08 Feb Cingular confusion
Am I the only one completely confused by the Cingular merger with AT&T?
I’ve read the business stories and understand the facts of the deal. Cingular Wireless acquires the assets and customers of AT&T Wireless for $41 billion. The combined companies have 46 million customers, topping now No. 2 carrier Verizon by 9 million subscribers. The one hitch is that AT&T keeps the rights to the AT&T Wireless brand and plans to launch a new wireless service under that name.
Facts aside, it’s tremendously confusing to be an AT&T Wireless customer these days. Or am I a Cingular customer? It’s very unclear. My cellular bill carries the Cingular brand. My phone tells me I’m on the Cingular network—except on those occasions when it says I’m on the AT&T Wireless network.
Last month I was a little late sending in my payment. I got a call from AT&T Wireless. The customer service agent was sympathetic, and suggested that when Cingular runs the show, I won’t have to worry about those late payments. Apparently, the agent said, you can overlook your Cingular bill for months without consequence. I don’t intend to find out, but I was definitely impressed with this new level of customer service.
Last week I got my wireless bill, again with the Cingular branding. Lately I’ve used more than my allotted minutes, so I called to upgrade my plan. This time, a customer service agent says I can upgrade my AT&T plan or I can migrate to a Cingular plan. Any penalties for leaving AT&T ahead of my contract would be waived. Huh? Isn’t AT&T Wireless now also Cingular? Well, yes, said the agent, but Cingular wants to move AT&T Wireless customers to Cingular plans before AT&T Wireless is relaunched. Again, huh?
After the engraved announcement praising the benefits of this joyous union, and a half-dozen mailers and billing inserts, I thought I was a Cingular customer now.
I decided to drop into a Cingular store to get a new phone and upgrade or migrate or whatever my account. In the course of the last week, I visited four Cingular-branded stores—sometimes as close as two doors apart, since formerly competing AT&T Wireless and Cingular stores were often located close to one another. Aside from the funny little orange guy, there’s not a lot of consistency between the stores. And there’s not much help, either.
A knowledgeable sales rep in Pittsburgh had great information about the phones, but told me he couldn’t set me up because he didn’t have access to account information outside of his region. Back in Redwood City, I fell into a Cingular-branded storefront that was actually a Parrot Cellular outlet and authorized Cingular reseller. I got pretty deep into the transaction before the friendly rep told me that a) they didn’t have the phone I wanted but could get it from another store, b) I would not get the lower price I’d seen at other stores because that price was only for new Cingular accounts, and c) I would have to pay a fee to migrate from AT&T Wireless to Cingular. What?
I’m not a new account, but I am a new account? And I get pay for the privilege without the benefit of the rebate on the new phone? I’m a Cingular customer in logo only, but when I need to service my account, I’m a vestige customer of AT&T Wireless.
Without question, this is the worst customer acquisition transition I have ever observed. When AT&T Wireless bought CellularOne several years ago, there was no hassle, no confusion. The accounts were transitioned to AT&T Wireless and that was that. No fuss, no muss. No problem or cost to the consumer.
Not so with this merger. Apparently, Cingular bought a license to confuse AT&T Wireless customers. And, clever Cingular: by charging AT&T customers to “migrate” to Cingular, the customer very directly bears the cost of the integrating the two customer bases.
Of course, no customer-facing representative at Cingular can explain why the two companies are not one, why AT&T Wireless customers are second-class citizens until initiated into the Cingular community, and why AT&T Wireless customers must pay for the privilege. In this mess of a merger, Cingular may have become the largest cellular carrier in the country, but it’s the 26 million confused and disenfranchised customers of AT&T Wireless that are the lesser for it.
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