Thursday, August 04, 2005

Cell-phone woes

The 4th of July weekend was just a day away. Life seemed to be wonderful, and the sun was shining brightly. But fate had darker plans.

On Thursday afternoon I attempted to check my voice-mail, and dialed the numbers. The cell-phone display flickered momentarily, and died in front of my very eyes. I panicked for a moment, regained my composure, and powered up the cell-phone again. It burst into life, and relieved, I tried to check my voice-mail once again. I dialed two more numbers, and the inevitable happened. It died again. The consequences were clear.

My phone had gone bust.

There was nothing else to do but walk down to the Cingular Wireless store. I walked up, and patiently explained my problem.

The store-attendant patiently listened to me, and then pulled out my records.

”We can’t give you a replacement sir. Even though your phone is under the 1-year warranty, you are an AT&T wireless customer. So, you’ll have to call technical support and ask them to send you a replacement. We can only replace your phone here if you were originally a Cingular customer.”

I stared incongruously. Just months ago, Cingular proudly announced to the world that it had bought over AT&T wireless. We former AT&T customers received poetic cards talking about a seamless merger, and complete protection and continuation of former AT&T plans under Cingular, with superb Cingular “customer service”. I pointed out this fact to the employee, but he shrugged his shoulders and said sorry.

I accepted my fate, took the support number, and went home.

The next morning, I woke up my friend next door, and borrowed his phone to call “technical support/warranty services”. After going through a bunch of “press * now” options, I finally spoke to a human being.

I was asked my name, my social security number, my mom’s maiden name, my date of birth, my pet goldfish’s nickname, the name of the first Sith Lord, and finally, after about 15 minutes, she asked me what my problem was.

I explained my woes in excruciating detail.

The sympathetic attendant finally understood all.

”So, your phone won’t start up?”

“No, no, it starts up fine, but every time I dial a number, it shuts down”

”OK, is there any thing broken in the phone? Shake the phone and tell me if you hear a noise.”

I shook the phone like I’d never shaken before. No noise.

After more of this, I was told to open the phone, and read out every one of the 30 odd numbers that were written on the back.

Finally, she said, “we’ll send you a replacement in 2 working days”, and then said I had to listen to some important information before I hung up.

I was directed to the automated voice system, and waited, listening to it sing Cingular’s virtues for 5 minutes. I imagined the important stuff would come in the end. It said thank you and hung up, and I was left waiting.

I spent the 4th of July weekend without a phone.

Finally, the phone arrived on Tuesday. I opened the box in eager anticipation, like a kid opens a birthday present. I found only the phone (sans battery inside). So, I stuck in my old battery into the phone, and power it up. Nothing happened.

I tried again. Nothing happened.

In sheer frustration, my wife and I walked down to the Cingular store once again. I repeated my woes. The attendant looked at the replacement phone, and said ”I’m sorry, but it’s a defective piece. You need to call Cingular for a replacement. Thanks for stopping by.”


Next morning, I was at it again, calling customer service (at least my wife’s cell-phone was working). Again, I finally reached some call center (this one was not in India, they couldn’t pronounce my common Indian last name). Repeat performance, but this time in that list of questions I was asked to name the world’s largest parrot (ha! It’s the Kakapo! So there!).

Déjà vu.

In exasperation, I told them that their replacement phone was busted, and what was more, it clearly wasn’t a new piece. So, the person (who took 5 minutes to understand this simple fact) apologized and promised to send me yet another replacement.

Two days later, the replacement for the replacement arrived. It appeared to work, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Two days later, there was a flicker on the screen, and it died.
Curse them all!

I made my third phone call to Cingular, went through the merry-go-round process yet again, and this time I was promised a new phone (What were they sending me the previous two times? Granny’s antiques?). Not only did I have to put up with this, but I also had to put up with listening to that last 5 minutes of “important” automated messages THREE TIMES.

In anger, I wanted to call customer service and complain. I called, and after negotiating four automated options, I gave up. It was my destiny.

Finally, the replacement for the replacement that was a replacement for a replacement arrived. I said Hanuman Chalisa and powered it up. It worked! I did the Maori war dance, and made a successful phone call! I was actually grateful that Cingular had done what they were supposed to do.

Michael Higgins had a post in praise of competition, where he had the option of changing a provider because of bad service. But cell-phone services are a classic example of a choice between a devil or a deep blue sea. Given the scale of investments involved, the only viable cell phone service options are the large area providers. There are three, all of them equally fat and lazy. Once you sign a contract with them, you cannot change your provider, because they charge you for it. They are under no real obligation to provide good service. The next best other option is another company that’s nearly as bad.

Competition is a very good thing, but what if the system prevents it in a real sense? And how can a large company avoid a “top-down” approach? Greater questions, but methinks these are all the same problems large top-down governments have.


Sonia Faleiro said...

Sunil, I feel your pain. But I would like to point out two things to show how much better you have it there, than many of us in India.

