HR & Management

"We blew it": AT&T apology shows bosses need to play nice with customers

6 min read

22 October 2015

No matter the size of the company, listening to customers is an important part of developing products and services. This is obviously not the case when it comes to offering suggestions to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who has now had to apologise for the way the company responded to a customer's email.

Alfred Valrie recently sent Stephenson an email suggesting two ideas which could boost customer satisfaction: unlimited data for DSL users and 1,000 text messages for $10 a month.

“I’m a quadruple customer,” Valrie said. “And I’ve been happy with the service.”

It was with that in mind that he decided to offer his two cents. Of course, consumers are normally assured by businesses that any feedback is valued and that their opinions matter. In fact, Eric Anderson, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, said: “Every firm is concerned about having open lines of communication with customers. This is how you know if your products or services are on course. To not listen to customers is like a pilot flying blind.”

However, instead of a simple “thank you for your suggestions” reply, Valrie got a letter from AT&T’s Thomas Restaino, a lawyer who handles intellectual property issues, according to an article in the LA Times. 

“AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyse, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property… from members of the general public,” Restaino said. “Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion.”

Valrie told the Times columnist he was caught off-guard by the impersonal and legalistic response. 

“I just wanted to give him something to mull over,” Valrie said. “I never thought I’d get a letter from a lawyer.”

Reporter David Lazarus assumed the company made a mistake and would apologise as soon as he brought it to their attention. But no mistake had been made, according to Lazarus. Georgia Taylor, a company spokeswoman, said the response to Valrie was deliberate.

“In the past, we’ve had customers send us unsolicited ideas and then later threaten to take legal action, claiming we stole their ideas,” she explained. “That’s why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic. It’s so we can protect ourselves.”

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This prompted Lazarus to call AT&T’s stance tone deaf, and that this type of “ham-fisted corporate overreaction” served no purpose but to keep customers at arm’s length. “Had Valrie been offering a patented idea for overhauling AT&T’s operations, then perhaps the company’s defensive posture would be understandable,” he said. “But, as he said twice in his email, he was merely making suggestions and expected no follow-up on AT&T’s part.”

Let’s just say that AT&T may have missed a huge opportunity with this customer. The company may even jeopardise a long-term relationship and could end up driving him to a competitor. But this isn’t the first time AT&T has stumbled in this way. In 2010, the company apologised after threatening legal action against a customer who complained in an email to Stephenson about not qualifying for an iPhone discount.

The customer was told that if he continued to send emails to Randall Stephenson, a cease-and-desist letter would be sent his way.

Following Lazarus’ article on the situation, the company was forced to admit it had committed a major faux pas.

“We blew it, plain and simple – and it’s something I’ve already corrected,” Stephenson said. “At AT&T, our top priority is to treat our customers to a premium experience every time they interact with us, and our consistent award-winning service demonstrates we usually get it right. Unfortunately, we don’t meet our high standards 100 per cent of the time.”

The proper care of customers is a hot topic these days. Whether the discussion goes under the name customer satisfaction, zero defections, loyalty or intimacy, the customer issue has pushed its way to the top of the agenda for a growing number of CEOs.

And as you treat your customers kindly, you give them something positive to remember. They will be inclined to share the great news about their experience with others. The more people that hear about your company in a positive light, the more your customer base will grow. With more customers, a strong revenue flow is inevitable, and your company will become a household name.

All in all, just don’t send them threatening letters.