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She bought an iPhone and returned it. AT&T kept charging her for it

There are tales of customer service that truly boggle the mind. This may well be one of them.




A touch imperfect?

You don’t always know whom you’re going to annoy.

But if you’re going to annoy a customer, it’s probably unwise to annoy someone who’s won the George Polk Award for legal reporting.

Yet here we are with AT&T twiddling its thumbs over here and Josh Marshall, the celebrated journalist behind — and atop — Talking Points Memo over there, tweeting urgently with, one imagines, several fingers and perhaps a slight snarl.

What, you might wonder, has AT&T done? (This time.)

Well, here’s how Marshall began his tale on Twitter: “Oh cool, @ATT charging me a second time for the same iPhone. I don’t know how this whole company doesn’t get shut down for fraud. Their whole business model appears to be based on false credit card charges and wearing people down with phone trees and bad customer service.”

Hours And Hours To Say The Phone’s Not Ours.

That sounds a touch dramatic, you might muse. But then judge it against the details.

Marshall said his wife had returned an iPhone she bought to AT&T. Somehow, the company acted as if she hadn’t.

Last Tuesday, he said of his wife: “She spent days on the phone with them, getting promised she wouldn’t be billed. Only to have them try to do it again a month later. Can’t emphasize enough, multiple days in which she spent literally 4 or 5 hours on the phone over the course of a day. Thought this was resolved after we gave them proof for like the 9th time. Then this afternoon I get an email (not sure why to me, though we’re on the same overall account) saying we’re charged again.”

Of course, AT&T interrupted Marshall’s tweeting with a concerned Twittered message to please DM the company immediately. He said he did just that and the company didn’t immediately respond. Which has its own level of metapoetry.

These are the bare essentials. Yet Marshall presented evidence, which he said AT&T had demanded. It was, he explained, a transcript of his wife’s conversation with, oh, AT&T.

3/ insisted on evidence/confirmation etc that she had proven the phone had been returned etc. Here’s the transcript of that communication.

— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) March 16, 2021

This seemed to show an AT&T representative insists the phone was in the company’s possession and there’d be no further charges. Before, Marshall says, there were further charges. Three months later.

Marshall offered: “When we contacted @att they said there were no notes on the account about the conversation or the reference number. Now this transcript I’m showing you here is not a screen cap of a chat. It’s an email of the transcript from @att.”

Somewhere, Franz Kafka wants his life back. And his phone.

You’re Good. It’s Done. Here’s Your Reference Number.

Let’s pause here for a brief moment. AT&T accepted that Marshall’s wife had returned the iPhone. It told her that, should she ever get pestered about it again, she should merely quote the reference number for the conversation.

Yet the company went and billed the Marshalls all over again and claimed it had no record of the conversation when, Marshall says, the record is right there. And now, on Twitter.

When it comes to customer stories, AT&T may not even be the worst offender. Traditionally, Comcast was always ahead in the eyes of many. And, in my own experience, still manages to proffer the occasional spasm of mindboggling service pain.

Yet once Marshall had completed his unburdening, Twitterers swiftly responded with their stories.

Sample from Kathleen Reynolds: “Oh I feel your pain! I have been harassed by @att for years re fraudulent charges… hours on the phone. Hours. No one is empowered to do anything, with strong corporate doesn’t give damn vibe. I welcome every opportunity to dissuade anyone from ever getting entangled there.”

Some even claimed AT&T had behaved this way for more than a decade. Twitterer Over The Rainbow declared: “This was their MO in 2002. Nightmarish experience and only reason we won is that I kept meticulous records of calls and payments. Damn, they are still at it.”

It Was Just My Miscommunication, Running Away With Me.

Naturally, I contacted AT&T to ask for its view of the Marshalls’ despair. An AT&T spokesperson told me: “We apologized to Mr. Marshall for the frustration this miscommunication caused and issued a credit for the returned phone.”

It’s a little more than frustration when you spend so much time trying to settle an apparently simple transaction and the company bungles it time and again. While simultaneously taking more of your money. This seems less a miscommunication than a complete dereliction of basic customer service.

Which may make many ask how it can possibly get to this. What depths of (lack of) supervision led to AT&T’s own evidence being disregarded by, oh, AT&T?

