Cingular Frustration Not a Singular Sensation

When recently reported some of the problems that Cingular has been having selling and supporting data after its merger with AT&T Wireless, some Cingular officials said it was not the typical experience of its data-buying customers.

Although that may be true, e-mail and postings from readers certainly suggests that the experiences we had and wrote about were certainly not?please forgive me?singular Cingular experiences.

The problems involve the newest and hottest smart phone?PalmOne's Treo 650. That piece of hardware is superb, but the data integration issues are complicated by Cingular's multiple data plans.

This situation cuts across many areas. First, the telecom industry is at a crucial stage of its evolution. They are at roughly the same stage that cable empires were at about nine years ago, when cable modems started surfacing.

After a little rough sledding, cable companies were able to prove to be quite adept at handling data. Indeed, cable modems were the proverbial nails in the coffins of ISDN and they are still giving DSL variants a good fight. Not bad for companies that until then did little beyond offering modern-day equivalents of UHF channels.

I remember criss-crossing the country back in '96 for CommunicationsWeek (dearly departed) visiting the first group of corporate cable modem pioneers. In many respects, they were facing similar problems to what today's smart-phone pioneer customers are dealing with.

Today's telecom giants are also trying to bring data services into their voice environments. It could be argued that cable companies had a reverse psychological edge, in the sense that interactive data chores were more foreign to them than two-way communication is to today's telecoms. Therefore, the cable executives had no doubts that data projects required massive training and an entirely new way of doing business.

It might well be that telco execs believe that the similarities of selling and supporting data is similar enough to selling and supporting interactive voice to make radical structural changes unnecessary. If that's the case, I think initial user feedback will violently data burst their bubble.

There are related issues, too. This thinking must also permeate their e-commerce as well as their retail storefront thinking.

This weekend, I started calling and visiting various Cingular and PalmOne retail locations. While the PalmOne Treo 650 is a solid piece of hardware, problems have been reported on the data support side from Cingular. Yet the staff at Cingular retail locations, while extremely nice and helpful, had no knowledge of data services or the Treo line itself. In contrast, the people at the PalmOne locations were, in general, extremely knowledgeable.

The e-commerce component is that the Web is the first place prospects?as well as telco employees?turn for information on rates, services and technical issues. If those pages are not consistent, up-to-date, accurate, complete and self-explanatory, all sales and support operations are undercut from the start.

On the retail side, telcos must understand that selling data services?and data devices?is not like selling Princess telephones. Maybe it will be in nine years, but today it requires extensive training of all customer-facing personnel, especially those in sales. When cell phones started getting sophisticated voice mail, speed dialing and the like, it was a small step and could be handled with minimal training. Data is very different.

As for Cingular's position that lack of accurate sales communication is a small isolated concern that few customers run into, Cheri Harmon-Klein, a sales executive with Global Infrastructure Services in Houston, begs to differ.

"There is little or no appreciation or knowledge of the real reason people buy a Treo in the first place: to save time. After turning on the Treo 650, I encountered the customer service monster on day one," Harmon-Klein said. "I finally stopped into my local Cingular store, ready to throw the 650 in their garbage can. The store offered no help, but gave me their data number to call. After calling the data group, they offered little or no help until I demanded help and was escalated to a Tier 2 support manager they were hiding."

Harmon-Klein's saga didn't end there. "Between all the finger-pointing between the customer service clones at Cingular, Road Runner, [and] PalmOne for my no-call-back, Tier 2 support at their outsourced, scripted English help desk in the Philippines, I have exhausted eight-plus hours on the phone to set up and retrieve my corporate e-mail. My corporate help desk was a breeze after I got the details straight."

Richard Dym, the chief marketing officer for AXS-One in Rutherford, N.J., also doesn't buy the idea that the Cingular customer support issues are isolated.

"I'm a longtime AT&T Treo 600 user and just bit the bullet and transferred over to Cingular in order to upgrade my phone to a Treo 650. An amazing experience," he said. "Cingular's Web site is no help when trying to pick a data plan. Giving up on Cingular, I tried going through Palm, both on their Web site and via phone, only to discover that as a current AT&T customer wanting to keep my current number, I had to order through Cingular. So back to Cingular and its endless voice-mail tree. Finally, I got to a very nice sales representative who quickly told me that she had never sold a Treo and proceeded to ask a lot of innocent and very basic questions about what I was looking to do with the Treo 650. She deserves an 'A' for effort and an 'A' for patience."

Dym's saga continues: "Most importantly, after approximately 40 minutes on the phone with me firing lots of questions at her, and her putting me on hold to talk to Technical Support (there was no way to conference them in to our conversation), she did identify the right data plan. And amazingly, the Cingular unlimited data plan is actually $25 less than what I was paying on AT&T for their unlimited PDA Data Plan.

"But the combination of poor Web site description of the plan she recommended (it focuses on multimedia and never mentions pop3 mail), the potential confusion from not speaking directly with technical support, and even the fact that the plan was less expensive made me very suspicious that I would end up having to change something," Dym said. "Surprise: I went back to the Palm Web site, took the route of a new customer wanting to buy a Treo 650 from Cingular and, lo and behold, there, clearly laid out, was an excellent description of the available data plans. Best of all, it confirmed I had purchased the correct plan."

