In it for the Money: Time with AT&T (Part 1)

Doin' time with the phone company's customer service system

Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

This installment of the column will be published in two parts. Mostly that’s because Nelson wrote too many words this month.

Listen: I’m fully aware that a healthy, employed man in a functioning industrialized democracy kvetching about his phone service is basically the canonical First World Problem.

In my defense, this is illustrative kvetching; c’mon, it’ll be fun!

I have AT&T for my home phone and high-speed Internet service. In September last year this service took a nose dive; suddenly my Internet connection would suffer hours-long periods of dropping, negotiating, reconnecting, then dropping again – a process that I could readily monitor, since my phone line was now so lousy with modem whistles that I could hear little else (although callers could hear me with crystal clarity, which made me sound somewhat prematurely demented as I hollered for them to speak up over all the damn noise).

My Struggle

Despite my better judgment I delved into the AT&T Customer Service [1] voicemail system. The first human I spoke with … well, I wasn’t precisely sure it was human. On the one hand, the oddly mechanical voice did guide me through a complex tango of unplugging, replugging, reporting the status of various blinkenlights, powering things down, powering them back up, hooking them to my computer, going to specific IP addresses, reading what the screen says, unplugging the first thing again, plugging it back in, putting the modem on my head, taking off my shirt, looking in the mirror, taking a picture of myself, shaving my chest, taking another picture, texting both pictures long-distance to some number with a +234 country code – basically standard AT&T Customer Service stuff, except for those last few items, which I clearly just made up.

But the cadence of this voice was an odd, off-kilter lilt, and either our connection was terrible or the rep was enrolled in some nation’s witness relocation program, because the voice sounded insanely autotuned.

After we finished the power-button-and-ethernet-cable hokey pokey – all of which, incidentally, I’d already done on my own before calling AT&T – the Nameless Being with the Robotic Larynx established it could not help me and transferred my call.

I’d been on the phone for around 45 minutes by this stage.

After just a few dozen minutes in limbo my call was picked up by “Sherise in Atlanta.” This connection sounded much clearer, and I did not doubt that Sherise was a human female, nor that she was indeed in Atlanta. Sherise asked for all of the information that I’d already given the Offshore Robot – information I’d given the voicemail system itself to begin with – and then started guiding me through the same ethernet-and-power-cable dance.

I explained that I’d already done this dance. Sherise tried several things “at our end” (what this could mean perplexes me) to no avail. We discussed what was possibly at issue: (1) There was a problem with the DSL modem, which I would have to pay to replace; (2) There was a problem with my home wiring, which I would have to pay to repair; or (3) There was something amiss between their hardware and my house, which they would handle at their expense.

We set an appointment for an AT&T line worker to come to my house the next week; he’d check their equipment from the multiplexer to my house. Provided he never entered the house, this would cost me nothing. She asked for a number where I could be reached, and I was careful to give her my cell phone number, because my home phone wasn’t really functional, which is why I’d called Customer Service to begin with.

I never got that call – and never really noticed, because as I was walking home from my son’s school bus stop on the morning of our telephone appointment, my Lovely Pregnant Wife called from work, and I spent the remainder of the day at University of Michigan hospital [2].

When I finally got home there was a hang-tag on my doorknob indicating that the line worker had come, called the phone number he was there to fix, no one had picked up (duh), no one had answered the door, he’d checked their equipment, found nothing wrong, and left. Nonetheless, our DSL and phone service was nominally better-ish, so I called it good enough and considered the matter an annoying wash.

November Surprise

When I received my bill for that period in November, I was surprised to find a $60 charge for a service call. I again embarked on a journey into AT&T’s fascinatingly dysfunctional phone system. While on hold and shuffling my papers, I realized something interesting: This charge wasn’t even for my September service call; the date of service for this charge was in the second week of October, another occasion on which I hadn’t been home (and, dammit, had at least a dozen witnesses to confirm it). As there was no evidence of forced entry at my house – and no improvement in my spotty Internet connection – I was given to assume that AT&T representatives had not entered the premises to render services.

