Oh Lucy, You Got Some 'Splainin' to Do
I recently migrated from SprintPCS to AT&T Wireless after being a Sprint customer for at least six or seven years. It might even be nine years now; I signed up so long ago I've forgotten when it even was. It's not that I think AT&T has the better network (I'm rather indifferent about that aspect these days), it's that SprintPCS -- in my experience more than any other carrier, but not by much -- is so focused on acquisition of new users that its service to existing ones suffers. If by "suffers" you mean "barely exists," that is.

AT&T Wireless appears to be slightly less byzantine, but only slightly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My patience with SprintPCS was completely decimated a little over a year ago, when I found that it was possible to get the phone I wanted (the Treo 300) for $250 if you were a "new" customer, and $500 if you were an existing customer. I'd been watching the price of the Treo for a few months before that, and there had always been at least a $100 discrepancy between "new" and "existing" customer prices, but when that difference came to half -- HALF -- the price of the phone, I decided I'd track somebody down and get that price.

I printed out the web pages with those prices, and headed to a store. An actual, company-named Sprint Store. Nearly an hour after I got there, I finally talked to somebody who said they couldn't offer me any discount, but recommended that I call customer service. When I mentioned that I hadn't had the best luck with customer service before, the staffer said he could make a note in my record that I'd come to a store and they'd told me to call customer service, and that the note might help.

So when I called customer service they repeated the "new customers only" mantra until I requested a supervisor. Actually, that happened twice. The first person I talked to hung up on me immediately after the supervisor request. The second person told me that she'd make a note of the request: requesting a supervisor apparently gets another note made in your record, at least when there's already one on the same issue. I asked at that point if there was any record of my earlier call when the customer service rep had hung up on me. There wasn't.

I'll throw in at this point that part of the reason all of this was so preposterous was that the phone -- if purchased by a new customer, mind you -- was cheaper from Amazon than it was from SprintPCS, but that SprintPCS continued to tell me through this whole episode they'd lose money if they sold the phone for the same price Amazon did. I would point out that Amazon had to buy the phones from, well, SprintPCS, and that somehow it was odd that they still managed to profit from the sale. This was so far outside the script that there wasn't any answer, so this was the point I'd ask for a supervisor.

It turned out after some holding that the supervisor was busy and would have to call me back. Another note was made in my record, I thanked the customer service rep, and the call ended. The supervisor did call me back as promised, and (surprise!) repeated the "new customers only" mantra again. Note that I never raised my voice or was anything but polite, and that by this point I'd had the opportunity to find old bills to bolster my claim that I'd been a customer long enough that maybe, just maybe, there was some sort of loyalty clause they could call on to give me that "new customer" discount. I pointed this out, mentioned the hang-up, mentioned the trip to the store, mentioned that other carriers by that point were offering "new customer" prices to their existing customers as a carrot to get them to sign new contracts, blah blah blah. The supervisor, at least, admitted there was no logic to the claim that Amazon could somehow resell the same phone for less money, but said there was nothing he could do.

As a side note, I'd like to add that I actually believed (and still believe) that there was nothing he could do, because the system was set up in such a way it prevented him from being able to make any sort of decision like that at all. In the old days of faceless corporations there wouldn't have been a page in the binder for my kind of problem, but nowadays there's no computer screen, or rather there's a screen but no way for the supervisor to make the computer get to it. All power has been removed for safekeeping. This reduces risk, but it also reduces service and customer satisfaction. But I'm making a long story longer.

Anyway, then he suggested I go to a Sprint Store. And I said, "OK, this is now officially the runaround, and I'd like to talk to the retention people." And even at this point of stalemate the supervisor and I were just having a conversation. There wasn't any yelling, but he'd done what his training told him to do (send me to a store), and they'd done what their training told them to do (send me to the customer service number), and that was that. He made a note in my record, and for some reason I don't recall I either had to call another number or the retention people had to call me back, so there were a couple days of waiting.