It isn’t, though, as if AT&T is alone in the carrier bungling department. Some replied to Marshall of their problems with Sprint and Verizon and gosh, even T-Mobile. Some, just because, added that Citibank and Bank of America were equally bad.

Yet still, when you read Marshall’s story and see his evidence, you wonder how it could possibly have happened. Why, the Marshalls say they’ve now lodged “an official complaint with the @fcc regarding @att’s fraudulent billing practices.” (Oddly, AT&T informed customers last week that it’s unilaterally changing its rules and now imposing forced arbitration on its customers in the case of disputes.)

You also wonder about all the people who don’t have Marshall’s online platform or even don’t realize for a long time that they’re being, um, mischarged.

Somehow, I’m reminded of a line from one of AT&T’s latest ads: “It’s not complicated.”




Comcast gave me good, precise news. The truth was precisely the opposite

Many companies believe that technology is perfect for customer service communication. Often, though, it just isn’t.




Please be infinitely accurate, Comcast.

These things happen.

Yes, all too often they happen at very awkward times.

But we’ve allowed ourselves to be at the mercy of technology these days, so who are we to complain.

There I was on a recent Friday afternoon, writing several things and watching something on TV. This was my form of dedicated multitasking.

Suddenly, my tasks ground to a halt: All of my Comcast systems went down.

No TV, no internet, no life. (Schopenhauer was the first to say that.)

At least my iPhone was working, so I went to the Xfinity website to see what had happened and when it might unhappen.

The engineers were working on the outage, I was told. Would I like to sign up for texted updates? Of course I would.

Precision Is A Wonderful Thing.

So I sat, waited, and watched.

The first texted offering was that the outage would be fixed by 5:54 p.m. I sat, waited, and remembered I had an Xfinity app on my phone. I tried opening that too, just in case there was more immediate news.

I tried reading a book, but I had those things to do. They were quite urgent, so I became somewhat itchy.

5:53 p.m. came along. It had been more than three hours. But, when you’re told such a precise time, you believe that the texting entity is very sure that the outage is fixable by that time.

At 5:54 p.m. came the bad news. It would be precisely 9:54 p.m. Oh dear. This evening wasn’t going well.

My wife and I cooked. We sat at the dining table, facing each other. We talked. You see, there’s something marvelous about a Comcast outage. It eliminates the temptation of a TV dinner. Instead, you chat about how annoying it is that there’s a Comcast outage.

But I needed to get those things done that night. Because I did. We had plans for the weekend and we wanted to stick to them.

After Midnight. You Can’t Let It All Hang Out.

Next came a new update. The outage wouldn’t be fixed at all that day. Instead, it was now going to be 12:10 a.m. the next day. Precisely.

Please forgive me if, by this stage, I was getting a touch annoyed with this useless precision. Why be so exact when all you’re doing is exacting my nerve ends?

I can appreciate that some things are harder to fix than others. Yet if you’re giving customers such precise information, shouldn’t they expect to trust that information?

And when they discover that the information is precisely useless, won’t you be driving them precisely bonkers?

As the evening began to concede that night was approaching, I kept refreshing my Xfinity app. I feared the next update would say “in three days time, at precisely 3:43 p.m.” I feared I may not even get a text to confirm it, as the texting machines hadn’t been in touch.

Somewhere near 10 p.m., the app refreshed and there was suddenly no mention of an outage.

I tried turning on the TV. It worked. The internet chugged back up. I could do the things I had to do, through yawns of joy.

Curiously, though, I hadn’t received a text to say that everything was working again. Which, lest you forget, was the reason I signed up for the texted updates in the first place.

Of course I could forgive Comcast. It’s compulsory. The company has become somewhat more customer-oriented over the last couple of years. I know it’s been trying.

Oh, but then came Saturday. I could watch Premier League football (saacker) from the very earliest hours. I could watch golf. I could ignore college football.

Good News. Really Good, Imprecise Late News.

Later we went out, sticking to our plans. It was a lovely afternoon. We were in Safeway buying soup and chicken.

Suddenly, a text. Yes, from the Xfinity out there, also known as Comcast.

It began: “Good news.”

I was going to get a rebate for the complete lack of services that lasted seven hours?

Hope is the mansion with non-existent foundations.

