Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Carriers are not ready for tablets

This week I spent at least two hours on the phone trying to convince both AT&T and Verizon to give me online access to accounts I set up for tablets that I am testing -- the Samsung Galaxy Tab (AT&T) and Motorola Xoom (Verizon). They are both great devices; I like the Galaxy Tab's form factor (like a paperback book) and the Xoom is incredibly fast. But it is clear that the wireless carriers have no idea how to incorporate these devices into their billing and customer service ecosystem. It was such a painful and frustrating experience that I wonder how the cellular carriers expect to leverage these devices as more tablets come onto the market.

First, my story with AT&T. I bought the Galaxy Tab a few months ago which came with an AT&T SIM card pre-installed. When you boot the device for the first time, there's a widget which takes you to a registration page, which I filled out to activate the tablet on AT&T's network. Since then I have not received a bill (to my knowledge) for the usage, and couldn't remember whatever password I might have used to set up the device. Nothing on AT&T's website seemed to offer any help, as it is completely oriented towards phones.

Finally, I gave up and called AT&T to re-register the Tab manually. The first customer service rep had no idea how to do this. They kept asking for the phone number, which the device does not have (at least when you enter the Settings menu it lists the phone number as "unknown"). Given that I had not received any bills I suspected the Tab was never registered, so we had to look it up by IMEI number. The rep could not pull up any account information. She ended up transferring me to technical support at Samsung, of all places. The Samsung rep was very friendly but couldn't help with this problem, either -- it seemed to be an AT&T issue (and I agree). I ended up having to call AT&T back, and went through the same painful process of explaining what my problem was. This rep ended up transferring me over to a different sales rep who tried to help me set up the account from scratch.

This is when things started to go downhill. All I wanted as an unlimited (or as close as possible) data plan for the Galaxy Tab. I could see online that AT&T has a 2GB/month data plan for tablets but the rep kept telling me that "their internal systems don't necessarily show what is on the website." (First warning sign there.) Eventually he managed to pull up the right plan but couldn't seem to figure out how to add a Galaxy Tab -- the device wasn't showing up in his menus. It sounded like he had never activated a tablet before. After around 20 minutes on hold he managed to figure it out, so I think I finally have the Galaxy Tab set up for data access. I was promised that I would get an email from AT&T confirming the new account, but it never arrived. So I guess I am going to have to call them back. I am dreading this.

Verizon was almost as bad. Like the Tab, I had set up the Xoom using the registration app on the tablet itself. I had made a note of the username used to set up the account, but not the password. Verizon's website offers no ability to request a new password except via SMS to the device -- and the Xoom doesn't receive SMS messages, since it's not a phone. The only way to request a new password is to spend around 45 minutes on the phone with various Verizon reps with the result being that a new password is being sent to me by postal mail in five business days. (What is this, the nineteenth century?) Of course, since I moved recently, my mailing address on file with Verizon was incorrect. Fortunately, the service rep allowed me to change the postal address over the phone -- meaning that they trust me enough to let me change my mailing address, not not enough to reset my online account password. This makes absolutely no sense and seems designed to drive users away.

The lesson here is that the wireless carriers have no clue how to incorporate tablets. They are treating them like phones, which they aren't.


  1. The average Teleco runs on a mad mix of 3rd party applications, home grown apps, and scripts that are collectively poorly documented and barely hang together.

    Introduce a new business or technical variable and it's like throwing a can of bolts into a 1970's vintage diesel engine running at 5000 RPM - not a pretty sight!

  2. The tablets are supposedly consuming more bandwidth than the smartphones, so they are (or should be) a major concern.

    Anyway, I've come to realize that there are many customer service reps, with a large variance in their capabilities. If the first doesn't know how to deal with it, hang up, call again. This is my general approach to getting better customer service via calls, regardless of the companies involved.


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