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AT&T customer suggests improvements, gets nasty lawyer letter

Technically Incorrect: AT&T's CEO apologizes after a customer tried to offer useful suggestions and was told impolitely to get lost.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Protecting itself first, apparently. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

I've never entirely understood lawyers, even though a couple of my closest friends make money that way.

There doesn't often seem a point at which they stop and ask themselves, "Is this the wisest, most sensible thing I could be saying right now?"

The thought bounces beneath the remains of my hair after I read a marvelous(ly painful) story from the Los Angeles Times' David Lazarus.

He was contacted by an AT&T customer who wasn't terribly happy. He may not be unique in that feeling. However, his grievance was profound.

Alfred Valrie of El Sereno, California, had written to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson to suggest improvements to its service. That very act can be one of faith untainted by experience.

However, Valrie offered that the company might think about unlimited data for DSL users, especially in areas where there's no U-verse. He also suggested bringing back "text messaging plans like 1,000 Messages for $10 or creat[ing] a new plan like 500 Messages for $7."

He signed his e-mail: "Your lifelong customer, Alfred Valrie."

What was the worst that could happen? Maybe AT&T would say, "Nice ideas, but they'd cost us money." Or perhaps, "We'll get back to you (as soon as we've stopped laughing)."

Instead, Valrie received a letter from an AT&T lawyer. It wasn't a terribly nice letter.

This is odd, given that in his e-mail Valrie made clear that here was no need for Stephenson to reply. Still, he received a letter from Thomas A. Restaino, AT&T's chief intellectual property counsel.

"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," the letter read. "Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion."

Respectfully, that may seem to some like one of the less thoughtful letters ever written by a presumably educated lawyer. Valrie had merely offered simple suggestions.

AT&T is in the service business. At least officially. How could it even contemplate such a missive?

Now, as the LA Times further reports, the company has admitted that its service blows. I'm sorry, I don't have that quite right. In fact, Stephenson wrote to Valrie and said: "We blew it, plain and simple -- and it's something I've already corrected."

AT&T wasn't immediately available for comment as to how it had corrected its lawyerly ways. But in a statement to the LA Times, Stephenson conceded that his company dropped the ball in its handling of Valrie's suggestions.

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

There are times when all companies have individuals who make mistakes and treat customers poorly. But this particular e-mail was sent to the CEO himself. Wouldn't that mean it would at least have received careful treatment?

A clue to AT&T's behavior came from a company spokeswoman who told the LA Times that customers sometimes offer ideas and then try to sue the company claiming their ideas has been appropriated.

"That's why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic," she said. "It's so we can protect ourselves."

That quote is a revelation in itself. AT&T gives the impression that it thinks about itself first, not its customers. It doesn't seem to bother to consider whether a lifelong customer is just being pleasant and helpful. Such people do occasionally exist.

Perhaps Stephenson might offer Valrie a job as his personal customer service attaché.

He might be able to help. He'd surely care.