90 Minutes With AT&T Customer Service – Modern Problems To Modern Solutions

It turns out that there are a number of people named Patrick McKinney in North America and a few of them who have a very similar email address to me. From time to time I will get a message that was intended for one of them and I will reply to it to let the sender know that they have the wrong email address. Sometimes the people are gracious, sometimes they laugh, but mostly they don’t reply. Oh well, whatever.

A few months ago I started receiving email from AT&T – they are a large US telecommunications provider while I am an averaged size person who lives in Canada. They are not my provider and I do not live in the country in which they operate. The first few messages were the standard “welcome” messages and outlined some of their other services. I scanned the message looking for an unsubscribe link so I could put an end to them before it went any further. No luck with that. I was free to update my email preferences with them, but I would need to log into my account to do that and since I didn’t have an account, or more accurately, the account login information, I was powerless to do anything about the messages. I deleted it and returned to whatever it was I was doing before the message arrived.

It turns out the person who used my email address set-up their account to email them notifications to pay their bill, so every month I receive an email letting me know that it is time to pay them X amount of money. Every month I ignore the message and return to living my life. Whoever the AT&T customer is, they are responsible. They pay the bill in full every month and seemed to be doing a good job remembering on their own, since they aren’t getting the email reminders.

Today I received their April reminder and right as I was about to delete it, I stopped to consider how I could waste 90 minutes of my day. Of course, at the time that wasn’t what I considered. What I actually wondered was what would happen if I tried to get my email address taken off of the account? How easy, difficult, or impossible would it be? Could I get it done?

Off I went, to the kitchen to make lunch, brew some coffee, and try to update an email field for an account that wasn’t mine.


When I consider my options on how I will connect with the company, I choose chat because I don’t want to pay any long distance charges and I want to be able to listen to podcasts or music while I solve the biggest non-problem in my world today. This wasn’t a mistake, choosing chat was a fine way to do the very stupid thing I was about to trying to do.

After our hellos and how are you doings, I went straight for it:

Me: I am not an AT&T customer but continue to get billing emails. There is no “unsubscribe” link. How do I stop the messages?

Power move right there. Direct, simple, and easy to understand. I’m getting messages that are someone else’s and I just want to stop them. In my head, the only other thing that is going to be required is the email address that is receiving the messages and maybe a few minutes of waiting while they look it up and empty the email field.

They ask for my name and I let them know that they can call me Tom. Tom is a no nonsense name. One syllable, aggressive and forceful at the start that fades out gently as the mouth closes and the airflow transitions to the nose. Masculine, check. Powerful, oh absolutely. When you say it out loud you know the person you’re with dealing means business. I wasn’t just going to be Tom, I needed the rep to know they were dealing with one.

Except they don’t say it out loud, they read it. Reading “Tom” doesn’t give it the same energy that saying it does. It isn’t weak or anything, it’s just three letters, easy to recognize and as far as names go “Tom” is one.

There’s a little bit of back and forth, I give them my email address and that evaporated whatever Tom clout I had built up. Not only was I not a Tom, I was the kind of person who would lie about being one. A wannabe Tom, and who wouldn’t, but a Pat does not a Tom make or something like that.

The power dynamic is shifting, I can feel it. They can help me, but only if I jump through a couple of hoops for them. Maybe they’ll play fast and loose with the fish, maybe they won’t. But if I want the reward, I’m going to have to do exactly what they tell me to do.

Except they don’t know who they are dealing with, other than knowing it isn’t Tom and is probably someone named Patrick.

Rep 1: I have already checked this with our Billing Team, and they would like to speak with you directly for the issue.
Rep 1: I am actually documenting this now for our Billing team so that this can be checked at the soonest. All you need to do there is to give us a quick call so that we can proceed with further verification processes for your request. Are you ready for the phone number?
Rep 1: Just checking to see if you are there so we can continue.
Me: I’m sorry, I’m not going to do that.
Me: I’m not a customer so I’m not calling to get the messages to stop.
Me: I’ll mark them as spam and be done with it.

Sand meet line!

Except this is quick sand.

The rep has been through all of this before, many times, and calls my bluff in an almost magic way:

Rep 1: I’m with you on this.

