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A big brand problem? They could start with that logo.


AT&T

I’ve missed going to phone stores.

This may not be a sentence you’ve heard from too many people lately, but I’ve often found talking to those actually selling the phones to be an enlightening experience.

So last week, mask in hand and anticipation in head and heart, I went to an AT&T store. My main goal was to see Samsung’s Galaxy Flip 3 and Galaxy Fold 3.

I’ve been an AT&T customer for almost 20 years. Those phones seem especially riveting to me, though I’ve never held one.

Perhaps an AT&T salesperson could inspire me to finally toss my iPhone to the winds.

This Number Is Not Available.

I walked into a reasonably sized AT&T store. There were two customers inside. Very quickly, I was greeted by a saleswoman clutching an iPad.

“What name should I put down?” she asked.

“Chris,” I said.

“Right now, the wait time is thirty minutes,” she replied, very matter-of-factly.

That seemed like an infernally long time, given the sparsely populated store on this weekday afternoon. She didn’t even ask why I was there and simply walked away.

Still, she agreed I could look around. I found the Fold and the Flip, opened them and closed them, and discovered the that the crease on the Fold 3 was markedly visible, while the Flip 3 looked exactly as I’d imagined — utterly charming.

But was I going to spend another 28 minutes in the store? Was I really minded to go back?

I left, with the latest words of AT&T CEO John Stankey swishing around my brain: “Frankly, I’m not satisfied with where the AT&T brand stands right now.”

He worries the company isn’t well positioned for the next 10 years. I worry it’s not well positioned to offer basic customer service right now.

You Want Service? What Sort Of Service?

I wandered away and wondered whether I could get any service at the nearest T-Mobile store. Phone stores can be a little like car dealers, zoned into particular areas.

So I replanted the mask on my face, walked in, stood for perhaps 30 seconds and was approached by a salesperson. This despite the fact that there were four customers in a store that’s smaller than AT&T’s.

“Hi. If I asked you an honest question, would you give me an honest answer?,” I began.

“Sure,” he said.

“Is the T-Mobile coverage better in my area than it used to be?”

“Let’s find out,” he replied.

He then walked me over to the counter and showed me his iPad. He let me type in my address and showed me precisely where the nearest tower is and the strength of the signal.

My house is right on the border between good and not-so-good in signal terms. He was honest enough to not only show it, but not to offer some twisted reasoning for why it was actually guaranteed to be good.

He said that, over the next few years, the signal would improve a lot. And when I made a joke about 5G — there really are so many — he revealed he was a toggler.

“I manually switch from 4G to 5G to see where I can get a better signal,” he said. Which doesn’t sound like the sort of thing most people would be bothered doing.

Still, this was already a very pleasant chat. So I dared to ask about Samsung’s folding phones, the reason I’d gone to the AT&T store.

He took me through a comprehensive explanation of his views on the phones. The Fold 3, he said, still had issues because app designers hadn’t got around to adjusting to the Fold 3’s dimensions. He felt that YouTube just didn’t look great on the phone.

The Flip 3, though, was far more ready for everyday use, he said. The more I stared at it and fiddled with it, the more I liked it. 

I could even sink to admitting I wanted it.

Customer Service After My Own Heart.

“The problem is I’m iPhone,” I said. “I just don’t know if I can live with Android.”

“Same,” he replied. “Most of my friends and family have iPhones. If you have just one Android person on a group text, it throws everything.”

The feeling I got as a customer was that, regardless of how many people were in the store, he’d have continued the conversation.

I’d experienced this sort of service attitude at a T-Mobile store before, but I’d imagined it was perhaps a one-off, a single enthusiast. But to maintain this standard of service during and emerging from a pandemic was remarkable.

We chatted a little more. I was (pleasantly) startled to finally find another human being who refuses to put a case on his phone. He proudly showed his shiny silver iPhone 12, perfectly well cared for, while I displayed my slightly more careworn blue iPhone 12.

It’s a rare feat of customer experience when you find yourself unable to buy the product, but desperately wanting to buy something from this person.

Yet, given that working from home has long been my lot in life, I need a decent phone signal at all times and T-Mobile can’t yet guarantee that.

So, Mr. Sankey of AT&T, I know that your phone stores are likely a sad pimple on the chin of your brand perception. I know that you want to take AT&T to “a new place.” One, I imagine, that’s blissfully virtual.

But you might want to learn a thing or two about customer service from T-Mobile. Just as T-Mobile might want to learn a thing or two about security from, well, just about anyone who knows a thing or two about security.

It may well be that all phone brands will soon shut their stores and force customers to shop entirely online.

It may well be that they’ll leave the likes of Best Buy to provide actual physical experience and advice. But customer service remains something that matters to, you know, real humans.

This particular salesman got nothing out of our conversation. I asked him to please hurry the signal improvement near my house. (He said he’d get right on it.)

But, as I walked out of the store, I felt so good about the interaction that it genuinely lifted my day.

Then I looked at my phone and thought: “Hey, it’s still five minutes before anyone at the AT&T store will talk to me.”

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