Voicemail eventually spat me out on “Donna’s” desk. Donna asked for all of the information I’d already given the voicemail system [3], and agreed that this charge was illegitimate, explaining that my “case had been inadvertently escalated by the system.” She agreed that AT&T would “be more than happy to remove that charge” and transferred me to “Michelle.”

I gave Michelle my name and phone number and contact information and confirmed the last four digits of my wife’s SSN – which I was now doing for the third time in the course of the same phone call. Things went downhill. Michelle could not find my bill in her system – which they were “upgrading.” I suggested they call the Offshore Robot or Sherise or Donna, all of whom had no problem finding my bill.

Michelle was quiet. I pointed out that the charge was totally illegitimate – I hadn’t even been home to let a worker in – and that Donna had already said the charge would be removed; I wasn’t even sure why I was on the phone at this stage, wasting my own billable hours helping them troubleshoot their software and customer service systems free of charge. Michelle found my bill in the system and, apparently, wrangled a manager who was walking past. They had some sort of confab sotto voce. She indicated that she’d issued a refund.

At this stage I was a little lathered – I’d already wasted half an hour on this call alone; I had my own work to do. I asked Michelle to whom I should issue my invoice, fully expecting her to balk so that I could go on a rant about how I worked freelance, and it wasn’t like I was sitting in a cubicle somewhere wasting company time: The time I spend politely asking AT&T to stop picking my pocket is time I can’t bill out; it’s food off my table, heat from my house, and hours that need to be made up that night to keep on top of projects.

But I didn’t get a chance to do any of that, because Michelle quietly told me to include my invoice in the envelope with my next payment. So I did.

Christmas Comes Early

In December, I was a little let down that AT&T hadn’t paid my invoice. I was also infuriated to find that I was still being charged $60 for a service call that never happened – and which AT&T readily admitted was, at best, a strange fever-dream of their mid-upgrade computer system – plus a $7.57 late fee. Two days before Christmas, first thing in the morning, I called AT&T again, entered the voicemail, came out unscathed, where I spoke with “Sherika.”

Sherika leveled with me: She understood my frustration, but if I wanted to talk to anyone who could actually do anything, there was a two hour wait. Without screaming at all, I pointed out that was absolutely insane. She suggested that she could take my name and number (how is it that the phone company never has my number?), and that a manager would “return your call before 2 p.m. today.” Twelve hours later I hadn’t heard from AT&T and was about to leave town for a dozen days. I didn’t want the damn bill hanging over my head, so I paid the legitimate portion, and enclosed my invoice (again) and a letter explaining why my check was made out for less than their suggested payment.

Thirteen days later, Sherika still hadn’t called back. I was concerned that we’d parted ways on bad terms, and that AT&T – or it’s quixotic, uncontrollable, unpredictable computer system – was subsequently going to treat me as a delinquent account and send thick-necked line men to bust down my door and wreck up my credit rating. [4]

So I called AT&T voicemail again, this time choosing “Fraud” from the voicemail menu, more or less on a lark. The hold music was insanely over-amplified, rendering the ‘80s soundtrack guitar power-ballad muzak a clipped, fuzzy, heaving wash of modulated noise that, more than anything, sounded like waves crashing on a distant beach as heard through a 13-foot-long cardboard tube. After just a couple minutes on hold I was talking to “Tanisha,” who validated my frustration, apologized, and made a “realtime adjustment” to my account.

She then gave me her user-identification number (“TR4213”) so that I could later confirm this, if I so wished. She empathized with my frustration again, and apologized for AT&T. This took a total of twelve minutes. The charge was gone when my January statement arrived, although my invoice remains unpaid.

Lessons Learned

First and foremost, I am by no means unique: Over the course of the full fiscal quarter I spent kvetching about AT&T’s billing insanity, whoever I was chatting with in the normal course of my life would invariably have a nearly identical anecdote of either a mysterious, fraudulent charge originating from AT&T, or of a promotional price “not sticking to an account.” A quick Google search uncovered at least three years of these anecdotes from strangers.