Like now I’m just going to hang-up and label rep 1 spam when they’re with me on it? No way! The kind of person who is going to reach out to AT&T to try and correct an email address mistake for an account that isn’t theirs is not the kind of person who is going to leave rep 1 stranded on a customer service chat app. We’re in it together. I don’t disconnect from my commitments. No way, you have me mistaken for a different wannabe Tom.

Rep 1: Just a quick recap, you chatted us about the email that you are getting, I’ll be partnering you with the designated team which is our Billing team to remove this email on file. Is there anything else that I can help you with?
Me: Actually there might be.

I have a passive aggressive streak. This is something that I am not proud of and I thought I had put away, but every now and then, when I’m emotionally wounded, it comes back to life. Rep 1 and I have history. Sure, it’s not a long one, but for the last few lines of chat text I actually believed that they were with me. It was a stunning moment of disillusionment to hit me with the knowledge that they were going to be partnering me with, I shudder to think it, Billing.

There might still be hope, maybe this is a polyamorous customer service experience. Time for clarity:

Me: I don’t know what you mean by partnering.

Rep 1: I’ll be connecting you to our Billing team to make this easy for you, since they are the designated team who can further assist you in removing the email on file.
Me: Ahhhh.

No, it’s happening. What we had together is gone.

Rep 1: I just want to make this instant and fast for you that’s why I’ll be connecting you to our Billing team.

This was a lie, well, maybe not a lie but it wasn’t the truth. It was going to be neither instant nor fast. It’s all so clear now, rep 1 wanted to get rid of me and if that meant the entire billing team was going to take me on they didn’t care. All that matter to rep 1 was that I disappear. They were never with me on anything. That was a lie too. And to think, all I had been was direct and completely honest with them.

Rep 1: Tom, I’m transferring you now. Thank you for choosing AT&T!

Oh yeah, that’s right. I lied about my name. Never mind, on to billing.

Rep 2 is no rep 1, that’s for sure. But working for the billing team does that, to my perceptions of the implied tone of text that appears on the screen. This was just a rehash of my history with rep 1. But, unlike rep 1, rep 2 was going to transfer me to the Loyalty team.

This was a game changer, or something. I wasn’t a customer and had more or less opened with this fact. I wasn’t loyal, well, I was more loyal than rep 1, but so was rep 2, so that isn’t saying much. The fact is that I am not an AT&T customer. The decision to transfer me to loyalty didn’t make sense, unless….. What if this chat had been going on for so long that I had actually proved my chops in terms of being a steadfast and determined partner in solving this issue? Could it be that long enough had passed for them to realize that I should be treated as though I was one of them even though I wasn’t?

Rep 2: Trust me, they are the best team who can handle this.

And suddenly I don’t, and get the feeling that they are pulling a rep 1 on me and dumping me like garbage.

Me: No.

That isn’t the kind of thing a Tom would say, at least not with that tone.

Rep 2: I just need you to stay on the chat with me while I’m waiting for available specialist. Is that okay?
Me: Please don’t do that.

Begging, pathetic.

Rep 2: Okay
Rep 2: Hold on.
Rep 2: I’m currently coordinating with my support here.
Rep 2: Please stay with me.

This is the line of a hero, and it never goes well for the person they direct the line towards. I’ve seen enough army movies were one of the supporting characters gets hit and the hero is sitting beside them, holding their hand, looking intensely into their eyes and says “stay with me.” This is a decision point:

Me: okay.

I choose to die on the battle field.

Rep 3: Hi
Rep 3: Good day
Me: You misspelled “Oh my God you’ve been waiting for 90 minutes to deal with something a normal person would just delete. Seriously, you need to get it together. I could help you with this, but it’s not right to reward bad behavior in case that makes you more likely to repeat it.” But I too misspell it and type “Hello”
Rep 3: Please allow me to review the previous interaction to better assist you. Thank you
Me: okay

There is a long pause during which time I listen to a BBC news podcast. Turns out my problems are small. However, it just seems like Rep 3 has been reviewing for too long.