1. The responses, however initially ineffective, were polite. I have had people laugh and hang up on me in the same situation.

2. You got your phone. I can list in the dozens, goods and services which I paid for, but which never arrived.

To me it appears that accountability in India ceases once payment is made. All problems post purchase, irrespective of warranty or insurance issues, become the sole concern of the consumer.

Competition isn't the issue here. Take Net providers. We have MTNL, VSNL, Sify, and Reliance to name a few. Ditto for cellular service providers.

I think it's a deeper issue of desiring professional excellence. And this can only come when one takes responsiblity, and is willing to be held accountable when things go wrong.

We don't have that desire yet, and the result is that instead of being able to say that one service provider is bad, we are left with a field of incompetent providers, each of whom knows that when it comes to not doing their job, there will always be someone as bad or worse.

Anyway, I'm glad things finally worked out for you. :)

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Thanks for linking to my piece.
This is an excellent piece on customer dissatisfaction. You write so well.
I had problems with our AT&T phone as well. It was no longer under warranty. I just went without for several month. We were really dissatisfied with AT&T anyway because of the way they billed us. My wife would complain to customer service every time the bill came.

Eventually, I went to cingular and asked if they would give us a better deal. They gave us a much better deal. The cingular phone has worked well for us.

I'm surprised the cingular guy didn't try to talk you in to switching plan (or maybe he did) because that was what they really wanted you to do. The problem was, they really didn't want to maintain the old AT&T system, they just wanted to poach AT&T customers. They have a conflict of interest here. They are under contract to support the old AT&T phones, but they really don't want to.

gawker said...

I follow this rule of thumb : Always get a phone that has absolutely no features other than the ability to act as a phone. If there are less features, there's a lower probability of something going wrong. And I found it works fine. I don't need my cellphone to work as a camera or a voice recorder or a food processor anyways.

Sunil said...

Sonia.....yes, the desire for professional excellence is only slooooooooowly coming in to Indian consumer markets......very slooooooowly. But the situation remains bad even here in the US for things like Cingular, because a "level playing field" just cannot exist.....since only huge-investment players can manage a large coverage. So, you only have a Hobson's choice. You had a rougher time, I thought :-)

Michael....the Cingular guy did suggest I switch. I refused, on a matter of principle (in hindsight that's pretty foolish). Also, AT&T wireless users got a discount (if they were students at the UW), i couldn't find out from them if Cingular gave the same discount also :-)

Gawker.....I follow that exact same thumb rule. You won't believe how simple my phone was and is. It does not even have a color display, and shows only numbers, does not have a camera or a radio......all it can do is call and receive calls. Didn't help me though.

Sourin Rao said...

Hillarious account. Another aspect that frustrates me about cell phones is the inability to switch phone #'s and contacts, even within the same service provider. I have switched 3 handsets with Sprint and all 3 times I have had to enter all my contact details all over again. That seems so archaic.

The contact info must be saved on a sever somewhere, or is it the SIM card, Im not sure. Would it be so difficult to offer a download feature for contacts ? I have not purchased the hookup to the PC option so I'm not sure if it allows me uploads from the PC to the phone.

greatbong said...

"I was actually grateful that Cingular had done what they were supposed to do."

Yes and they sure made your day did they not? The simple joys of life.

Ravi said...

so it was an instrument problem :o...

it was really funny, i'd run into a similar *technical support/customer service* crap once...
i wasn't happy with this network (i'll avoid direct reference to the provider), i call up customer service, who direct me to techinical support, who then say tht they will give me a call...they do and i receive since i picked their call, they reach a conclusion that everything's fine with my fone :( and take no action!

Sunil said...

Sourin.....that is one huge problem. I store my numbers on the simcard itself, which means if the phone dies, then atleast the numbers are saved (on the card). But if i change service providers.....then I have to reenter all my numbers on the card!! I think its all archaic also.....pain in the a**

I can't see what's sooo hard for them to come up with a system by which they can download the info when changing phones or simcards.

Arnab....totally, such joy!

Ravi.......don't even try to get help. The industry is run and serviced by luddites who know nothing about phones. You'll be better off shooting emails.

Ravi said...

I store my numbers on the simcard itself, which means if the phone dies, then atleast the numbers are saved (on the card).

u r forgettin my dear friend...verizon n older sprint r CDMAs, no SIM cards on them :|

Anonymous said...

the name of the first Sith Lord
May I ask what the answer is?

Srikanth said...

Finally, the replacement for the replacement that was a replacement for a replacement arrived. I said Hanuman Chalisa and powered it up. It worked!

Now you know why things didn't work out well in the previous attempts. :p

Sunil said...

Oops..Ravi...add me to that list of luddites. I don't know much about cellphones. All i know is that i want it to work, and provide these simple solutions. And that is the job of the cell phone companies. trouble maker :-) know all about Sith lords, I'll point you to this Wikipedia link. Though there are many questions about Wikipedia, you can be almost absolutely sure that the Star Wars information there is superb.....and better than any real history you might want.

