AT&T Is Only Acting Like It's Too Incompetent to Sell Me Services: Genius!

The more the monolithic service provider thwarts my efforts to buy DSL, wireless and cable the more I wonder: Is it all some brilliant marketing plan?

"All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved."

While he wasn't attempting to bundle broadband, phone and cable TV services, Sun Tzu said there'd be days like this.

And as I spiraled down the vortex of one of my worst consumer experiences ever, I had to wonder: Just how brilliant is AT&T's marketing department?

It's not that they've managed to provide me anything yet — although, from U-Verse cable TV to smart phones to home broadband, I've tried earnestly to buy virtually every communications product AT&T sells in recent weeks.

But in an almost uncanny series of egregious customer-service errors and emotional abuse, I've been shut down at every turn.

Now, I'm not a believer in Intelligent Design, but I kind of get the idea. I'm just not buying that AT&T's seeming ineptitude — which spans divisions, service teams and even continents — isn't part of some brilliant master plan.

Come on, nobody can really be this lame without trying. 

My theory? AT&T's in this for the long con — they want me as their bitch … not just for a two-year contract, but for life.

Here's a rundown of what I'm talking about.

• About three weeks ago, I got the uppity idea to try to switch my phone service to Vonage, but keep my existing AT&T broadband service. My wife and I aren't using the land line that much these days,  I thought, on the count of we both have smart phones with AT&T service plans. Might as well have a basic $18-a-month service plan with Vonage, but keep our AT&T DSL service. Simple, right?

Nope. After the cursory 10-minute meandering through AT&T's automated phone system, a representative told me I have to terminate my existing account and start new one, with only broadband on it.

"Great, let's do it," I said.

But even though everything was set up on my end, I'm told by a not-so-effervescent woman named Natalie that it will take a week to set up the new line. 

Fine.

So the week goes by, and I call AT&T – after the usual 10-minute hassle with the computerized operator — and ask, "Wuz up?"

I'm told by some dude named John that Vonage has to call and seize my old phone number (I want to keep it) before AT&T can execute the order.

"Call Vonage and see what the hold-up is," I'm advised 

I call Vonage. They say it's AT&T's issue. I call AT&T back (after yet another 10 minutes talking to a machine that keeps saying, "I didn't understand that — let's try this again".)

Back and forth I go, until a Vonage rep named "Miranda" in some Far Eastern call center asks me, "Can I be honest with you?"

"Please."

"AT&T is screwing this up on purpose," she says. "We have a lot of trouble with them in these circumstances. They just don't want to lose you."

As someone who errs on the side of co-dependence myself, I get that … but I still want my telephone and broadband issues sorted out.

Miranda is kind enough to set up a three-way call with her, myself and some AT&T rep name Patricia. Miranda explains the situation. They work it out. Vonage will pull the number in a week. AT&T will set up the new DSL line on the day after.

Problem solved, Dan. Problem. Solved.

But no …

Eight days goes by, and Vonage pulls the number — I start to get cool WAV files of voicemails sent to my email! — but I still don't have a working AT&T DSL line.

I have no land line or broadband at the house. No worries.

I call AT&T Internet Services and speak to a nice tech support rep named Jim. The line was never set up, he tells me. I'm told to call the "provisioning" department in the morning to find out what's up.

I call provisioning the next day (again, after the 10-minute wrestling match with the automated phone system). Robert answers the phone. Says he just got in and needs to "log in."

"I'm going to place you on hold for just a minute," he tells me.

Robert never comes back.

I call back a bit later, after I get to work (hey, it's just Waxman's time, I figure). I endure the 10-minute wait again, yelling profanities at a machine. 

An earnest-yet-pimply faced dude (guessing) named John answers the phone. Really wants to help. Transfers me over to tech services, where an experienced-sounding fellow named Kyle takes on my case.

I'm feeling confident. 

"I've got to make some calls," Kyle tells me. "Is there a number where I can reach you back."

"Now Kyle, I've already been hurt already this morning," I tell him. "You sure somebody will get back to me?" I ask.

"By 4:30," he responds.

Four-thirty comes and goes.

I call back, talk to Robby. Robby tells me the order has been canceled. "Want to set up another one?" he asks … rather blithely.

I go on the offensive.