Maybe I'll have better luck with Rodney Green, in the electronic development unit of Coldwell Banker. Surely he can be convinced that the Cingular support glitches are isolated.

"I, too, went through days of frustration with them a few weeks ago. I bought my Motorola V551 from Cingular after being told a Bluetooth-enabled PDA would be able to connect to the Web through the phone. Well, that's easier said than done," Green said. "The first two levels of tech support had not a clue. After getting through to the Data Group, I was given settings to connect with the PDA and the settings didn't work. I had to search the Web to get different settings that actually worked."

Green's story continued a familiar theme: "I was just about to the point of walking in the store, handing the phone and PDA to the rep and telling them to make it work or give me my money back. The download speeds are not that great usually and the phone has to be reset periodically. One of those things that sounded good in the store but didn't work out nearly as well as expected."

OK, so I struck out with Green. I've got the perfect person, though: Michael Fisher, the IT director for the Natural Retail Group. He's in IT and should understand the challenges of data integration.

"I had a very similar issue with their customer service. I tried to add a shared line to my AT&T Digital One Rate plan. After three hours of no one knowing what to do, they finally added it. The next day, I get a call from Cingular/ATT/who knows? They say that they made a mistake and they don't have a plan like that, but if I wanted to switch to Cingular, they could do it and commit me to a two-year agreement on both phones. I tried to explain to them that Cingular has very poor coverage in Tampa Bay [, Fla.,] and does not work in locations I travel to nor at my house in Largo."

It doesn't sound like Fisher's buying their "isolated" argument, either. "After that, they said, 'No problem' and 'Oops.' Yes, indeed, they do offer a plan with my Digital One Rate and a shared line and would be sending out my new phone that day. I received two phones. My Digital One Rate plan was changed to a local plan. My bill still showed Digital One Rate as well as a $9.95 charge for a shared plan plus $99.95 for the new phone."

Fisher said he got bounced back and forth several more times, ultimately being unable to resolve a billing issue involving phones and data. "The gist is that they are losing my business and it is going to cost me $175 to cancel the new plan, which wasn't as promised," Fisher said. "I have written to AT&T?as directed to, by customer service?only to have them tell me to call customer service: a vicious circle of incompetence." Ouch.

Fisher also added a sobering thought: "It will take them approximately 18 months to two years before they will be able to merge the systems. Until then, unless you have a dual-mode phone (which they will not offer), you will have problems with service," Fisher said. "In other words, the merger means nothing since the two systems don't share any common equipment or technology. So if you switch to Cingular, there will be areas that you will now get service that you might not have before and areas that you used to get service where you won't any more."

Ernie Thomas of Santa Monica, Calif., didn't write in to complain about data integration issues, but he did have some concerns about hold times. One theory that another reader offered is that Cingular people had heard a love song called "Hold Me Forever" and misinterpreted it as a business directive. It's just a theory.

Thomas' tale of being held too much: "After three phone calls and more than an hour on hold, I called and asked a supervisor if he realized the hold time was this long and what Cingular thought was an acceptable hold time. They knew that hold times were long. I asked why the rep did not warn me before putting me on hold. They had no answer. The supervisor also said acceptable hold times were 3-5 minutes. I think that is too long. I called Motorola a few days later, waited less than a minute to talk to a tech, and they helped me fix the phone quickly."

Thomas then compared the hold of another key telecom player: "I also have a T-Mobile BlackBerry phone. I was curious as to how long their hold times were, so I called right after I hung up with Cingular. A representative answered the phone in under 60 seconds. That's acceptable."

Another Cingular user, who requested anonymity, told of his efforts?with another employee?to make a Cingular data purchase.

"We both tried many times by phone to get a data plan and through many, many calls, we never got the same 'deal.' Ranging from the same $69 unlimited to a $19 plan. I was told I didn't need a voice plan on one call. I even got quoted the only data plan available (at his institution) was the unlimited $69. No two calls were the same."

The university user's story continued, with the user's colleague being "told that the deal he got only existed until Feb. 7, 2005, which meant that the plan did not exist for me after I purchased my phone. When I called, the salesperson had no knowledge of the deal or limit. I was told the business contract of a one-year contract did not exist as of Jan 15. When I made the next call?a few days later?the one-year was not a problem. Shopping by phone was a game and you could tell in about 30 seconds that someone had no clue as they marched through their online support or lack of support and certainly no clue about what a data plan meant and what Treo support meant."

A PalmOne employee wrote in to say that he, too, was subject to Cingular's confusion. "I currently have the $80 data plan?which I'm sure they don't want to switch me off of?and they just attempted to sell me the $39.99 plan, even though I just go though telling them I have a Treo, not a BlackBerry. And, of course, they can neither find nor claim to know of any plan for the Treo, i.e., the $24.99 plan. I've since been transferred to the 'business group,' which then promptly hung up on me, so I'm back to square one. What fun it is. Just thought you might like to know they weren't just picking on you."

To be fair, I don't think Cingular was picking on anyone. The consistent?and most encouraging?theme from all of what we're hearing is that Cingular people are honestly trying to do whatever they can to help. This is not a criticism of their customer service or sales people, but merely a suggestion that those people need radically large amounts of training to adequately support this new generation of smart phones.

Telco execs: If you treat these data devices like mild upgrades or add-ons, it won't work. But don't take my word for it. After all, my experience was just an isolated situation: Ask anybody.