By sending exhaustively detailed iPhone bills, service provider AT&T could be trying to head off expensive customer-care calls.
Posted Aug 17, 2007
It's no surprise, given the new-technology nature of Justine Ezarik's complaint, that she aired her displeasure on YouTube. The Pittsburgh graphic designer posted on the Google-owned Web site a video that she made while unpacking her first iPhone bill, from service provider AT&T -- a 300-page tome that required its own box.
Other iPhone users swiftly chimed in with their own complaints about the bills, which break out line-by-line every transaction and data transmission made on the iPhone's unlimited data access plans. A user who sends and receives around 20,000 text messages -- as Ezarik claims to have done last month -- would face a brick-like phone bill containing an entry for each message occurred.
So what's going on? Nothing, says AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel -- the company has always detailed customer transactions in this manner.
Still, Adam Zawek thinks more than "business as usual" may be behind the Byzantine bills. "I suspect a messy combination of CRM strategy and billing system limitations," says Zawek says, a spokesman at Boston-based InMobile.org, an online community for wireless executives.
The massive statements, he says, are likely an effort by AT&T to head off expensive calls to its customer-care center by anticipating -- and hopefully answering -- customer questions.
"Fear of customer-care calls is a huge driver of everything because they give someone like AT&T two whammies," Zawek says. "Cost number one: They've upset a customer, who might leave them. Cost number two: The calls themselves are expensive to process."
Zawek speculates that the telecom company is keenly aware that users will be scrutinizing the new device's service levels in these first months after its introduction. The media, too, is anxious to follow the iPhone story.
"AT&T gave Apple a lot of leeway they don't give to other device manufacturers," Zawek says. "But that could come with some risks for their core operation. They're the one company the customer calls with any kind of problem, no matter what it is," he says. "People won't go to Apple. They'll phone AT&T."
Thus the need for exhaustive detail, even if most transactions -- whether for sending a text message, sending a photo, or receiving an email--are simply listed on the bill as "data," as Ezarik points out in her video.
But Mark Evans has a slightly different take on the iPhone's brick-like bills. He's chief executive officer at Quickcomm, a New York company offering telecom-analytics software. A large company would use Quickcomm software to analyze its telephone-bill numbers to find places to wrest savings. Some of Evans's clients get their telephone bills delivered by pallet, he says -- the paperwork is that heavy.
While those bills could easily be delivered electronically -- and AT&T does offer that option to iPhone users -- Evans says the itemized paper bills themselves offer an important service. They allow customers to analyze their usage and, if appropriate, switch to a lower-fee plan.
"The information is invaluable," Evans says. "It shows you what you're using."
UPDATE: On Aug. 23, The New York Times reported that AT&T's wireless business "sent text messages to all its iPhone users to let them know that it will be sending them summarized bills from now on." According to the Times the text message read, "We are simplifying your paper bill, removing itemized detail. To view all detail go to att.com/mywireless. Still need full paper bill? Call 611." The paper also reported that "[c]ustomers who prefer detailed paper bills will be charged $1.99 a month for each phone line to have these mailed."
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