Brands Are Listening, But Is The Hearing Selective?

I would say that in general, I’m a positive person on Twitter, more prone to happy and humorous conversation than rant. But the other week, after receiving a bill from AT&T, I couldn’t help myself. I tweeted and Facebook'd: Right after I finish this peanut butter cookie post I am flexing my wrists to write a strongly worded letter to AT&T. #fuming

I fielded some outraged Twitter and Facebook responses on the topic then went about my business. Then, within an hour, I received this tweet from @sethbloom, who handles blogger relations for AT&T via Fleishman-Hillard:

@bostonmamas Hey there. Sorry that you're having trouble. Would love to try to get you some quick help with whatever's making you fume.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tweeted about a brand without using an @ and had a rep respond quickly, but given that AT&T seems like a giant vortex, I was impressed. I emailed with Seth and he was just as pleasant and interested in resolving my problem as that tweet suggests.

So here was the problem: during my press trip to the Bahamas, though I didn’t use my Blackberry for phone calls, I did access the web a handful of times, perhaps a minute or two at a time. I honestly don't remember accessing the web 10 times in the Bahamas (I’ve always found the Blackberry too slow for browsing) but there were 10 roaming charges, totaling $386.23. Five charges were 31 cents or less; the remaining five charges totaled $385.31, an average of $77.06 per use.

My issues? First, the charges seemed truly criminal in the sense that the punishment far outweighed the crime (seriously, an average of $77.06 for a couple of minutes of usage?!). And second, it seemed bizarre to me that there isn’t an interface between Blackberry/AT&T to notify users about these exorbitant roaming charges, such as a pop up warning similar to the warning I receive if I accidentally push the Push to Talk button on my Blackberry. We did receive an e-mail warning from AT&T about international charges, but not until the third day that charges were incurred (which also was the last day of usage), which I consider a communication fail compared to the way credit card companies (who I certainly don't consider angels) contact you immediately in the presence of unusual activity -- in my case, the first usage was a whopping $166.32 roaming charge.

The point is, because of this poor corporate-level communication, consumers suffer. And similar to our dealings with Blue Cross, this is the kind of experience that leads consumers to feel alienated and mistrustful of a brand. The vitriol I responded to on the web about AT&T and other large corporations certainly seemed to reflect that notion.

Seth quickly connected me to someone in AT&T’s social media department (interestingly, not customer service) and in one short and friendly phone call my immediate problem was resolved; the charges were refunded.

And I felt of two minds about it all.

First, I was impressed. Refund aside, I thought, damn, this is why brands should be engaged in social media. I’ve seen lots of brands use Twitter and Facebook fan pages beautifully to monitor conversations from customers and respond. I’ve seen companies translate negative feedback into loyal customers because the company was there, listening and acting. (Brands fearful of engaging in social media due to potential – inevitable, really – negative feedback should take note.)

Second, I felt troubled. Yes, I got my problem resolved. I was lucky that Seth was monitoring the brand on Twitter around the time I posted that tweet, but otherwise how much of the resolution was due to: a) my willingness and ability to communicate my concerns; b) the fact that I was spouting off on Twitter; and/or c) my alleged status as an influencer in this space? I will always be the consumer who is willing to take the time to stand up for my rights, but regarding b and c, though the social media world seems expansive to those of us in it, the reality is that it is not reflective of the majority. Not everyone has this platform from which to speak and I imagine that those who do take the time to stand up and fight (blogger or not) meet mixed results in resolution, and the rest end up eating unjust charges.

On Facebook, my friend Sarah aptly wrote that it’s “so much more efficient for [companies] to simply address the complaints from people who can be bothered to complain than to actually fix what's broken in their system.” And my friend Julie pointed out (in relating her dealings recovering funds lost by Bank of America) that, “People could cure cancer in the time it takes BOA to research money of yours they lost. But go late one hour on money you owe them, they seize your firstborn child.” I agree on both counts; I can't even begin to estimate the number of examples I have heard of big companies demonstrating that they clearly are business -- not consumer -- first, with inane practices that clearly seek to take advantage of the fact that most people are unwilling or unable to raise their voices for fair resolution.

So what's my point? I will keep on doing what I'm doing -- fighting back in the face of each bit of corporate absurdity I come across. But I'm also now pledging -- and I hope you will consider doing so as well -- to encourage friends and family to fight too; to even help write a letter or make a phone call for someone who doesn't know where to begin. Because as far as I can see, the only way we're ever going to get companies to fix their broken systems is to get so damned noisy with our complaints that it's inefficient to do otherwise.

