Cingular Frustration Not a Singular Sensation

Opinion: Cingular customers are eager to tell their stories of data frustration. The problems may not be rampant, but they're certainly not isolated.

When recently reported some of the problems that Cingular has been having selling and supporting data after its merger with AT&T Wireless, some Cingular officials said it was not the typical experience of its data-buying customers.

Although that may be true, e-mail and postings from readers certainly suggests that the experiences we had and wrote about were certainly not—please forgive me—singular Cingular experiences.

The problems involve the newest and hottest smart phone—PalmOnes Treo 650. That piece of hardware is superb, but the data integration issues are complicated by Cingulars multiple data plans.

/zimages/2/28571.gifeWEEK Labs put the Treo 650 through its paces and liked what they saw. To read the review, click here.

This situation cuts across many areas. First, the telecom industry is at a crucial stage of its evolution. They are at roughly the same stage that cable empires were at about nine years ago, when cable modems started surfacing.

After a little rough sledding, cable companies were able to prove to be quite adept at handling data. Indeed, cable modems were the proverbial nails in the coffins of ISDN and they are still giving DSL variants a good fight. Not bad for companies that until then did little beyond offering modern-day equivalents of UHF channels.

I remember criss-crossing the country back in 96 for CommunicationsWeek (dearly departed) visiting the first group of corporate cable modem pioneers. In many respects, they were facing similar problems to what todays smart-phone pioneer customers are dealing with.

Todays telecom giants are also trying to bring data services into their voice environments. It could be argued that cable companies had a reverse psychological edge, in the sense that interactive data chores were more foreign to them than two-way communication is to todays telecoms. Therefore, the cable executives had no doubts that data projects required massive training and an entirely new way of doing business.

It might well be that telco execs believe that the similarities of selling and supporting data is similar enough to selling and supporting interactive voice to make radical structural changes unnecessary. If thats the case, I think initial user feedback will violently data burst their bubble.

There are related issues, too. This thinking must also permeate their e-commerce as well as their retail storefront thinking.

/zimages/2/28571.gifWith a growing sophistication of Web consumers, handling e-commerce site creation is going to get a lot more complicated. To read more, click here.

This weekend, I started calling and visiting various Cingular and PalmOne retail locations. While the PalmOne Treo 650 is a solid piece of hardware, problems have been reported on the data support side from Cingular. Yet the staff at Cingular retail locations, while extremely nice and helpful, had no knowledge of data services or the Treo line itself. In contrast, the people at the PalmOne locations were, in general, extremely knowledgeable.

The e-commerce component is that the Web is the first place prospects—as well as telco employees—turn for information on rates, services and technical issues. If those pages are not consistent, up-to-date, accurate, complete and self-explanatory, all sales and support operations are undercut from the start.

On the retail side, telcos must understand that selling data services—and data devices—is not like selling Princess telephones. Maybe it will be in nine years, but today it requires extensive training of all customer-facing personnel, especially those in sales. When cell phones started getting sophisticated voice mail, speed dialing and the like, it was a small step and could be handled with minimal training. Data is very different.

As for Cingulars position that lack of accurate sales communication is a small isolated concern that few customers run into, Cheri Harmon-Klein, a sales executive with Global Infrastructure Services in Houston, begs to differ.

Next Page: Customers weigh in on "isolated" Cingular issues.