My research here is by no means rigorous – or even vaguely statistically meaningful – but my guestimate is that the average customer spent no less than one solid working-hour straightening out these “unfortunate errors.” Oddly, although customers who’ve found themselves randomly dinged for $30 to $120 abound, I’ve had trouble locating any AT&T customers who’ve mysteriously received a $60 credit on their account. What an oddly consistent software glitch.

Second – and I offer this because it seems likely some of you are wrangling with AT&T right now – when you are calling about a billing problem, choose “Fraud” from the voicemail. As near as I can tell, Tanisha TR4213 at Fraud can execute magic fu that is beyond the reach of any member of the management team in any other sector of the company. She may, in fact, be the cyborg imbued with the deathless spirit of Alexander Graham Bell, condemned to wander the copper and fiber lo these many years. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: If there is a single human-like entity in the entire AT&T corporate hierarchy who I would not invite to fight a tank of sharks drunk on methylenedioxypyrovalerone and cough syrup, it is Tanisha TR4213. I’m not joking right now: The gratitude I feel toward Tanisha TR4213 for being so magnanimous as to stop trying to rob me is actually embarrassing.

Third: Although the billing practice used by AT&T seems obviously fraudulent – AT&T operators admitted as much from the start – my legal counsel [5] indicates that it’s hard to determine when this behavior actually rises to the level of actionable mail fraud. For this to qualify as mail fraud, one would need to be able to demonstrate either (1) that these baseless, hard-to-resolve charges are intentionally being applied to customer accounts, or (2) that these “billing errors” (which invariably seem to favor the billing party) could be easily remedied, but are instead ignored. Shy of government intervention, guys like us just ain’t ever gonna be able to suss any of that out.

Next Week

Tune in next week, when we’ll explore what AT&T is really stealing, why we were basically OK with that for so long, and how the occult hand of the Free Market can’t really do much to fix this.

[1] Note my restraint in not waxing megasnarky about the irony of that department’s name.

[2] Don’t worry: Wife wasn’t in labor, and both she and our Potential Human were just fine; the ultimate diagnosis was “shrug You’re pregnant; how should we know what’s up in that joint?”

[3] Why does the phone company need to ask me my phone number at every step? Can they not afford the caller ID service they sell? That’s sad, somehow; the cobbler’s children go barefoot.

[4] This might sound silly, but two years back I was unable to refinance my home – in which we had actual equity at the time, and on which we’ve never missed a payment – because a decade ago a hospital in metro Detroit inadvertently passed me to a collection agency when I failed to pay a $50 bill that they’d never sent me. This dropped my FICO score just low enough that, today, the only thing Bank of America is willing to offer me is a swift kick in the nuts (which they happily administer on the first of each month).

[5] Who, yes, is both non-practicing and a blood relative; I’m not dropping another $250 to chase this rabbit around the track, folks.

About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“. His Nebula-nominated novella “Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate” is now available for Kindle.

The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of local columnists like David Erik Nelson. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. February 15, 2012 at 9:01 am | permalink

    My guess is that everyone has at least one AT&T horror story. I have dozens of them stretching back 30 years – billing problems, installation problems, equipment problems, the technician who tried to sell me Amway products, you name it.

  2. February 15, 2012 at 9:11 am | permalink

    Nothing new or interesting here. Anyone who has ever had AT&T service has a similar story. The surprising thing is that you actually spent that much time on the phone with them. You write a letter explaining why you won’t be paying the charge, and send it to them certified mail.

  3. By Just Ken
    February 15, 2012 at 9:56 am | permalink

    What is this “home phone” thing you refer to?

