “You waive charges like that all the time.”

“It’s a legitimate charge,” he repeated. “We can’t waive it.”

“Customer retention could waive it…”

“You’ve already cancelled your service. There’s nothing to retain.”

He had me. I was furious. I flew into a rant that lasted a solid ten minutes, openly addressing, not Gerald, but the soulless, faceless corporate suits who might one day review this call recorded “for quality purposes…” Thirty years, I’d been a customer. Thirty years AT&T had treated me like dirt. And this was the final straw. Not only would I never give AT&T another dime of my money, I was going to make it my mission in life to tell my story to the world, and to lead as many of their customers to competitors providing better service for less money as I could. I would be Moses calling the Chosen People out of slavery to their uncaring, corporate Egypt. I would be David lobbing stones at their lumbering Goliath of a company until it fell. I would blog. I would tweet. I would Facebook the evil AT&T Leviathan from every side until it sank beneath the waves…

“I can tell you’re upset, Mr. Whelan,” Gerald finally interjected. ”I’ll tell you what. I’ll meet you half way. I’ll reduce your termination fee to $41.”

I knew I wasn’t going to get a better deal. I agreed and got off the phone. Within minutes, my AT&T cell phone went dead. My account was cancelled.

That evening, I got a final bill in my email for $90.99. The early termination fee was $82, the rest was for undecipherable gobbledygook.

I couldn’t resist. I called AT&T customer service one last time. Of course, there was no record of Gerald offering to “meet me half way.” I was stuck with the $82. I demanded to speak to a supervisor. All of the supervisors were – of course! – busy speaking with other customers at the moment. The CSR took my new Ting cell phone number, and promised that a supervisor would call me back within two hours.

No one ever called.

Of course.

I promised to tell you about Ting Mobile, and I will. But first I want to make perfectly clear that I did not leave AT&T simply because I found a phenomenally better deal with Ting. My new service with Ting is wonderful icing on the cake, and I am grateful for it. But the hard truth of “My Sad Story” is this:

AT&T is an uncaring, arrogant, monolithic beast of a company that abuses its customers while wildly overcharging for the inferior services it provides. Every single time I have spoken to an AT&T representative, from first level CSR’s, to supervisors, to “customer retention experts,” I HAVE BEEN LIED TO. Their business model appears to be based largely on deception, extortion and ill-treatment of customers.

How would I rate them on a 1 to 10 scale?

Negative ten thousand! As Mayor of Frugalville, I profoundly recommend that you cancel all AT&T service and sign up with competitors offering better service at better prices TODAY!

That said, this story does have a happy ending…

My Happy Ending

Now take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Let all the frustrations “My Sad Story” churned up inside you melt away like a bad dream in morning sunshine. Forget AT&T even exists (if enough people follow my advice in the article, it soon won’t – wouldn’t that be nice?)…

I want to tell you about Ting. You’ll be glad I did.

Here’s what I like best about Ting Mobile, in straightforward bullet points:

Ting runs off the Sprint network of cell phone towers, with free roving to Verizon towers where necessary for seamless coverage. This means that if you are currently paying out the nose for Sprint or Verizon service under a contract, you can switch to Ting and get, not just similar, but the exact same service for a fraction of the cost. And NO CONTRACT! No activation fees. No early termination fees. No BS, plain and simple.
Ting Mobile is a division of Tucows, those guys who have been around forever on the Internet and PC techno scene. Ting is no fly by night amateur. It’s a solid company that will be here for years to come, saving you thousands of dollars you might otherwise have wasted on AT&T.

Ting‘s customer service is exemplary. I call them sometimes just to chat, I like them that much. Here’s a quote from Ting‘s CEO, Elliot Noss – “What people are forced to put up with from mobile service providers just doesn’t make sense. It’s too complicated, too opaque, too adversarial, too expensive and frankly too inhuman. We’re changing that.” And they really are!
Ting puts total control of your account right where it belongs – in your own hands. You activate your own phones (it is very easy). You have a cool dashboard that shows you in real time how much voice, text and data you’re using, and tells you how much your bill is as of this red hot moment. With the click of a mouse you can turn voice, text or data service on or off for each individual phone on your account. This means that, without having to call anyone for assistance, you can turn your own data on, but block data on your kids’ phones (that’s what I did, mean dad that I am). Got an unruly teen on your hands? Instead of threatening to ground them, say you’ll turn off their texting ability for a week if they step out of line. You can do that, and it’s easy. Turn it off, turn it back on, turn it off, turn it on, click, click, click… Oh, the power!
Ting has a company philosophy that will make your heart happy. Read it for yourself here (click the link then click “about” at the top of the page)

Ting‘s billing structure is designed to always charge you the least possible amount based on your actual voice, text and data usage, each separated out like that. There is no “bundle,” no “plan” with Ting. Each phone costs $6 a months (six bucks!) to have active. Beyond that, pay only for what you use – and the prices are rock bottom. Click here to play with their rates estimator and see how much you could save! (click the link then click “rates” at the top of the page).

