An Open Letter to AT&T: Why Are All Your Representatives Powerless?

No matter how kind and understanding some customer service representatives can be about whatever issues you bring to them, in the end their companies limit what they may do to help. A reader's troubles reminded us of just that.

Gizmodo reader Greg sent the following letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. It's a bit on the long side, so here's the gist of it:

Based on publicly announced information, Greg should be eligible for "early upgrade" pricing on his wife's AT&T line. The only trouble is that his AT&T account doesn't appear to reflect that. Several AT&T customer representatives were able to confirm that yes, Greg really should have early upgrade pricing on that line, but they were unable to make any change for him.

In Greg's words:

It is unfortunate that I had to escalate my issue to this level, but I have exhausted all other avenues and feel that I have no other choice. I also apologize for the length of this email, but I wanted to give as many details as possible so that hopefully this can be resolved in a timely manner.

My wife and I both wanted to upgrade our current iPhone 3GS's to the new iPhone 4. When we dialed *639# from our phones, it said that I could upgrade my line ([REDACTED]) for the price of $199, but said that she would have to pay the full retail price on her line ([REDACTED]) of $599. I thought this was odd because a number of my friends that have essentially the same account setup that we do (two lines on the account, both lines were upgraded in July of last year, etc), were eligible for the early upgrade price of $399.

Judging from past experience, I know that the "upgrade flag" has to be set properly on your account in order for Apple to be able to sell you the phone at the lower price, because they cannot see any notes on your account in the store. I called into the AT&T customer service department on June 12th to find out why our second line was not eligible. I spoke with a representative named Ashley Robertson. She was very polite and she informed me that we definitely should be eligible to upgrade that line for $399. She opened a case to have it corrected (Case ID# [REDACTED]), and told me that I would get a call back by the 22nd of June. Based upon this information, I listed both of our current iPhones on eBay so that I would have the money from their sales in time to pay for the new phones.

On the June 15th when I got online to reserve our new phones on the Apple website, mine went through at the $199 price point with no problem, but my wife's line was still showing $599, so I knew at this point that it had not yet been corrected.

I received a call back on June 18th from Marla Cooper of the review team, and she informed me that our account had been reviewed and that the $399 price would be no problem. I asked her numerous times if she was sure, and she said yes. I told her that I didn't want to get to the Apple store on the 24th and not be able to complete the transaction, but she reiterated that she was positive that we were eligible for the $399 pice. This was now the second representative that has assured me that I could upgrade that line for $399.

Yesterday (June 21st), I called into AT&T Customer Service because the LG flip phone I was temporarily using was having issues holding a connection to the network. The representative I spoke with informed me that my issues were likely caused by the fact that their system was still showing that I was using an iPhone. She warned me that if she removed the iPhone from my account, I would then lose my unlimited data plan and wouldn't ever be able to get it back, so I told her to just leave it and I would deal with the issues. While I had her on the phone, I wanted to triple check the eligibility to upgrade my wife's line. She told me that her system was showing the $599 price. I asked her if she was sure, because I had been told by Marla Cooper on the 18th that this had been resolved. When she again confirmed the $599 price, I asked to speak to her supervisor. The supervisor I spoke with was named Chris. He said he saw in the notes on my account where I had been told that I could upgrade for $399, but there was nothing that he could do. I asked him to escalate the issue. He said he would, and someone would call me back today (June 22nd).

I called back in again later on the 21st because I wanted to verify that the representative that I had spoken with earlier wasn't just mistaken. The representative I spoke with read over the account, and stated that our second line definitely was in fact eligible for the early upgrade price, and that the representative and supervisor that I had spoken with earlier in the day were mistaken. She even read me a statement from an internal memo stating that if your upgrade date falls within a certain range, that you could upgrade early, and informed me that our dates were within that range. She made explicit notes on our account that we could upgrade early, and even read them aloud to me as she typed them.

