Friday, November 16, 2012

Total Customer Service Fail: One Autistic's Story

Have you ever been in a customer service situation in which your or your child's need for accommodation was either ignored or dismissed? We suspect Jaden's story is far from uncommon. This needs to change. 

Jaden
about.me/jaden.walker

I have autism. Since my diagnosis at age 25 I've never been shy about this. After never understanding why I've had trouble with so many simple things my whole life, I absolutely love that I have the answer now. It's been six years since my diagnosis, and it still blows my mind every day to realize it. I never use it as an excuse for bad behavior, but simply as an explanation if I need more time or help with something.

Many years back, I signed up with AT&T for an iPhone. I do not use phones if I can avoid it. My girlfriend and I had a home phone if it was ever needed, but we both communicate almost exclusively via email or text messaging. I picked an iPhone because it gave me access to the Internet. It was the first phone I saw that did so without altering my online experience significantly. Also, it had access to apps that I could use to keep track of things I have problems with.

When I signed up, I asked AT&T if I could get a plan with no voice access (only data and texting). They said this didn't exist. After a week of looking around on the Internet, I found that such a plan did exist, and I'd only need a doctors note to get it. It's designed for Deaf customers, but applies to anyone with an appropriate disability. I printed out the form from the AT&T website, took it to my doctor, and faxed it back to the company. Within a day, I was on a disability plan. This plan consisted of unlimited texting and unlimited data for $50 a month. Everything was great, other than the fact that no one at the store even knew this plan existed.

Six months later, my girlfriend decided that she wanted an iPhone as well. She's undiagnosed (and probably has autism), but without a diagnosis we knew she couldn't get the same plan as me. We signed up for a Family plan, but the person at the store told us that I couldn't keep my plan. He also said there was only one Family plan we could get, since we both wanted iPhones. Both of these things were not true. (I suspect, at this point, that the employee just wanted a higher commission.) We were put on plan where we both had unlimited everything (including voice). This plan cost more than $200 per month.

Due to how trusting I can be, it took six months for my brain to realize that this plan couldn't be right. I emailed the AT&T support staff and got no reply, meaning I had to call them. I learned that the agent who set us up with the Family plan had given us misinformation, and that we could in fact drop to a lower tier of minutes. And I was again told that Family plans can't have a disabled plan on them. We dropped to 500 minutes and let things be for a while. I was told we could not get a refund on the difference in plan prices, even though we never called anyone in those six months, and even though the staff member gave us the wrong information. I was told we waited too long to call them.

A few months later, I found a phone number for a call center AT&T has for disabled customers. Once I called, I found out I could have my disability plan back on the Family plan, but there was a new issue. AT&T charges a higher fee for the main line, then $10 for each additional line on a family plan. If I were to register my main number as the disability line, it would be made the additional line, and I would only get a $5 discount for not having a voice line. I told them that this is not an acceptable discount for not having a voice line and said I needed time to process the situation. I was told that if I wanted to put it back, just to call and it could be done -- that they had my documentation on file.

I decided not to go back on the plan because the discount wasn't sufficient. Instead, we cancelled our home phone and went with only the cell phones.

Some time later, the two of us moved an hour away to attend a new college. When we arrived at our new apartment, we learned that we had no signal on our phones indoors and barely any signal outside. It would take as many as ten tries to send a text message. When I called AT&T, they said they would inspect the towers. Nothing improved for weeks. Finally, they said we could pay $200 (out of our pockets) to get a repeater and improve the signal. It wasn't their problem, we were told. I asked if that voids our contract, and they said it didn't since we could get a signal on campus. Defeated, I just dealt with it.

The final straw was our unlimited data plan. AT&T phased out their unlimited data plan and had been trying to get their existing users to switch to a tiered service instead. I finally decided to return to my Disabled plan and split our Family plan into separate plans to get a reasonable price on it. The first problem is that AT&T, when told of what I wanted, said I never had a Disabled plan before and they had no documentation saying I could get one. Thankfully, I still had the original paperwork and faxed it in to them. I received no apology for being called a liar about it. Once the plans were split (and we couldn't change our minds), we were told that my girlfriend could not keep her unlimited data plan and would be required to pick a tier for service. I could keep mine, but that created a new crisis.

Earlier this year, the two of us drove from Oklahoma to New York to interview at a grad school we were interested in. I am very dependent on my GPS to know where I'm going, so I have a very complex app that helps me. We used this GPS to make the 29 hour drive and to get around town once we were near the college during the week we were gone. In the process of pulling all these maps and pinpointing our location, I went over the arbitrary 2GB cap AT&T recently added to my unlimited data plan. Their response was to throttle the speed of my service to the point that it was unusable. I was not able to use my GPS, which is a daily necessity for me. Thankfully, the cap was hit right as we reentered our home town, but we still drove in circles for an extra hour before we found our way home.

I called AT&T the next day and was told there was nothing they could do. I had places I needed to go the following day, but couldn't without my GPS. I emailed AT&T and got back blank replies (which I have learned closes the case on their end). Finally, I got an employee on the phone who told me I did have one option: If I switched to a tiered data plan, it would unthrottle me immediately and I could continue using data at a regular rate for the rest of the month, but that I could never switch back to unlimited. After some thought on the issue, I switched. I could not miss the appointments I had the following day and was made to believe I had no other option.

But the speed never improved. A week went by and I was still throttled. I missed the appointments since my GPS still wouldn't work. I emailed AT&T and got back 11 blank replies. I called and was transferred from department to department. I had two separate panic attacks due to the run around. I finally got a manager and was told that even though they didn't keep their part of the deal, I couldn't switch back to my unlimited plan and there was nothing that could be done for me.

After days of being bullied by their phone reps and ignored by their email support, I reached my breaking point. I cancelled my AT&T account. I was then hit with almost $300 in fees for breaking the contract.

I'd had enough of talking to them, as they just talk me down or in circles, and I couldn't take any more panic attacks. I had an advocate call on my behalf. She was able to get the manager to admit that AT&T handled things improperly, but that the ETF could not be waived. The manager offered the largest credit she could give without being fired, but that was all that could be done. Now, due to AT&T's bullying, I have a $220 bill to deal with that I'll likely not ever be able to pay.

AT&T failed at so many points in this process. I gave them so many times to try and improve how things were being handled, but they just never acted on them. I alerted every rep I ever dealt with that I was autistic and may have difficulty speaking on the phone and understanding them. Most were polite about it, but some were downright upset that they had to put extra effort into things. AT&T apparently does no training with their associates when it comes to dealing with disabled customers. This is even worse with their email support team, which can close out a case by replying with either a blank email or one that says they'll look into it, then never have to reply again. Many things need to be changed here.

In my experience, AT&T is just not friendly toward the disabled.