• Email Steve Jobs, Get an Answer; Email AT&T, Get a Threat

    A "soon-to-be-former" AT&T customer's email to the carrier's chief executive got him a nastygram from customer service, informing him that they'd sic the lawyers on him if they persisted. An exec later apologized to Giorgio Galante, who garnered a lot of attention after posting the emails and voicemails on his blog, but the whole story highlighted a shift in how companies communicate with their customers these days: if you email Steve Jobs, you increasingly get a personal response from the CEO (or, as is more likely, someone else with access to his email), but if you email the CEO of AT&T, you get an ominous threat.

    Galante originally sent a fairly politely-worded email to AT&T's CEO Randall Stephenson, asking him to shift his upgrade eligibility back so that he could get a next-gen iPhone when it's released. Unsurprisingly, he didn't get a direct response from Stephenson, but did get a courteous reply from someone named "Brent" with the company's "Executive Reponse Team" saying, in essence: "no can do, don't blame us, blame Apple." Galante was doubtless disappointed to hear this response, but held his frustration until news of the new AT&T data plans was released. Then, he shot off a more sharply-worded (but still pretty mild) email to Stephenson. Starting with "thanks for making the switch to a Sprint HTC Evo an even easier decision," the email went on to call the 200MB-capped "Data Plus" plan's $15 fee "a crappy anchor price that makes the $25 plan look like a better deal than it really is." He also observed that he didn't "think even Steve Jobs can spin 2GB for $25/month as a good thing for the consumer," which may have been too much for the harried customer service rep tasked with responding. "Brent" picked up the phone and left a nervous-sounding message on Galante's voicemail, first thanking him "for the feedback" but then warning him "if you continue to send e-mails to Randall Stephenson a cease and desist letter may be sent to you" from AT&T's lawyers.

    The story spread like wildfire through the tech blogosphere, which was already disposed to take a dim view of AT&T's policies after the sudden change in its data plans. Engadget picked up the story, as did blogs from Slashdot to Forbes, amplifying the customer service gaffe to the point where an executive VP called Galante to personally apologize, and the company put out a press release avowing that the response "is not the way we want to treat customers." The carrier went on to promise that it "strives to provide our customers with easy ways to have their questions addressed…from Facebook to significant customer service channels." (Facebook?)

    Steve Jobs may have opened a can of worms with his curt emails to customers, and while it's safe to assume that he doesn't go to sjobs@apple.com every morning to wade through hundreds or thousands of messages a day, he at least knows the power of a direct response, even if it's not what customers want to hear.
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