Me: Hi Rep 3. I seem to have underestimated the complexity of removing an incorrect email address from an active customers account.
Me: Would it be better for everyone if I was to just mark the messages from the AT&T address as spam so I don’t see them anymore?
Me: The challenge I am running into now is twofold.
Me: I’m almost out of time that I can devote to this.
Me: And I’m almost out of the will to see it through.
Me: At some point in the very near future I will have to get back to living the rest of my Tuesday.
Rep 3: Sorry I’m here

I believe this 100%. My request is very straight forward, no one is confused about what I want to have happen, and no one is able to make it so. In situations like this, I believe that rep 1 is sorry they are there and rep 2 is sorry they are there.

Rep 3: I received your responses late
Rep 3: Due to system maintenance

Yeah, I don’t care anymore. I got more out of this than I ever thought possible. But I’ve grown rep 1 kind of bored and I’m with AT&T in this no longer.

Rep 3: Would you mind if I call you back within an hour?
Rep 3: Sorry we need to reboot our system due to maintenance

Ah, a way to fix this. Perfect.

Me: I think I understand the solution you are suggesting and I like it.
Me: Call my number on file and when I answer
Me: ask me to update my email address
Me: I won’t remember this chat but that won’t matter so long as I update the email address.
Rep 3: Kindly give me the number that I can call you
Rep 3: Since I would not be able to update any information
Rep 3: Since most of our system/tools are down
Me: use the number you have for me on file.
Rep 3: Alright
Rep 3: talk to you soon
Rep 3: Sorry for the inconvenience
Rep 3: Have a nice one: )

Rep 3 doesn’t have any idea how effectively they solved the problem and I can only imagine how weird the first few moments of their conversation with the account holder will be. But their genius will shine through once they say everything out loud.

The account holder wanted the email reminders, they just entered the wrong email address and have never recieved them. The best solution is to have their actual email address on file because they didn’t leave the email blank when they signed up. AT&T seem unable to update the email address to an empty or null value, something that is common with databases – you can leave it blank but once it is filled in and a valid email address has been saved, format error checking on the form prevents you from submitting a blank value. It wasn’t that my request was unusual, it was simply that the technology did not allow for the request to be completed. The email field NEEDS a valid entry so without a valid email address, AT&T was not going to be able to update it.

The person who should have been talking to AT&T was the customer but they didn’t know that they were not getting the emails because that is not how knowing things works. They were never going to call AT&T to give them the updated address, so it was up to me and the phone rep to figure out how that connection would be made.

When rep 3 said that he would call me back, the opening for the connection between the actual customer and AT&T presented itself and I jumped at it. By asking rep 3 to call the phone number that is on file for the account, they will be calling the person who the bill is for and will be able to get the updated email address from them. Of course, the customer wouldn’t know why the rep is calling because it wasn’t them who was on the chat. My statement “I won’t remember this chat but that won’t matter so long as I update the email address” was made to address this fact.

The idea of the call makes me laugh though.

Rep: Hi customer, sorry we got cut off, I’d like to close off your concern about the email address associated with your AT&T account.
Customer: I’m sorry, I don’t know what you are talking about. We didn’t get cut off, I wasn’t talking to anyone from AT&T today. And I don’t get emails from them anyway.
Rep: (thinking to themselves, he said he wouldn’t remember) Okay, well you said that you didn’t want to get the emails any more.
Customer: I didn’t say anything because we weren’t talking and I have never got the emails.
Rep: Okay, I think I understand, maybe we don’t have the right email address on file. Let’s take a moment to make sure things are good.
Customer: Okay
Rep: Is your email address __?
Customer: No.
Rep: (as his accidental genius hits him). Let’s update right now and make sure things are set up correctly.

I have learned a valuable lesson today which is to just delete the messages from large corporations to their customers and not try to fix anything. It isn’t my business or my concern, and it isn’t as simple as it seems like it should be. Should it take three different people from three different departments over the course of 90 minutes to not get it fixed? I don’t think so, but maybe it should. Maybe things need to be harder than they are to toughen us up and help us grow more tolerant towards the complexity of life now.

Modern solutions beget modern problems. Before email there wasn’t a single problem associated with email addresses. Why shouldn’t the increasing complexity cause more problems than it solves? Do we really want to live in a world in which progress doesn’t create its own set of problems?

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