Last week my wife did one of those moves that many people have done; she accidentally got her cell phone wet. Actually, that’s kind of a misnomer; she mixed it in with a bunch of clothes and washed it in the washing machine. She thought she lost it until she checked and found it there, and was pretty upset with herself for doing it. I went online and found information on how to dry the phone out, but she decided she wanted to try to get a new phone instead.

We went across town to the big AT&T store to see what they had to offer. The guy who helped us was very nice, but I have to say overall it’s not a great experience buying cell phones. One would think that the process of buying cell phones, since so many people have them, would be streamlined and pretty easy to do. Instead, we were there almost 90 minutes, a portion of it with my wife looking at cell phones, but most of that time was the process of them doing whatever it is they do. In the long run, I had to sign a brand new two-year agreement, even though all we were doing was buying a phone. The man said that cell phones would normally cost close to $200, and for her to get it at their price we had to re-up for two years. Just so you know, I’ve been with the same company since 1995, although they’ve gone through new ownership multiple times, but the plan I’m on at the present time is pretty much expired and not offered anymore. However, I was being grandfathered into the terms I already had; that was at least something.

One of the strange things we encountered is that her name was nowhere on the account, even though we have separate phone numbers and were together when we bought the phones that we presently have. I found that incredible, and I also found incredible the reality that had I not decided to go with her she would not have been allowed to buy a new phone. Sounds pretty ridiculous to me.

Over the course of the next two days, she tried to get used to her new phone. She was having difficulties, and because I didn’t replace my phone at the same time I couldn’t help her to learn how to use her new phone. She also kept accidentally going onto the Internet because she couldn’t figure it out, and that’s one of the features that I presently don’t pay for, which meant we were going to be paying a penny per kilobyte. That doesn’t sound like much initially, except it seems just clicking on the internet and immediately getting out of it is about 16,000 kB, or $1.60. So, that means she spent at least five dollars accidentally accessing the internet; how do people afford this? We decided to try her formally waterlogged phone to see if it worked, and for the most part it came back. We read the contract and it turns out that you have 72 hours to return something and get out of the contract. And thus I was slated to go back the next morning and return her phone.

I did take the phone back the next day, and this time the process took about 35 minutes. I still thought that was ridiculously long, and what added to some of my consternation is that my wife had paid them in cash, but I couldn’t immediately get cash back. This is because the man behind the counter told me that they hadn’t had any cash customers that day, and they weren’t allowed to go under the amount of cash they started the day with. This meant I would have to come back later in the day to see if they got any cash payments, and if not then they would have to process a check that my wife wouldn’t get for at least 30 days. I wasn’t happy with that but what could I do? Lucky for us they did end up getting that payment so my wife gotget her money, minus a $35 restocking fee; once again, ridiculous.

Later that evening my wife realized that her phone had lost the microphone, which meant she could hear people but no one could hear her speaking unless she used the Bluetooth. I wouldn’t have much of a problem with that, but she did, so we decided that on Friday after she got out of work we would go to the mall instead of back to the AT&T store to see what they offered at one of those kiosks.

We went there, and she found something she liked, and we were ready to go ahead and make another purchase, and I was getting myself resigned to the fact that I was going to have to sign a new two-year contract. Everything was still taking longer than I liked, when suddenly the guy happened to mention that it’s too bad there wasn’t insurance on my wife’s phone. I said of course there was insurance on her phone just like there was insurance online and he disagreed. We decided to hold up on the process and come home to check our records. We did that, and found out that not only did we have a contract for insurance for both phone numbers, but that I was still paying for that insurance every month because it was on the bill.

Armed with this information, Saturday morning we went back to the kiosk and showed the guy both the contract and a copy of the bill. He acknowledged that indeed insurance is being paid for both phones, and he called the AT&T main office to help us get started with calling in the insurance claim. About 25 minutes later, he asked me for the last four digits of my social security number, and then said the people wanted to talk to me. I got on the phone and they asked me a few questions, then they told me which phone they were going to be sending. When my wife saw the phone they said she was getting she wasn’t happy. I told the woman on the phone she was going to have to talk to my wife, and they had a conversation and my wife ended up getting a better deal on the phone she would like better. After another five minutes, we were finally done and ready to get out of there.

Why have I told this story? Because in my mind there were many customer service failures in the process of getting a new cell phone that really made this experience excruciating. One, for as many years as there have been cell phones, having to go through a long process to get new ones is ridiculous. Two, the guy at the main AT&T store should have looked up the account and noticed we had insurance on the phones and said something about it; to me that was disingenuous. Three, the second guy who did mention that we had insurance should have been able to determine that we had that insurance on both phones so that we didn’t have to make a second trip. Four, when we initially set up the previous contract, how the heck did they not make sure that my wife was associated with the account since we were together? Five, my thought is that if someone from a store that’s representing AT&T is talking to someone at AT&T that the process should be much faster than if we were trying to do it ourselves. And six, the reality that it took so long for an AT&T representative at a kiosk or at a store to get the process through, and knowing that would have taken longer if I’d been on my own, is illogical and cumbersome.

How many of us could get away with such bad customer service as it applies to time and still hope to keep our customers coming to us? I doubt the situation is limited to just AT&T, and if it is somebody tell me that it is, but for the past 15 years I’ve gone through the same thing over and over even though I’ve never left his company, and one would think that the process would be streamlined enough so that I could walk in, get a phone, and be gone in at least 15 minutes.

Well, at least the people were nice. But nice won’t always get a company over if its processes feels punitive. Am I wrong on this one?