Business Columns & Blogs

Email AT&T’s CEO – it’s a great way to meet his lawyer

AT&T is scrambling to clean up a mess after turning over an email from a customer to its CEO to a lawyer who provided a terse response. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has since apologized for the action.
AT&T is scrambling to clean up a mess after turning over an email from a customer to its CEO to a lawyer who provided a terse response. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has since apologized for the action. Associated Press

AT&T’s Code of Business Conduct declares that “our customers should always know we value them” and that “we listen to our customers.”

But you might want to think twice before offering suggestions to the company’s chief executive, Randall Stephenson, about how AT&T can improve its Internet and wireless services.

El Sereno resident Alfred Valrie, 35, found himself in the cross hairs of a top AT&T lawyer after recently emailing Stephenson with two simple ideas for improving customer satisfaction: unlimited data for DSL users and 1,000 text messages for $10 a month.

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

Nobody would. Consumers are routinely assured by businesses that their feedback is valued and that their opinions matter.

A Google search for “your opinion matters” will return about 700,000 listings, with almost all top results being companies soliciting the thoughts of customers.

“Every firm is concerned about having open lines of communication with customers,” said Eric Anderson, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.

“This is how you know if your products or services are on course,” he said. “To not listen to customers is like a pilot flying blind.”

Valrie would seem the ideal AT&T customer. He gets the full package from the company – home phone, wireless, Internet and satellite TV.

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

It was in that spirit that he decided to offer his two cents for some minor improvements. Valrie went online and tracked down Stephenson’s email address. He sent the following message:

“Hi. I have two suggestions. Please do not contact me in regards to these. These are suggestions. Allow unlimited data for DSL customers, particularly those in neighborhoods not serviced by U-verse. Bring back text messaging plans like 1,000 Messages for $10 or create a new plan like 500 Messages for $7.

“Your lifelong customer, Alfred Valrie.”

You’d think any CEO would be thrilled to receive an email like that. A long-term customer is sufficiently engaged with the company to offer advice on how things could be even better.

Stephenson, however, referred Valrie’s email to AT&T’s legal department, which unleashed Thomas A. Restaino, chief intellectual property counsel.

Restaino thanked Valrie for being a lifelong customer. Then he adopted an adversarial tone.

“AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property … from members of the general public,” Restaino said.

“Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion.”

They wouldn’t even consider what a customer had to say? That’s a fine how-do-you-do.

(Stephenson has since acknowledged that the company “blew it” in turning over a loyal customer’s suggestions to a lawyer and saying it won’t even consider ideas from the general public.

“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,” Stephenson wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times.

“Unfortunately, we don’t meet our high standards 100% of the time,” he said.)

When I had asked Georgia Taylor, an AT&T spokeswoman, about the company’s letter to Valrie, she said the adversarial tone 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.”

To call AT&T’s stance tone deaf would be an understatement. This is the sort of ham-fisted corporate overreaction that serves 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. But, as he said twice in his email, he was merely making suggestions and expected no follow-up on AT&T’s part.

“AT&T missed a huge opportunity with this customer,” said Andrea Godfrey Flynn, an associate marketing professor at the University of San Diego. “They may have jeopardized a long-term relationship and could end up driving him to a competitor.”

This isn’t the first time AT&T has stumbled in this way. In 2010, the company apologized after threatening legal action against a customer who had griped in an email to Stephenson about not qualifying for an iPhone discount.

The customer was told that “if you continue to send emails to Randall Stephenson, a cease-and-desist letter may be sent to you.”

AT&T still hasn’t learned how to play nice with customers.

Taylor, the company spokeswoman, said AT&T “will take a look at our processes to see where we can do better going forward.”

I have an idea. Read all emails and letters from customers carefully and don’t go nuts when they’re just offering some constructive feedback. (Note to AT&T lawyers: That was just a suggestion on my part; no need to break out the pitchforks.)

And to AT&T customers, I say whatever you do, don’t send your thoughts to Stephenson at his direct work email address, rs2982@att.com.

David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. He answers consumer questions. Contact him: david.lazarus@latimes.com or @Davidlaz. Read more by Lazarus at fblinks.com/laz.

  Comments