Got Wi-Fi at home, work, school, restaurants around town, etc.? With Ting, you can surf the web, play games, watch movies, anything you want on your cell phone connected to that Wi-Fi, and not one red cent will ever appear on your bill. Other no contract carriers will charge you $5 a month for the privilege of surfing your own Wi-Fi using your own phone. With Ting it’s FREE!

You can bring your own device to Ting. You don’t have to buy a phone from them. Any Sprint phone will work on Ting. I needed four phones, so I printed Ting‘s long list of compatible models and headed for eBay. I got a lot of five awesome Motorola Admiral XT603 smart phones in perfect working order for $99, with free shipping. That’s $20 a phone! Now everybody in my family has a smart phone, with a spare in storage in case my daughter drops here phone in the toilet (again… sigh…). All four phones we activated with Ting work perfectly!

If you get stuck with a surprise early termination fee from your old provider, like I did from AT&T, Ting can help. Just because they’re awesome, Ting will give you a credit for 25% of your ETF, up to $75. They credited me $21 from AT&T’s vile and deceptive $82 charge. I love you, Ting!

Here’s the bottom line on Ting Mobile. A month ago I was paying AT&T $150 a month for my family’s four cell phones. None of us had data service on that account. With Ting, the same four users have better phones, running on the excellent Sprint and Verizon towers in our area (and we live in the country; Ting‘s coverage is vast), and my TOTAL BILL is $41.00. That’s not per phone, that’s for all four phones in daily use. Thanks to that $21 credit, I’ll actually only be paying $20 this month! WooHoo!

Ting also has an awesome customer referral program. Once you join, be sure to tell all your friends! Ting provides you with a personal referral link you can put on blogs, post on your Facebook page, tweet endlessly, and when the first person signs up based on your referral, you get a $50 credit against future bills. Every referral after the first one nets you a $25 credit. The last time I called Ting just to chat, I told the awesome woman helping me that I have a blog, and I’m going to use it to sing the praises of Ting to the world. She laughed, and said, “Be sure to use your referral link! You may never have to pay a phone bill again!”

And that’s the win-win here, frugal friends. As your Mayor, I want you to escape the grips of whatever evil mega-corp has you indentured into cell phone slavery, and set you free with Ting Mobile! And I also want you to click a link from this blog post to get to the Ting Mobile website, so I get credit for referring you.

So, click the word “Ting” anywhere in this post, and you’ll be taken to the Ting Mobile website, tagged with my referral link. You save money, I save money, bad companies lose customers, a great company gains them. Everybody wins!

I love being Mayor of Frugalville! What a rush!

– Felix

A software bug and a customer-focused solution

Last week we discovered and corrected some calculation errors in our software that resulted in us over-billing a handful of customers an average of 50¢. This isn’t a post about the details of that error, but rather how we handled this from a customer service standpoint.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a billing mistake before. Some companies have addressed these kinds of mistakes in a fashion that we’ve become accustomed to:

  • A credited line item on an invoice,
  • a broadcast email alert to the affected customer base,
  • or even a ‘wait for the customer to call and then tell them’ approach.

We felt the right thing to do was to pick up the phone and call each customer affected BEFORE they noticed the problem, explain what happened, tell them how and when we’ll fix the error and that we’re sorry this happened in the first place.

How did it go?

The customer response from our phone calls was pretty incredible. Time and again, each conversation turned into a wonderful conversation with our customers. They were “surprised and delighted” that we took the time to call them and apologize.

Although this specific response may not scale in the same way when we reach thousands of customers, what we learned is that regardless of the method, as long as we work to foster a culture that focuses on the customer regardless of circumstance, we’ll be equipped to respond in a ‘surprising and delightful’ way regardless of the situation.

When I’m asked how Ting is different, this is one of the stories I’ll share. Yes, it does feel a bit odd ‘tooting our own horn’ after recovering from a mistake we created, but I think it serves as a real world example about who we are and our approach to dealing with our mistakes.

Welcome to the Ting beta!

If you are reading this, it means you have bested our authentication process. Well played and thank you again for your effort. Just to reiterate a few key points:

  • Please do not pass along your beta credentials. This is not one of these betas where we actually hope to generate jealousy and buzz. We have limited this to a small group in hopes of getting great feedback and some forgiveness on any early bugs and missteps.
  • Speaking of feedback, please keep notes as you browse around and start using the service. We will be delighted to get your questions, concerns and ideas in the beta discussion forum.
  • I am tempted to give you step-by-step instructions here to get you started but I would rather pretend you have just wandered through our front door (where I believe we give step-by-step instructions to get you started).
  • Having said that, we regard you as a customer first, an advisor second. So please let us know if there is anything we can do to help.
  • You will find a $50 credit in your first monthly service bill. (Thank you.) That comes after the bill for your device.
Welcome. We can’t wait to hear about your experiences and incorporate your questions and ideas.

Please Wait While We Transfer Your Call… Click!

It drives us bonkers when we call a service provider for help and our call is transferred to multiple service reps, each time being asked to re-explain the problem we’re having. What’s worse, is waiting on hold, and eventually being told that we’re not talking to the right person; then our call is disconnected because the agent misdialed a phone extension to transfer us to the “correct department”.

