Another telecom, another example of poor customer service

Although Glenda Ott and Gloria Barrueco don't know each other and live a continent apart, they have something in common -- frustration in dealing with AT&T (T).

Both say they have have had long, futile interactions with customer service representatives at the telecommunications giant that played out over weeks, recalling one customer's maddening attempt to cancel his service with Comcast (CMCSA).

Such incidents are, of course, all too common. Grievances against telecoms and other utilities rank among the top 10 consumer complaints, according to a poll this week by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators. And as Barrueco's and Ott's experiences show, they are usually avoidable.

Barrueco, who lives in Miami, found herself in a situation many consumers do, getting bill shock after a promotional rate on her AT&T service expired. After calling the company, she got what she thought was a good resolution -- a new promotional rate that would start immediately after the old rate went away.

But when her next bill arrived, the new deal was nowhere to be found. Try as she could, for weeks Barrueco could not get the rate adjustment that she says AT&T had agreed to. Call after call, as well as lengthy online chats, produced exchanges with friendly, but unhelpful, service reps like this one:

Barrueco: Last time I talked to a rep was last week and he told me that the bill was going to be fixed in less than 2 days, but that has not happened

AT&T Rep: I apologize for the inconvenience you have experienced. I can help you with that!

Barrueco: If you check on your system you can see how many times I have called for the same problem

AT&T Rep: I'll be right with you. Please allow me a moment, while I access your account. Gloria, I am working on your account. I'm sorry for the delay. I'll be right with you. While I am going through your account, tell me how is your weekend going so far?

Then, after a lengthy dialogue about the problem and a promise to leave Barrueco happy, the rep tells her he is sympathetic but can't make the promised rate adjustment.

AT&T Rep: I apologize that I am unable to help you directly with your request.

Barrueco: And, like I told you before, every time gets worse, it's like a joke, like ATT is making fun of me

AT&T Rep: I understand what you are going through, I am trying to help you. I would have felt the same if I were in your place. Is there anything else I can assist you with?...I sincerely wish your issue gets resolved. Thank you for being an AT&T customer; we care about you, so please don't text and drive.

Ott, who lives in Paradise, Calif., didn't record her exchanges, but did take notes on the many phone calls she says she made to AT&T to get back her home phone after the company inexplicably took away the landline she had had for more than 30 years, replacing it with a wireless unit and changing the number she'd had for decades. Ott, who lives with her 90-year-old husband, went without a phone for more than a month as the replacements failed.

CBS MoneyWatch reached out to AT&T to find out what went wrong for Barrueco and Ott. While that's still not entirely clear, their situations are now resolved and AT&T is trying to make amends. Barrueco got the rate she was promised and Ott reports, "Everything seems to be working as it was 35 days ago."

Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said: "We've apologized to these customers for their experiences with us, corrected their situations, and committed to make it up to them. They deserved better service and we expect better of ourselves."

Barrueco's first dealing with AT&T over the rate adjustment didn't get entered properly into the system, Siegel said, but it's unclear why. He also said he's not sure what caused Ott's unfortunate situation to drag out for so long or why it happened, but added that in "any situation where we don't meet customer expectations, we strive to find out what went wrong and how we can prevent it from happening again."

Both customers report they were given credits, Barrueco to make up for the additional charges she received, and Ott to compensate her for the month-plus without phone service.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.