Srikanth, :-)

Dilip D'Souza said...


I'm with gawker, get the simplest possible phone. That's why mine is a paperweight. And a good paperweight it is. Never a need to call customer service for this paperweight.

I'm also with Vishnu, what's the name of the first Sith Lord? "Sthay"?

And finally, since you seem to know so much about the largest bird, what's the world's largest raptor? Do not resort to anagrams like I did.

Sunil said... phone is a paper can only send and receive calls. It's not even a flip phone, and is one of the most basic models Siemens has....was supposed to be sasta kifaiti aur asardaar....

You troublemakers....won't let me crack a PJ in peace....:-)

The largest living raptor must be either the andean condor or the harpy eagle (i did not google for this).......i don't know about extinct ones. I'll stoutly deny it if you say i'm wrong. In fact, i'll create a new wikipedia page, to prove that this is correct!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aditya said...

i think solutions such as 'get the most rudimentary phone' etc dont make sense. its hardware - and just as likely to go bust!

try samsung phones (dunno if they have GSM models, but their CDMA models simply kick ass - in terms of battery as well as hardware reliability) - you will never have to stop by the store for a new phone unless ofcourse your phone fell from your pocket while bicycling and the car behind you drove over it or something :)

Queasy Rider said...

A hilarious account of a rather annoying situation! I'm also a 'former AT&T customer' in Cingular-speak. I suspended my service for a little while and now my voice mail doesn't work.

I'd a terrible experience with Dell. I made the mistake of ordering a laptop because there was a $750-off promo. I realised I made a mistake in the order and wanted to change it, but could never get through to a customer service rep - the longest I waited was 55 mins! Eventually I cancelled the order. At least that part of it worked.

Queasy Rider said...

Btw, cellphone users in India and elsewhere (like Australia, for example) have it better than those in the US. No oppressive contracts, just a prepaid card. Works fine for basic needs. Plus free incoming calls - beat that! Yes, customer service sucks in India big time, but service levels are degrading by the day in the US. No wonder people get worked up at the very mention of big companies. Yet, there are more behemoths being created everyday through more mergers.

Sourin Rao said...

Yes, I agree with gameboys. I was working with IBM for Telstra in Melbourne in 1999 and the services there for cell phones were much much advanced that what we have in the US currently. I dont know how far ahead they must be as of this day !!!

Sunil said...'s the devil (cingular) or the deep blue sea (verizon). T-mobil doesn't have very good coverage in a good part of the country (here in Seattle, coverage is good in the city, but the moment you go camping, it's the first to "search for network", about 10 miles from the greater seattle area :-). Ofcourse, what you need a phone for while camping is another question.

Aditya....Cingular is GSM....but anyway, i only went for the basic phone that came free with the plan.....i don't like the idea of spending a 100$ on a phone.

Gameboy.....i think the service is equally bad with all these companies, but it is especially bad for cellphones, BECAUSE the industry is anti-competition (in the sense that only a few huge players can play the game). BTW...I think the sport quizzes you have on your blog are fantastic (though it's hard to get more than 5-6 out of 10).

Sourin....totally. Telstra (compared to these jokers) Gameboy, i think there needs to be more short term options in cellphone plans, and not the present system where you need to sign up for life (well, atleast a year, if not two) to get any sort of affordable deal on the plan. And then you are ruined. The prepaid cards are excellent in India.

RPM said...

Oh, I have had a terrible time with cell phone providers (ATT wireless in my case too). I have had some success with the Better Business Bureau. Try that. It may take some time for you to formulate your case, but I got a response in quick time and I was happy with the resolution.

Anonymous said...

Oh, so I am not the only one who has had a bit of rif-raf with Cingular. You don't even need to get me started on them ! They don't know what their own cell plans allow and not allow. The customer service is as ignorant as the Cingular store guys. The amount of time and energy and money I have spent in dealing with them...!!!!

Sunil said...

rpm....that is a fantastically useful suggestion. I think i might just take it up!

Girl in the hat......i feel your pain. Incompetent is the only word I can use to describe them. Or perhaps, clueless. But they are very good at trying to thrust a more expensive plan on you.
Only, my friends say Verizon isn't that much better, so I can't find a way to improve my life :-((

RPM said...

And I must say, at the end of it, I was actually happy with the ATT customer support. The reps messed it up but the 'higher ups' knew how to take care of the customers.

But that was out of Seattle, so presumably still ATTWS support. Wonder if they are still working or it is solely Cingular customer support.

But worth a shot with BBB.

Amit said...

I am laughing a lot - not at your plight but at the whole situation....

I have a hard time with voice activated menus .. they never understanf my voice -- maybe I have too Marathi an accent --- so every time I get to the Voice Activated menu ,,, I give it to my daughter who blabbers a lot into it so that after 15 minutes I get to a human voice who understands me better --- a for apple, m for monkey, i for india, t for tiger etc etc....

BTW - Giving the phone to my daughter to blabber into also works with marketing calls.. :-)