March 2, 2005

Should Cingular Put Data on Hold?

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

Opinion: The environment was ripe and ready for Cingular to start selling data services, but was it ready? An columnist's experience raises doubts.

On paper, it certainly must have looked like a "can't lose" situation. Two major industry events happened and they both pointed to an obvious move: Cingular should be aggressively pushing data.

Just about one year ago, Cingular announced that it would be buying AT&T Wireless for $41 billion, creating the nation's largest cell phone operation. Last year also saw PalmOne faring well with its Treo line of cell phone/PDA hybrids.

When PalmOne introduced its Treo 650, many companies and consumers who had avoided the hybrids started taking them seriously. Reviewers signaled that, while certainly having its flaws, the Treo 650 might be the device that truly opens the hybrid space.

In February, Cingular started selling and supporting the Treo 650. At least that was its intent.

Even one on-the-record Cingular official now admits that the sales force, tech support and Web operations were not ready to handle the launch, resulting in a lot of frustrated customers and lost opportunities.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I am one of those frustrated customers. I say frustrated because the Treo 650 is a marvelous piece of technology and Cingular's data services are actually quite strong. But Cingular has placed so many roadblocks to buying and deploying these units that frustration is the kindest feeling I can describe.

The fact that Cingular has such a strong data technical team makes the shortfalls in customer service and sales that much more infuriating.

Cingular Media Relations Director Ritch Blasi pulled no punches when he sat down to explain the company's problems with integrating AT&T Wireless and Cingular. Those problems include sales reps who had no idea what the company's different data plans included, a Web site that didn't mention most data plans and referenced others in a confusing or misleading fashion, and support that also didn't understand data options and couldn't get customers to someone who did understand the data operations.

Saying he was prepared "to eat crow" regarding our experience, Blasi painted a picture of what Cingular operations were like at the time the company decided to roll out support for the Treo 650. He added that he didn't think our experience was typical.

"The business was in the fourth or fifth month of integrating its back office operations" with AT&T Wireless' back office operations, Blasi said. "We need to do a better job of training to give our sales reps more information." He added that "the Web site is the other area that we are needing to go through and redo."

Cingular does have a training program, of course, but one customer service rep--who asked that his name not be used--complained that it is insufficient.

"We have been beating our heads on our desk trying to help customers out with these Treo 650s. The best that Cingular can do as far as training is give us a online course, which we have to complete inbetween calls," he said.

The company integration was substantial, given that both the AT&T and Cingular sides had roughly the same number of customers (about 22 million to 23 million each). "You had two different organizations and two different sets of service plans," he said. "We need to come up with a consolidated data plan."

Today, for example, Cingular offers three data plans identified as "unlimited." The Web site only lists one of those near the Treo listing, and it's a $79.99 plan. Not only is that plan the most expensive, but it's not even the plan that works with the Treo.

A call to customer service to order the plan left the rep baffled because her screen didn't show that plan at all. But it did show a $39.99 unlimited plan that seems to be for PDAs. That's getting closer, but the $39.99 plan is only for the BlackBerry and is not the Treo plan. However, nowhere on the customer service rep's screen did it say that. The Web site doesn't mention it at all.

It turns out the Treo content plan is a $24.99 unlimited data plan. Again, there is no centralized place that compares the plans and indicates what they are for.

No fewer than three customer service reps tried to sell me (and when I let my guard down, one did) several different text messaging plans so that I could integrate AOL Instant Messenger, an favorite app. But AIM uses its only client software, and there's no need to pay extra for that.

AOL hasn't released the client app for the Treo 650 yet, but that's another story. I can't criticize AOL too much as PalmOne has been shipping the Treo 650 for months and has yet to ship the cradle that is talked about on the PalmOne Web site.

Speaking of PalmOne, I initially tried purchasing the Treo 650 from the PalmOne Web site, which was heavily promoting its new version for Cingular. Calling the toll-free number, a hold recording said that orders for the Treo 650 for Cingular must be completed on the Web site and not on the phone.

OK, I thought. So I worked through the forms and I told the site that I wanted to keep my cell phone number. It aborted the order. Turns out that it's tricky and the site isn't set up to handle it. And yet, customer service at PalmOne is under orders to let it go through the site. After a few rounds of this Catch-22 fun, I resigned myself to buying the hardware from Cingular.

When I finally get through to Cingular sales, the voice portion of the order went through smoothly, not surprising for a company that is at its heart a telco. And that's the point. When the Treo consolidated voice and data into one unit, it forced the sales and support teams to do the same.

When I tried ordering the data and—heaven forbid—asking some questions, everything fell apart. There was lots of hold time, while reps talked with their supervisors. It's OK that they didn't know this stuff, but they had no one to transfer me to.

After several calls and lots of supervisors and hours of hold music, I eventually gave up and figured that I should just buy anything and that I'd clean it all up with customer service when the phone arrived.

The phone arrived, and it was as wonderful as the demo unit I had studied weeks earlier. Given all the high-tech powers of this marvel, it's noteworthy that the most impressive feature is the ability to turn off the audio instantly by sliding a switch atop the unit. The beautiful simplicity and downright elegance of that switch must have seen a lot of resistance from the PalmOne programmers, but it's close to a work of art functionality- and efficiency-wise.

It worked fabulously as a PDA, and then I decided to configure the data services. It immediately asked for a data password, which, of course, I didn't have. I was therefore forced to call tech support.

Tech support delivered the needed password, and soon Web access materialized. Web access on the Treo 650 is great fun as long as you limit yourself to those few sites that are optimized for the Treo's Lilliputian screen. The download speed is indeed fast, but that's of little comfort when looking at a tiny corner of your favorite Web site (, of course!).

But data completion wasn't getting anywhere with tech support. After several more holds and supervisor conversations, a rep said that there was a data group, but that its hold times were especially long. I thought little of that, but when one hold session topped 72 minutes, I was impressed.

My favorite part was when two different reps insisted that the data group had no outside dialable phone number for the public, so the only way to get there was to dial into regular tech support, wait on hold, get a rep, explain the situation, ask to be transferred and then wait on hold for an even longer time.

When I did reach the data people, they were indeed quite helpful. They did scare me, though, when they mentioned that there is a known major flaw within the Treo 650 sync software but that it was a PalmOne problem and that PalmOne isn't doing much about it. Such news just makes my head spin worse.

Having been told some of my tale of woe, one data person kindly gave a toll-free number to get the data group directly, and a backup number, just in case. When I tried those numbers later that day, a recorded message said that those toll-free numbers wouldn't work from my area code. *sigh*

When Blasi was asked about this, he said that Treo questions are supposed to be handled by the business customer care group. When I told him that no rep had ever suggested talking with that group, it was his turn to sigh. (For the record, that number is 1-888-DATA-288, if that helps you avoid the same nightmare.)

There were other disconnects about the phone, its sales and support, but these were the key ones.

It truly is a shame because the Treo 650 is a wonderful device and Cingular's version of it is wonderfully designed and deployed. I guess Cingular wants to make sure that not anyone is permitted to simply buy one.

To paraphrase the late John Houseman's classic commercial line for Smith Barney, "Cingular customers don't just buy a Treo 650. They earn it."