  4. By Rod Johnson
    February 15, 2012 at 11:13 am | permalink

    I’m a child of AT&T, or more properly, Michigan Bell. My mom supported our family on her Bell salary, and I grew up around switchboards and PBXes and made dioramas with bundles of discarded wiring and learned how to dial my own number and stuff. It was a wonderful company (modulo a few evilly grasping actions now and then) that helped launch a lot of women into the working world. I grieve to see what’s become of it (but it isn’t really the old AT&T anyway–it’s just a Baby Bell grown monstrous).

    And this is standard bigcorp bullshit. My wife spent some time yesterday in a phone menu that had no exit–it just kept looping back around, like the twisty little maze of passages, all alike, I used to get stuck in in Colossal Cave. We just have to function, somehow, in an increasingly dehumanized world.

  5. By m.c. zacharias
    February 15, 2012 at 11:50 am | permalink

    I agree with JIM REES — nothing new or interesting here.
    The only thing more exasperating than dealing with the AT&Ts of the world, is searching for value in this guy’s writing. Talk about mind-numbing.

  6. By abc
    February 15, 2012 at 1:08 pm | permalink

    Did you notice how hard it is to get a phone number for the… phone company. They make it very easy for you to file an email for help but not to talk to a real representative (even a robotic one). I could be wrong but I am pretty sure that there is not one phone number for them on their website. If it is there it is far from accessible; I remember having to track it down from a different source.

    I have concluded that AT&T’s customer service is just one big placebo; send in your email and it will make you feel better.

    For what its worth, I had a local phone company up until recently but then switched to the monster due to very expensive rates.

  7. By Rod Johnson
    February 15, 2012 at 1:10 pm | permalink

    It really sucks that some bastard holds a gun to your head and forces you to read it. Oh well, at least you have the satisfaction of being rude about it.

  8. By kittybkahn
    February 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm | permalink

    We have an AT&T land line, as well as AT&T iPhone (mine) and cell phone (my husband’s)and have never had a bad experience – I’m knocking on wood as we speak. We purposely haven’t switched from comcast for our internet service because we didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. I have had some frustrating experiences with comcast – like them charging me for a service call which they insisted would be free – but they always removed the charge immediately when I complained over the phone. Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to bundle all your communication even if it supposedly saves you some money. I wouldn’t use comcast for my land line either. Just my two cents.

  9. February 16, 2012 at 6:29 pm | permalink

    For what it’s worth, I’ve had excellent customer service from ATT, though some line trouble. I’ve also exchanged resigned tolerance for righteous indignation over phone holds. Usually the people on the other end are trying to do their jobs.

  10. By John Dory
    February 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    This is another great column by Nelson. Absolutely funny satire.

    I even learned a new word -”kvetching”.

  11. By Alan Benard
    February 22, 2012 at 11:43 pm | permalink

    I point out first that I am a friend of Dave’s, but I will attempt to offer objective facts about this piece.

    This is what a newspaper column is supposed to look like. This piece is a little longer than a column’s normal 600-word length. However, this is a Web site and column inches are not at a premium.

    Periodicals offer their readerships an edited analysis of everyday life in their service areas. Newspaper columns report on the quotidian. The columnist offers his or her viewpoint on the ordinary in a fresh and emotionally affecting way while making a larger, universal point.

    Are the observations in this piece compelling and insightful? My friend fulfilled his end of the deal by bringing humor and even pathos to his task.

    We ought to be thinking about the insidious ways that supposedly labor-saving technology — and the corporations that provide it — steal small segments of our time, over and over again. Management fosters this chaos by spending as little as possible to offer services that cost consumers a fair bit of money. (That is what Dave wrote, but he was funny.)

    Why bother stating this fact? AT&T does monitor the press for references of its trademark and it cares about its reputation. In case one had forgotten, the press is supposed to shine a light on problems. Those causing the problems are then encouraged to improve. The local press should be more than a dictation machine for City Hall and the source for stories on the latest traffic accidents and break-ins.

    If one finds the sheer number of words, the vocabulary and the wry gestures in Dave’s writing to be a chore, I suggest one visit It is fairly painless, despite the editing.