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AT&T CEO admits his firm 'blew it' by siccing lawyer on customer

AT&T CEO admits his firm 'blew it' by siccing lawyer on customer
Randall Stephenson, chief executive of AT&T, says the company "fumbled" its response to a well-meaning customer. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

AT&T's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, acknowledged Wednesday that the company "blew it" in turning over a loyal customer's suggestions to a lawyer and saying it won't even consider ideas from the general public.

"At AT&T, our top priority is to treat our customers to a premium experience every time they interact with us, and our consistent award-winning service demonstrates we usually get it right," Stephenson wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times.

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"Unfortunately, we don't meet our high standards 100% of the time," he said.

Stephenson was addressing my Tuesday column, which told how El Sereno resident Alfred Valrie, who describes himself as a "lifelong" AT&T customer, emailed Stephenson with a pair of modest suggestions.

"Allow unlimited data for DSL customers, particularly those in neighborhoods not serviced by U-verse," he wrote. "Bring back text messaging plans like 1,000 Messages for $10 or create a new plan like 500 Messages for $7."

Stephenson turned Valrie's letter over to AT&T's legal department. Thomas A. Restaino, chief intellectual property counsel, penned the company's response.

"AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property ... from members of the general public," he told Valrie. "Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion."

The column generated heated reactions from AT&T customers online and was picked up by a variety of tech and telecom websites.

Stephenson certainly knew that he'd touched a nerve. I know this because I included his direct email address in the column and was cc'd on numerous messages.

In his letter to the Los Angeles Times, Stephenson said AT&T "fumbled a response to our customer Alfred Valrie, who sent me a suggestion for improving service."

"We blew it, plain and simple," he said, "and it's something I've already corrected."

When I had asked Georgia Taylor, an AT&T spokeswoman, about the company's letter to Valrie, she said the adversarial tone was deliberate.

"In the past, we've had customers send us unsolicited ideas and then later threaten to take legal action, claiming we stole their ideas," she explained. "That's why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic. It's so we can protect ourselves."

That circle-the-wagons mentality apparently will now give way to a kinder and gentler approach to customer feedback.

However, rival T-Mobile already has jumped on this episode to highlight what it says is its more responsive policy.

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The company's CEO, John Legere, sent out a number of tweets mocking AT&T and its leader. "If they don't want your ideas, we'll take them!" he wrote.

T-Mobile created an email address, IdeasForRandall@T-Mobile.com, for AT&T customers to send in their suggestions.

T-Mobile will "keep the best ones" and send AT&T the rest, the company said in a news release.

Legere provided his own email address (John.Legere@T-Mobile.com) and said that "it absolutely amazes me that Randall would tell a lifelong customer to basically go away and talk to my lawyers."

"I interact with customers on a daily basis so I can hear their ideas firsthand," he said. "It's called living in the 21st century."

A T-Mobile spokeswoman said the company does not refer customer emails to its lawyers.

AT&T's Taylor said the company had nothing to add beyond Stephenson's letter.

Twitter: @Davidlaz

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