“There’s fifteen minutes we’ll never get back”, we think to ourselves. You’ve been there too, right?

When we started thinking about customer service at Ting, we reflected our own experiences with customer service at different companies and we knew that in order for our customers to love Ting, we need to try things that promote remarkable service.

So we thought “Why would our reps need to transfer a call to somebody else?” We came up with lots of reasons why customer support agents might need to transfer a call and the reason almost always came down to training.

We figure that “If we gave our support reps the right training, and access to the right systems, they wouldn’t need to transfer calls.”

In a nutshell, that’s how our “No Transfer Policy” was born.

So we’ve ditched the idea of having multiple departments and we invested more energy in training our reps on everything from billing to support and everything in between. If they’re unable to provide a solution to the customer during the call, they’ll call them back with the answer after a chat with a specialist, or perhaps their supervisor.

We don’t think a subscriber of ours needs to be intimate with the operations of our business and how we classify support requests in order to get help from us. As far as a customer needs to know, Technical Support, Customer Care, and Billing are all one department because our support agents are trained to help with anything.

We love the idea of dealing with one person and we think our customers will appreciate our “no transfer policy”, but we’d love to hear what you think!

What do you say… are we solving a service problem that doesn’t exist?

Putting a Face on Support

One of the things that makes the Internet so powerful (effective, seductive, dangerous, intimidating) is the potential for anonymity. I don’t intend to get into the pros and cons of that in this post. I like the way a bunch of smart people outlined them here.

Here’s what I find more interesting in the context of Ting. While consumers may want the option to be anonymous (or maybe just inaccessible) at times, they are absolutely desperate to identify living, thinking, accessible, accountable, nameable human beings at their service providers.

We hear this a lot when people describe their customer support experiences calling into the big phone companies. They fight their way through touch tone systems that seem designed to inspire a hang up. When they do reach a person, that person is so limited by his visibility into the “big picture”, access to the right “systems”, problems that should be passed off to another provider (software, hardware) or even incentive structure (think about companies that weigh length of support calls heavier than result of support calls) that they were better off with the touch tone system.

And a huge part of the problem is that the customer support people remain largely anonymous to the customers. They don’t have direct contact information that could be used to follow through to a solution. They don’t have faces and often do not have last names. They don’t have a LinkedIn profile, a blog or anything that indicates what they’ve done or what they think. They have access to scripts and documentation, but there’s no way of knowing whether they are smart, passionate, empowered people who will dig deep into their own bag of tricks to figure out how to solve your problem.

Ironically, it seems to be the Web companies, who originally represented lean, technical, self-serve alternatives to the larger, people-rich brands, that are putting humanity back into customer support. Zappos is obviously a classic example. But ING, Zipcar, Southwestern Airlines and so many of these Web-focused challengers all seem to be doing it better than their larger competitors.

Maybe these companies have realized efficiencies that allow them to invest more in the length of their support calls and the quality of their people. Maybe if you build a service explicitly for savvier customers, you are less inclined to treat those customers like cattle.

These are the examples we want to follow. And we’re exploring ways to take it even further:

– No hold system at all. No touch tone menu. Dial the phone and somebody answers it. (We’ve done this at Hover. People are shocked.)

– Geek-powered support. Hire the sort of people who already solve mobile phone problems for their friends and families! Pay them to do it for us.

– Support through Facebook, Twitter, instant chat, even video chat. People with names, faces, profiles, email addresses and direct phone lines.

Nothing on that list is particularly profound or revolutionary. Most of it just makes sense. But how refreshing would it be to call up a mobile phone company and instantly get a geek with a face and a name that will work with you, potentially over multiple calls, until you are completely satisfied?

That’s not a rhetorical question. How refreshing would that be?

Every conversation is an opportunity. Even in a call center.

A close friend of mine told me a story about a recent interaction he had with the help desk staff at a large cell phone carrier. I thought I’d share it with you.

My friend has two cell phones, one paid for by his company and the other is for personal use. He’s been paying good money for a virtually unlimited data subscription on his personal device and realized that he’s rarely outside of a wifi hotspot. When he looked at his bill recently (something he rarely never does) his data usage just about floored him. He signed up for a virtually unlimited plan several months back and just now realizes that his usage was less than 100MB each month. And when he thought about it, he figured that nearly 100% of that usage was over WiFi.

So he called up his carrier on the phone and the agent said she couldn’t help him. She couldn’t help him, not because he’s locked in to a contract (he wasn’t), but because changes to data subscriptions for that phone must be done from the phone itself.

Pardon? A customer has called you on the phone for help, and you can’t treat this like the opportunity that it is and help him? What a waste.

I’m all for self administration on the device itself and I bet this carrier spent thousands of dollars designing the app. But when a customer calls in for help and you have them on the phone, why would waste such a valuable opportunity to serve their needs right then and there?

In the end, after some searching, my friend did eventually cancel his subscription from the device, but the interaction with the agent on the phone left him feeling uncared for, slightly confused and annoyed.

I want you to know that when you call us for help at Ting, we won’t let you off the phone until we’ve given you what you need, regardless if we have a self service way of doing this, or not.