Brands Are Listening, But Is The Hearing Selective?

I would say that in general, I’m a positive person on Twitter, more prone to happy and humorous conversation than rant. But the other week, after receiving a bill from AT&T, I couldn’t help myself. I tweeted and Facebook'd:

Right after I finish this peanut butter cookie post I am flexing my wrists to write a strongly worded letter to AT&T. #fuming

I fielded some outraged Twitter and Facebook responses on the topic then went about my business. Then, within an hour, I received this tweet from @sethbloom, who handles blogger relations for AT&T via Fleishman-Hillard:

@bostonmamas Hey there. Sorry that you're having trouble. Would love to try to get you some quick help with whatever's making you fume.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tweeted about a brand without using an @ and had a rep respond quickly, but given that AT&T seems like a giant vortex, I was impressed. I emailed with Seth and he was just as pleasant and interested in resolving my problem as that tweet suggests.

So here was the problem: during my press trip to the Bahamas, though I didn’t use my Blackberry for phone calls, I did access the web a handful of times, perhaps a minute or two at a time. I honestly don't remember accessing the web 10 times in the Bahamas (I’ve always found the Blackberry too slow for browsing) but there were 10 roaming charges, totaling $386.23. Five charges were 31 cents or less; the remaining five charges totaled $385.31, an average of $77.06 per use.

My issues? First, the charges seemed truly criminal in the sense that the punishment far outweighed the crime (seriously, an average of $77.06 for a couple of minutes of usage?!). And second, it seemed bizarre to me that there isn’t an interface between Blackberry/AT&T to notify users about these exorbitant roaming charges, such as a pop up warning similar to the warning I receive if I accidentally push the Push to Talk button on my Blackberry. We did receive an e-mail warning from AT&T about international charges, but not until the third day that charges were incurred (which also was the last day of usage), which I consider a communication fail compared to the way credit card companies (who I certainly don't consider angels) contact you immediately in the presence of unusual activity -- in my case, the first usage was a whopping $166.32 roaming charge.

The point is, because of this poor corporate-level communication, consumers suffer. And similar to our dealings with Blue Cross, this is the kind of experience that leads consumers to feel alienated and mistrustful of a brand. The vitriol I responded to on the web about AT&T and other large corporations certainly seemed to reflect that notion.

Seth quickly connected me to someone in AT&T’s social media department (interestingly, not customer service) and in one short and friendly phone call my immediate problem was resolved; the charges were refunded.

And I felt of two minds about it all.

First, I was impressed. Refund aside, I thought, damn, this is why brands should be engaged in social media. I’ve seen lots of brands use Twitter and Facebook fan pages beautifully to monitor conversations from customers and respond. I’ve seen companies translate negative feedback into loyal customers because the company was there, listening and acting. (Brands fearful of engaging in social media due to potential – inevitable, really – negative feedback should take note.)

Second, I felt troubled. Yes, I got my problem resolved. I was lucky that Seth was monitoring the brand on Twitter around the time I posted that tweet, but otherwise how much of the resolution was due to: a) my willingness and ability to communicate my concerns; b) the fact that I was spouting off on Twitter; and/or c) my alleged status as an influencer in this space? I will always be the consumer who is willing to take the time to stand up for my rights, but regarding b and c, though the social media world seems expansive to those of us in it, the reality is that it is not reflective of the majority. Not everyone has this platform from which to speak and I imagine that those who do take the time to stand up and fight (blogger or not) meet mixed results in resolution, and the rest end up eating unjust charges.

On Facebook, my friend Sarah aptly wrote that it’s “so much more efficient for [companies] to simply address the complaints from people who can be bothered to complain than to actually fix what's broken in their system.” And my friend Julie pointed out (in relating her dealings recovering funds lost by Bank of America) that, “People could cure cancer in the time it takes BOA to research money of yours they lost. But go late one hour on money you owe them, they seize your firstborn child.” I agree on both counts; I can't even begin to estimate the number of examples I have heard of big companies demonstrating that they clearly are business -- not consumer -- first, with inane practices that clearly seek to take advantage of the fact that most people are unwilling or unable to raise their voices for fair resolution.

So what's my point? I will keep on doing what I'm doing -- fighting back in the face of each bit of corporate absurdity I come across. But I'm also now pledging -- and I hope you will consider doing so as well -- to encourage friends and family to fight too; to even help write a letter or make a phone call for someone who doesn't know where to begin. Because as far as I can see, the only way we're ever going to get companies to fix their broken systems is to get so damned noisy with our complaints that it's inefficient to do otherwise.

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Finally, two additional bits of information:

1. For those in need of consumer advocacy resources, my friends Karen and Julie both referred me to Clark Howard’s website; I haven't had a chance to check it out in detail yet, but Julie and Karen noted that the site includes a support group, complaint letter templates, etc.

2. If you're an AT&T customer: until that useful pop up warning feature comes for exorbitant roaming charges...I asked AT&T for resources on how to handle usage during international travel. They passed along a link for their info hub for international travel as well as links for these four commonly asked questions.

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