Instead, Comcast texted me: “The outage has been resolved at approximately 3:28 p.m. PDT.”

Please imagine the depths of my pained chuckle. Comcast wanted me to know that it had just fixed the outage that it had fixed the previous evening.

So who had I been receiving Comcast services from the previous night and that morning? From the Xfinity Space Station?

And please note the utter deliciousness of the word approximately. Having been so definitive about the time of fixing, now I was only offered an approximation.

The text didn’t stop there, though.

It added: “Thanks for your patience. Your services should be back up and running. Let me know if you’re still experiencing service issues.”

Should be back up and running? But you told me precisely that the outage was resolved.

Naturally, this all caused me to worry.

As with my abject text-based experience with FedEx a couple of weeks before, I fear that companies have no control over the texts they send to customers.

If you’re going to do it, please be accurate. If you’re going to use such technology, make sure it’s not dribbling finger-in-the-air precision that can only frustrate your customers more.

It’s fine to apologize. It’s less fine to offer the wrong information.

If you can’t make the system work, don’t have the system.

Oh, what am I saying? Technology is customer service these days.



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Even computer experts think ending human oversight of AI is a very bad idea

The UK government is thinking of scrapping the right to ask for a human to review decisions made entirely by AI systems, but some experts are warning that it is not the right way to go.




The right to a human review will become impractical and disproportionate in many cases as AI applications grow in the next few years, said a consultation from the UK government.

Image: iStock / Getty Images Plus

While the world’s largest economies are working on new laws to keep AI under control to avoid the technology creating unintended harms, the UK seems to be pushing for a rather different approach. The government has recently proposed to get rid of some of the rules that exist already to put breaks on the use of algorithms – and experts are now warning that this is a dangerous way to go.

In a consultation that was launched earlier this year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) invited experts to submit their thoughts on some new proposals designed to reform the UK’s data protection regime.

Among those featured was a bid to remove a legal provision that currently enables citizens to challenge a decision that was made about them by an automated decision-making technology, and to request a human review of the decision.

SEE: Report finds startling disinterest in ethical, responsible use of AI among business leaders

The consultation determined that this rule will become impractical and disproportionate in many cases as AI applications grow in the next few years, and planning for the need to always maintain the capability to provide human review becomes unworkable.

But experts from the BCS, the UK’s chartered institute for IT, have warned against the proposed move to scrap the law.

“This rule is basically about attempting to create some kind of transparency and protection for the individuals in the decision making by fully automated processes that could have significant harms on someone,” Sam De Silva, partner at law firm, CMS and the chair of BCS’s law specialist group, tells ZDNet. “There needs to be some protection rather than rely on a complete black box.”

Behind the UK’s attempt to change the country’s data protection regulation lies a desire to break free from its previous obligation to commit to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The “right to a human review”, in effect, constitutes the 22nd article of the EU’s GDPR, and as such has been duly incorporated into the UK’s own domestic GDPR, which until recently had to comply with the laws in place in the bloc.

Since the country left the EU, however, the government has been keen to highlight its newly found independence – and in particular, the UK’s ability to make its own rules when it comes to data protection.

“Outside of the EU, the UK can reshape its approach to regulation and seize opportunities with its new regulatory freedoms, helping to drive growth, innovation and competition across the country,” starts DCMS’s consultation on data protection.

Article 22 of the GDPR was deemed unsuitable for such future-proof regulation. The consultation recognizes that the safeguards provided under the law might be necessary in a select number of high-risk use cases – but the report concludes that as automated decision making is expected to grow across industries in the coming years, it is now necessary to assess whether the safeguard is needed.

A few months before the consultation was launched, a separate government taskforce came up with a similar recommendation, arguing that the requirements of article 22 are burdensome and costly, because they mean that organizations have to come up with an alternative manual process even when they are automating routine operations.

The taskforce recommended that article 22 be removed entirely from UK law, and DCMS confirmed in the consultation that the government is now considering this proposal.

According to De Silva, the motivation behind the move is economic. “The government’s argument is that they think article 22 could be stifling innovation,” says De Silva. “That appears to be their rationale for suggesting its removal.”

The consultation effectively puts forward the need to create data legislation that benefits businesses. DCMS pitched a “pro-growth” and “innovation-friendly” set of laws that will unlock more research and innovation, while easing the cost of compliance for businesses, and said that it expects new regulations to generate significant monetary benefits.

