How to (Not) Save 24 Hours with Cell Phone Customer Service

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 8:12 PM

I sometimes wonder how we get anything done at all. Usually, I wonder that while sitting on hold with customer service. I especially find myself wondering that when said customer service has to do with cellular service. I was wondering that today.

My most recent phone battle began last October and has taken me across two different carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile. With a huge event I was coordinating looming about a week away, I was busy coordinating it from the parking lot of the hospital my uncle was at getting a procedure in. My AT&T service, which had been getting spottier by the day, was at a new low. I was literally — yes I’m using that word as it is intended — waiting a minute or two for simple web pages to load or my e-mail to be checked.

Then, AT&T sent me a text to let me know my data plan was 75% exhausted for the month. I had one of those old plans that included a set amount of data, but allowed it to be rolled over if you didn’t use it. Every single month, I had more unused, “rolled over” data expiring than I had managed to use. So, the text was, shall we say, unexpected.

The next text was more peculiar just minutes later. Sitting there in that parking lot, my phone was doing its best imitation of an early online service 2400 “baud” modem minus the screeching sounds (my younger millennial and beyond readers, here, have a listen). I remember the days when Prodigy first added photos in the 1990’s and they loaded line-by-line; this was slower. Yet, somehow that next text claimed I had used ninety percent of the 20 GB my plan had to offer.

I went to look up AT&T customer service only to discover my data was now exhausted and even the privilege of looking up my carrier’s phone number at excruciating slow speeds was now gone. Hello, Starbucks Wi-Fi.

Once I was finally able to call, I went through three successive customer service agents who attempted to get me to upgrade to an AT&T Unlimited plan for only $20/month more.

To each, I explained I never used the total data I already had and there was no way I had exhausted my data this time, because it was there this morning and I had been lucky if I was experiencing the speeds of the “telegraph” portion of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co.’s name where I’d been that day. Each agent had a hard time with the concept that I might not have consumed nearly 20 GB of data in approximately two hours, even though sheer bandwidth math ruled that out: I’d have needed a constant 120 Mbps connection to achieve that feat and I wasn’t getting anywhere near 1/120th of that.


The text messages that started the saga — or at least clued me in about it. (Credit: Timothy R. Butler)

The agents kept trying to convince me that I was just dumb and didn’t realize how much data I was using, despite the mathematical impossibility I’d used so much and that, in the nearly two decade history of the account, I had never used that much in a month, much less two hours. It was clear they were counting on someone who had no idea how the technology worked.

I may not be a cellular engineer, but after years of covering the industry on these pages, the AT&T representatives’ attempts to convince me through non-sensical strings of tech jargon about the error of my alleged bandwidth hog ways was just not going to get me to go away with a new, more expensive plan. I was able to hold my own, much to the agents’ frustration.

What of the average customer who doesn’t understand the technology? He or she would have walked away $20/month poorer if each successive level of AT&T support had gotten its way.

Somewhere between upsell attempts, one of the agents slipped and admitted the truth: AT&T was having “severe degradation” of service via the tower nearest my location and it appeared the tower itself had got stuck in a loop. While it couldn’t communicate with my phone, it kept trying to send the data out anyway and it counted all of those failed attempts against my plan.

The agents still thought this was a good reason for me to agree to pay AT&T more money, but finally, two hours — and nothing accomplished of the work I needed to do — later, they came up with a worrisome solution to get my phone back online. They’d upgrade me out of my grandfathered plan (“We can’t credit back the data we already show you used, so this is the only way to get your phone back online for the month”), credit me the price difference for the month and then return me to that plan the next month.

I say worrisome, because the minute the final agent promised I would get back to my old plan come November, I began mourning that trusty plan’s death. Such promises never come true.

Over the subsequent month, I spent another ten or more hours on the phone trying to get back to my old plan, enduring numerous additional up sale attempts and never quite getting things restored. I only came close after filing a complaint with the FCC. That did get AT&T’s attention, though they quickly filed a response claiming they’d resolved the issue (they hadn’t), refunded all the overage charges (they hadn’t), that it had something to do with a price hike earlier in the year (it didn’t) and they weren’t sure what I was complaining about (perhaps this much is true — they seemed totally clueless).

Enter the “uncarrier” T-Mobile. Amid all this, I talked to a T-Mobile sale rep (and thankfully saved the chat transcript), who offered me a better plan for less money. In fact, 20% off the advertised price “for life,” starting on the third billing cycle. He said they would also pay off the currently financed devices on the plan at AT&T. I signed up. The 20% off promo showed up as having been applied. The plan got activated. Things seemed good.

They weren’t.

The bill never corrected to the promo price and the “Carrier Freedom” rebate for my AT&T devices never arrived. I called in February, explained the story, and supposedly got it resolved. Ditto in March, when — shocking, I know — it still was unresolved, though that call made it worse by tacking on a “free” Paramount+ subscription that subsequently was billed to me at $4.99/month. And again now in April, I’ve just finished the same ritual song and dance to the Cellular Powers That Be.

I’m now a full 24-hour day of phone time (well, probably, more) invested into the process that started in that hospital parking lot. Allegedly, this time — really, truly! — my account is fixed. Please do not think me too much of a cynic if I’ll only believe that once a few correct bills pass through my hands.

If it is indeed finally where it should have been to start, I’ve gained a slightly better deal for service by jumping to T-Mobile, though with my house still in a dead zone just like it was with AT&T (even though both carriers claim excellent coverage for it) and buggier Wi-Fi calling that doesn’t work more often than it does.

(Let’s call it a win that at least T-Mobile’s agents are consistently apologetic and haven’t tried to jargon their way out of fixing things.)

Meanwhile, my office landline phone and Internet plan had to be updated and Spectrum threw in a cellular line via their partnership with Verizon for the year. Is anyone surprised that, even though I haven’t activated it yet, they’ve already messed up the details of simply delivering the device? So far, I’ve spent about two or three hours on the phone with them trying to straighten that out.

Perhaps it should be amusing that these services for devices intended to make us more productive (a dubious assertion, but still) have demanded so many hours of phone calls just to get or keep them working. I’m not amused.

Next up, I need to call Spectrum again, since they provisioned my office line voicemail incorrectly and made it inaccessible even to the last agent I spoke with. Then, perhaps, I’ll call T-Mobile again to sort out why my “excellently” covered home isn’t or why my Wi-Fi calling won’t.

Maybe after that, I will get something done.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

Share on:
Follow On:

Start the Conversation

Be the first to comment!

You need to be logged in if you wish to comment on this article. Sign in or sign up here.