And then, eventually, I talked to somebody in retention and explained everything, and she was the first person to offer any discount -- but it wasn't the same discount as new customers got, and it came with a two year contract. Blah blah, Amazon this, loyal customer that, and eventually the package was that she'd sell me the phone for retail price, I'd call and activate a one year contract when I got it, and then I'd call her back once the contract was active and she'd put a $250 credit on my account. Agreed.

And then it took her four -- FOUR -- days to be able to sell me the phone. It seems in her department nobody even knew the part number for the thing, and they didn't know how to make their computers go to the screen where they could sell it to me. I had her name and number, she had mine, eventually it all worked out and I got the phone and my $250 credit.

And one advertised feature of the phone -- "send and receive mail, instant messages, and chat" -- never worked. In the year I had the phone it could never send SMS messages, and it also was blocked from accessing Sprint's "Short Mail" service. I tried calling and got the standard "how to use Short Mail" script, which was geared to every phone but the Treo (and didn't work for the Treo at all); I tried submitting the customer service web form and got a stock response with a link to the directions for "Short Mail" (which didn't work on the Treo, which was why I submitted the web form in the first place); and decided that the hope was for SprintPCS to implement its own MO-SMS platform, coming Real Soon Now starting in November of last year. Since there's full SMS software for GSM Treo devices, and since SprintPCS hadn't actually had MO-SMS when the Treo came out, I thought that maybe, just maybe, when they got it working they'd enable the software as a downloadable update.

Nope. When full SMS came, it was available on the Treo 600, but not the 300 that I had. And that was it. I thought of calling to complain, but frankly, I knew how long it had taken me before and I just didn't care that much anymore.

I grabbed an unlocked Treo 600 direct from Handspring, found the provider with a plan and a trial period that worked well enough for me, and ended up with AT&T. I had a horrendous call with a customer service rep the first week (he started out hostile and only got worse) that ended up in me asking to speak to a supervisor, only to be told that the supervisor would have to call me. The guy said he was filling out a supervisor request form and that the supervisor would call me, but nobody ever did. And actually, I have to say I didn't really get the impression he was really filling out any forms.

Luckily for them and me, the people at the actual AT&T store have been nothing but helpful, so when I need something I just call them during business hours and it gets done. Except today.

AT&T Wireless introduced some new data plans recently. I have one of them, in fact: "Unlimited usage for PDAs" -- with the irony-free footnote that "Certain usage restrictions apply." There's another interesting plan in the grid, though:

Some restrictions apply

"Eligible corporate responsibility users," whoever they might be, have the ability to put multiple data devices in the same pool of megabytes. This is perfect for me. I just got that Sony Ericsson GC82 and this would allow me to be online with my computer without stealing the SIM from my phone. Right now there's no option short of signing up for two, two, two data plans for me to be both on the phone and on the internet at the same time.

It's also worth pointing out the horrible language in one of the footnotes:
4. Availible to businesses with a valid, elibible business agreement and that otherwise meet maintain the elifibilty criteria set forth in this brochure.
While I'm at it, there's no actual superscript 4 anywhere in that grid. Presumably it goes with the "corporate responsibility" line.

Can I get this plan? After a trip to the store, a call to customer service, a call to "Advanced Data Services," (disconnected), another call to "Advanced Data Services," (disconnected during transfer to another department), a third call to "Advanced Data Services," and a transfer to "National Business Services," plus about ten minutes on hold, the answer is that I can't get that plan unless I have a federal tax ID.


I'm willing to grant them one disconnection because things happen, and everybody I talked to was actually friendly and helpful in that they could communicate clearly and understood what I was saying. Of course, I apparently was the first person ever to call with this question, and I even had to give the woman in National Business Services the URL with the plans. But still, why on earth does it matter if I'm a corporation if I want to use two devices with one pool of megabytes? To whom, and where, does it make sense to restrict that sort of plan? Isn't it actually likely that more people would buy data services if they knew up front they could use their computers and their phones at the same time?

The National Business Services rep said if I had a federal tax ID she could switch me right over. I can't think of a single reason other than bureaucracy that this plan isn't available to me already.

(Midnight, Thursday, 8 April 2004)