"Why do you guys have to suck so bad?" I ask. "It's a simple thing — I just wanted to remove my phone line from my account and keep the DSL. I've been paying for it for years. We're talking about thousands of dollars. Don't you want my money?" I ask.

Robby promises to transfer me to a manager, but no one ever picks up, and the phone call goes into oblivion.

So, no phone or broadband at the house for another day. Fine. It's premiere week, anyway, and I need to concentrate on watching television … so that I understand all those stories I read in Deadline Hollywood.

I call back the next day (yeah, yeah, after the usual 10 minutes). Nicole, who I peg as being of Carolinian background, based on my limited abilities to decipher the dialects of my own countrymen, is cool and competent.

She gets me a three-way with a provisioning manager, LaTresa — who sounds like her Lexapro prescription ran out two days ago.

"You're order got canceled," says LaTresa, with the enthusiasm of a DMV clerk with a hangover. "We'll set up a new one. Should have it done next Friday."

"Can it be sooner?" I ask. "I've been waiting nearly three weeks, and it was your error."

"I'll put on the order that 'customer wants it done sooner,'" she says.

"Will that actually help?" I ask.

"Nope."

• So it's Wednesday, and I'm driving to work, waiting for a phone call that never comes. (It's one of the studios I cover.)

I try calling them, but my phone service has been cut off. Seems my bill is overdue … which is strange, since I just paid it, and we only got the phone call warning us the account was delinquent the day before. 

I call my friends at AT&T Wireless.

Seems that when I guessed at the payment amount of my bill two weeks earlier — I have to speculate because AT&T just up and stopped sending me paper statements months ago, and began emailing them God knows where — I didn't account for $133 of roaming charges from when my wife was in Canada over the summer.

I pay the money. A competent rep named Lisa waves the re-connection fee and turns my service back on.

I try to call my wife on her wireless to tell her the great news, but I can't get through. Seems her new AT&T-provided HTC smart phone — the second one AT&T has sent to her in less than a month — has stopped accepting and making phone calls, too.

She calls AT&T Wireless — on a Verizon phone line — and talks to some dude named William.

The connection is crystal-clear. It's like they're in the same room.

"Problem's on the head end,"  William tells me wife. "Should clear up in a bit."

But the problem doesn't go away, and she's advised to "come in" (i.e. visit an AT&T store). 

• A few weeks before the ordeal with the phones and the DSL started, I suddenly became dissatisfied with paying Dish Network $98 a month for TV service.

"Wouldn't it be cool if I could bundle all my AT&T services — including U-Verse, which lets me record four channels at once! — into one discounted bill," I thought, as I looked at an AT&T mailer suggesting that I bundle all my AT&T services into one discounted bill.

I call the number on the mailer, and it's disconnected. I go online, and find another number for AT&T. 

"I'd like to inquire about bundling," I tell the rep, Mary. "I have existing AT&T phone, DSL and wireless service. I'd like to add U-Verse to that and see what it all costs."

"You want to do what?" Mary asks.

We politely agree to part company. I search online for info about U-Verse. I can't find a phone number, but start IM-ing with an AT&T sentient.

"Is U-Verse available in my area," I asks. "Don't know," he/she says. "You'll have to ask a customer service rep."

"A week later, DirecTV shows up and installs a new satellite dish on top of my house. 

• So it's Wednesday, and Waxman wants me to write about the film studios … but I'd rather spend my time on some screed.

I email AT&T's corporate PR rep to give a little heads up. Sure, it's going to be a positive story, touting the company's innovative neural linguistic marketing strategy: "You're a bitch. Buy our stuff today. We'll install it when we get around to it."

But I figure AT&T might want to keep this groundbreaking strategy on the down-low — I mean, what would happen if everybody started doing business this way? — and I owe them a chance to respond.

I get call later in the day from a woman named Deborah in AT&T's Los Angeles offices. She says she's sensitive to my complaints — which actually turns me off a little — and wants to help.

I ask her if this is all part of a master plan — to bring me closer by pushing me away. She says it isn't … and that she'll call me back.

Now that's more like it.

The next day, I get a call from Louisa, in AT&T's executive offices in San Francisco. She wants to help, too (I know, ew). She says she'll call me back after discussing my issues with someone else in corporate.

But I haven't heard back from her yet … which, frankly, gives me the urge to increase my wireless minutes.