For De Silva, however, the risk of de-regulating the technology is too great. From recruitment to finance, automated decisions have the potential to impact citizens’ lives in very deep ways, and getting rid of protective laws too soon could come with dangerous consequences.

SEE: Programming languages: Python just took a big jump forward

That is not to say that the provisions laid out in the GDPR are enough. Some of the grievances that are described in DCMS’s consultation against article 22 are legitimate, says De Silva: for example, the law lacks certainty, stating that citizens have a right to request human review when the decision is solely based on automated processing, without specifying at which point it can be considered that a human was involved.

“I agree that it’s not entirely clear, and it’s not a really well drafted provision as it is,” says De Silva. “My view is that we do need to look at it further, but I don’t think scrapping it is the solution. Removing it is probably the least preferable option.”

If anything, says De Silva, the existing rules should be changed to go even further. Article 22 is only one clause within a wide-ranging regulation that focuses on personal data – when the topic could probably do with its own piece of legislation.

This lack of scope can also explain why the provision lacks clarity, and highlights the need for laws that are more substantial.

“Article 22 is in the GDPR, so it is only about dealing with personal data,” says De Silva. “If we want to make it wider than that, then we need to be looking at whether we regulate AI in general. That’s a bigger question.”

A question likely to be on UK regulators’ minds, too. The next few months will reveal what answers they might have found, if any.

The consultation determined that this rule will become impractical and disproportionate in many cases as AI applications grow in the next few years, and planning for the need to always maintain the capability to provide human review becomes unworkable.



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National Australia Bank keeping staff connected with Google Pixel rollout

More than 2,000 Google Pixel devices were issued to NAB’s customer contact teams to enable them to support customers remotely.



15664-android-nab-blog-v2-max-1000x1000.png Image: Google

When National Australia Bank (NAB) recently revised its device strategy to look at new ways it could support the mobility of its employees and reduce the time and cost of support legacy devices across multiple platforms, the big bank partnered with Google to issue more than 2,000 Pixel devices to its customer contact teams.

Each device, managed with Android enterprise, was rolled out by Vodafone using “zero-touch” enrolment to set up the devices and configure each one with the necessary applications.

“With zero-touch enrolment, each Pixel setup was 20 minutes faster than our previous device enrolments, saving our IT team and colleagues over 500 hours during the initiative. With our communication and collaboration apps available right out of the box, our teams could get to work right away to help customers,” NAB Mobility manager Simon Thoday said.

Another consideration of the rollout was how customer data was going to remain secure, with Thoday pointing out that using Android Enterprise provided the solution to that question.

“Pixel security updates from Google provide a reliable cadence of ongoing protection as threats evolve, and the work profile hits the right balance between security and privacy for our teams,” Thoday said.

“Our contact centre teams use Pixel devices that are fully managed, which allows us to provide the necessary security controls, and wipe and re-enroll them when transferred to a new employee,” he said.

“Branch managers use Pixels with the work profile, separating work and personal applications. This gives employees the ability to use the device in a personal capacity while our IT team manages and ensures data security over the work profile.”

Additionally, with managed Google Play, NAB can assign the apps that are necessary on its managed devices.

“Providing our teams the flexibility to assign apps to the right teams is a major time saver and ensures everyone has the resources they need,” Thoday said.

“Branch managers can look up customer service records or answer a ping more quickly from their Pixel, instead of returning back to their desk and logging back on to their desktop computer. Android Enterprise has been a catalyst in a more mobile and responsive environment for our various teams.”

Earlier this month, the red and black bank completed its transition to TPG to deliver fixed and mobile network services across the bank.

The transition follows a deal struck between the two companies in September for the newly merged telecommunications giant to deliver fixed network services across NAB’s corporate offices, business banking centres, and branches, as well as providing mobile connectivity to the majority of the NAB workforce.

Vodafone delivered the solution to more than 80% of NAB’s mobile fleet across corporate offices and branches in metro and major regional areas. The company said Vodafone, alongside Google, would also be providing those who opt for a company phone with the Pixel 4a.

Related Coverage

Another consideration of the rollout was how customer data was going to remain secure, with Thoday pointing out that using Android Enterprise provided the solution to that question.



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