Too big to fail?

I never expected it to happen so quickly.

Almost every day I am deep in the trenches of public opinion, helping a wide variety of clients navigate the perilous waters of brand reputation management, crisis communications and message development designed to garner strong public support.

But last night it got a bit personal, and I tried a social media experiment.

urlI had an issue with my mobile phone provider, AT&T, one of the nation’s largest corporations. I spent more than an hour on the phone with their customer service representatives, haggling over a bill that was grossly out of balance. You can find the details here.

The company failed on several fronts. First, they did not live up to the promises they made during prior calls about the same issue. Secondly, perhaps more importantly, they let me off the phone without asking me if I was satisfied.

I waited 24 hours and then launched an all-out social media battle with the company. I dragged their competitors into the fray. I hounded their Facebook page and chased them on Twitter. But it all ended rather abruptly.

I never had the chance to execute the second phase of my PR battle because they smartly surrendered and resolved the issue to my satisfaction.

I am just one person, but I used my social media connections to leverage my message. The results were clear. It took fewer than 24 hours for them to surrender to my one-man war on the blogosphere.

This was all preventable. AT&T spent far more than the $1,000 they claimed I owed. They also suffered as others jumped on my bandwagon, further diminishing the company’s brand and reputation.

There are lessons here.

1.) No company is too big to fail.

2.) Do not underestimate the power of social media.

3.) Your brand and reputation are your most important assets and must be guarded.

AT&T ought to take a lesson from companies like AVIS, which authorizes its front-counter rental agents to do whatever it takes to resolve customer complaints; or LL Bean, a company that built a reputation for the quality of its products by honoring their replacement for any reason whatsoever. Or, GWI, a locally owned Biddeford-based ISP and telecommunications provider that always goes the extra mile to make customer satisfaction a top priority.

Fletcher Kittredge of Biddeford started GWI with vision and commitment, but he also had to endure many, many battles with larger telecomm giants. Fletcher proved that you can compete with anyone by focusing on the quality or your product and developing strong relationships with your customers.

AT&T, by comparison, is a multi-billion dollar corporation. Why is it so hard for such a large company to understand or appreciate the value of customer satisfaction and loyalty?

AT&T: Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap

My nightmare started less than 24 hours ago.

Spend just a few moments on the blogosphere and you will find a lot of stories just like mine.

On Google, Facebook and Twitter, these dark tales of woe, deceit and theft abound.

But my story is a tad different.  And this, my friends, is the first warning shot across the bow of a corporate giant aircraft carrier that likely will pay little attention.

attI am talking about AT&T, one of the nation’s largest and most well-known corporations.

AT&T (NYSE:T) is a Fortune 500 company and of the 30 stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Their reported consolidated revenue for the 2011 reporting period was $126.7 billion. Randall L. Stephenson is the chairman and CEO of AT&T.

So now you know what I’m up against, but don’t count me out just yet.

Allow me to back up and offer some context.

I have been a loyal AT&T customer for more than 7 years. I have a Family Plan that is also used by my wife and two teenage step-sons. I have a data bundle, unlimited text and 1,500 minutes of monthly talk time. My average monthly bill runs approximately $200 every month.

I have upgraded my phones over the last few years. I have never said an unkind word about AT&T in the public realm, despite their rather dismal coverage and the fact that my cell phone is essentially useless in my own home. But I am hooked into everlasting contracts, and until now it seemed like a giant pain in the ass to leave.

But then this happened:

Last evening, I received an automated call from AT&T, suggesting that I should consider a new plan. Curious, I went to view my account online and almost had a massive coronary. According to AT&T, I owe them $1,016.21.

Go here to find out how it happened and how AT&T repeatedly failed in even the most basic of customer service tasks.

I spoke with at least two representatives, including a young man named Rico, a “customer satisfaction specialists,” who didn’t seem to know the first thing about customers or service.  In summary, AT&T refused to budge.

Somehow, I was able to get Rico to set down his scripted talking points and listen to me for just a few seconds. And this is what I said.

 I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for me to pay this bill, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you adjust this bill now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill your company’s reputation.

For good measure, I threw in some other key phrases like Maine Public Utilities Commission, Maine Office of the Public Advocate and Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology.

I am going to haunt AT&T’s Facebook page and chase them on Twitter. I am going to call their customer service line every day, multiple times a day. I am going to shout my story from the rooftops, call every member of the Legislature, file formal complaints and talk to my friends in the media.

I am going to buy AT&T stock so that I can participate in shareholder conference calls and stay updated on their corporate affairs. I am going to e-mail Randall Stephenson daily, sometimes two or three times a day. I am going to create a Facebook page and make sure that Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile know about it.

Strangely, there are several fun URL domains available, i.e. attsukz.com; attblows.com, etc.

ATT-Logo-NJTechReviewsBut in the end, AT&T has me over a barrel. They can impact my credit report if I don’t pay on time. They have me locked in a contract.

But I am motivated, and unlike the foolishness and aimlessness of the Occupy fiasco, I have a clear objective: AT&T is going to spend at least 10 times more than what they are charging me for international calls that I never made.

Companies like AT&T spend millions every year to attract customers in a competitive market. They spend millions more on lobbyists and on PR professionals like me.

Go ahead and laugh, who could blame you? But consider this: social media helped bring down the Egyptian president. Lech Walesa, a Polish Factory worker, brought the Soviet Union to its knees in a matter of weeks. David beat Goliath and elephants are terrified of mice.

I invite you to join me in my crusade. I am going to have fun, and you can follow my progress with regular updates here.

Meanwhile, I will wrap it up here with a wonderful quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Hey, AT&T: can you hear me now? You guys may want to rethink possible.

AT&T customers are welcome to join the fight. Tell me your story here