At 9:30 this morning (June 22nd), I received another call from the review team informing me that the case had been resubmitted to them. They said that they were sorry that I was misinformed, but I was indeed going to be paying $599. I argued with them that:

A. According to their policies, we should be eligible
B. Three representatives had informed me that I was eligible
C. Because of what their representatives had told me, I sold my current phones, and couldn't afford to pay $599 + tax for a new one.

She apologized but said there was nothing she could do. I asked to speak to her supervisor. Her supervisor wasn't available, so I left a voicemail for her.

At this point, I felt that I had no other option than to contact the Office of the President ([REDACTED]). They took down my information and said an executive would review the account and call me back within two to three hours. I received a call back about an hour and a half later from Jessica Wilson. She wasn't very sympathetic to my situation, and was actually quite snippy at times. She said that there was no way to adjust the cost of the iPhone, period. I reiterated to no avail that I had sold my current phones based off of what their representatives told me, and I felt I was due a new iPhone at the $399 price point. She claimed that she couldn't see anywhere in the notes where a representative had told me that we could purchase one at $399, even though the supervisor I spoke to yesterday confirmed that he saw it, and the representative I spoke to last night made another note on the account saying that we could. She said she would research it further and call me back later today, probably around 2:00PM, but to not get my hopes up. I'm still awaiting that call.

At about 11:30AM, I received a call back from the supervisor that I had left the voicemail for this morning (Allison). She stated that "the buck stops with her", and that the Office of the President would likely hand my case over to her team anyway. She claimed that she was the lead of the team for iPhone upgrades. Overall, she was very nice, and seemed to be sympathetic towards my situation. She also admitted that she could see in the notes where three different reps promised me the $399 price point, but once again she said there was nothing that could be done. She said that even if she issued a credit to my account to make up for the difference, it would be reviewed and removed. We went in circles for ten or fifteen minutes, but I finally just gave up.

To this point, I still don't understand why we can't have the early upgrade. According to this screenshot from the Apple website, we can do the early upgrade on December 1st:

An Open Letter to AT&T: Why Are All Your Representatives Powerless?

And according to the AT&T press release at this link: "Existing iPhone customers eligible for an upgrade between today and the end of this year, have been made immediately eligible for AT&T's best pricing for iPhone 4 with a new two-year term commitment." ... So according to that, we should be able to upgrade for $199.

I called in to AT&T Customer Service just a little while ago to see when I could cancel my wife's line. When the representative asked why I wanted to inquire about canceling a line, I simply told her that it was because AT&T wouldn't let us do an early upgrade like we were promised. After reviewing our account, she told me that I was indeed eligible for an early upgrade on that line. That now makes the fourth representative that has told me that.

I have now wasted approximately ten hours of my time dealing with this issue. As extreme Apple fans, my wife and I literally own one of everything made by Apple. Hopefully this phone will not be the exception. All I want is to be able to purchase a new iPhone at a reasonable price as I was promised by four different representatives. I spend thousands of dollars every year with AT&T between my cellular service, home phone service, and U-Verse Internet service. I feel that AT&T should step forward and correct their errors for a very loyal customer.

Greg explains that this is what happened after he sent the letter:

I received a call back from Jessica Wilson in the Office of the President late this afternoon. She even had a copy of the above email that I had sent to Randall Stephenson. She was once again firm in her stance. She never denied that I had been told that I could upgrade for $399, but was unwilling to honor it. Her exact words were: "We will not be adjusting the price of the iPhone for you".

I called in to AT&T Customer service once more tonight, and was again informed that we could upgrade for $399. I even have this call recorded. That made the fifth time I'd been told that I could upgrade for $399.

Greg asked what he can do at this point and I had no answer for him. I have plenty of similar stories about plenty of companies. In the end, it boils down to a mix of good and bad customer service representatives who are all equally powerless to do anything beyond offering either sympathy or snide remarks as their companies tie their hands and limit their actions. Today AT&T was the big culprit, tomorrow it'll be someone else.