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Finally, two additional bits of information:

1. For those in need of consumer advocacy resources, my friends Karen and Julie both referred me to Clark Howard’s website; I haven't had a chance to check it out in detail yet, but Julie and Karen noted that the site includes a support group, complaint letter templates, etc.

2. If you're an AT&T customer: until that useful pop up warning feature comes for exorbitant roaming charges...I asked AT&T for resources on how to handle usage during international travel. They passed along a link for their info hub for international travel as well as links for these four commonly asked questions.

Well Lookie Here

OK, so perhaps it's just freaky coincidental timing (and a testament to Jon's strongly worded letter), but a couple of hours after posting about our Blue Cross shenanigans, the phone rang, and Blue Cross showed up on the caller ID. Admittedly, I panicked for a second before picking up the phone. It felt a tad big brother.

The Blue Cross representative and I discussed the claim. I told her that we thought it was absurd that we were paying $1000+ a month in out-of-pocket premiums, never go to the doctor other than well visits, don't get prescriptions filled, etc., yet we were being denied flu shot coverage because the person who gave the shot was registered in another state. Even though we got the shot in the appropriate state.

She changed course and said that since we're under a managed care plan, we would have been covered if we got flu shots from our PCPs. I told her that when I called our PCPs they told us they didn't have any flu shots available for us and told us to go to a public flu clinic. (This absurdity is a whole other matter entirely.) We went back and forth for a few minutes. She said that next year we needed to go to our PCP to get covered, or to a limited care clinic such as CVS, which contracts with Blue Cross.

And then she told me she would make an exception and reimburse us for our flu shots.

Excuse me while I go pick my jaw up off the floor.

Why Blue Cross Can Suck It

Way back in October we experienced a remarkable level of craptastic service at our local drugstore’s flu clinic. Though Laurel and I waited in line for nearly an hour and a half with various representatives going up and down the line to hand out flu shot forms, it wasn’t until we got to the front of the line that we were told: 1. Blue Cross patients had to pay out of pocket and submit reimbursement forms. 2. They only took cash ($30 a shot). 3. They would not vaccinate children (apparently they didn’t find it necessary to pass this message down the line replete with children and their weary parents).

I was mildly annoyed that they wouldn’t take Blue Cross on the spot and it was blind luck that I happened to have gone to the bank that day and had a wad of cash on me. However, having spent the last 90 minutes assuaging Laurel’s fears about the shot, there was no way in hell I was leaving that clinic without getting them. It wasn’t my best or most graceful moment, but my mama fangs came out and I refused to leave until they gave me and Laurel shots. They did. The moms behind me in line were grateful.

Fast forward to January. It took us a while to get around to submitting our receipts and reimbursement forms and we just received word from Blue Cross that our flu shots ($90 for me, Jon, and Laurel) would not be covered. The excuse being that the person who administered the shots was registered in Rhode Island, not Massachusetts.

Even though we were, in fact, in Massachusetts when we got the shots.

WTF?

As Jon wrote in a strongly worded letter to Blue Cross MA, this is a disturbing example of uncoordinated, money-first health care. I should say that in general, Jon and I are non-interventionist when it comes to medical matters; I don’t think we even own aspirin. However, after much discussion, we decided to go ahead with the seasonal flu shot since our understanding is that they are clinically effective and cost-effective to the system (i.e., it would be a far greater financial burden if we didn’t get them then got the flu and needed to be treated), and also since Laurel is 5 and Jon is in contact with at-risk populations at work.

Since Jon and I now are both self-employed we pay Blue Cross MA more than $1,000 out-of-pocket every month in premiums, yet they feel the need to screw us out of $90 worth of care on a random technicality. (And as mentioned, we are the healthy, never-go-to-the-doctor-other-than-well-visit type of people that they’re making a pretty penny off of.) As Jon said, “At best, this seems like an example of a poorly designed or poorly executed system that cannot differentiate cost-effective from non-cost-effective care. At worst, it seems like simple greed. This is the kind of experience that leads members of your plans to feel alienated and mistrustful of your brand.”

Yes, well said. For us, it’s the principle of the matter, not the $90, but what also troubles me is that I can only imagine that there were a lot of other people in that line who followed the same procedures we did, and got screwed out of their reimbursements. And maybe that cash was really critical to them.

Growing up in a large family where we barely scraped by month to month, we never had health insurance. I didn’t even know that people got health insurance until I went to college and had to sign up. We only went to the drop in clinic when it was required for school forms and it is a miracle that with seven kids, the odds rolled so well in my parents’ favor -- the only major medical issues in all those years and across all those kids were my tonsillectomy and my brother’s broken leg. Given current regulations, not having health care is not an option, but at this point I’m longing for those fast and loose times.

Because at this point, apparently our $1,000+ premiums aren't buying us much.