Should Cingular Put Data on Hold?

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 "cant 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 nations 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.

/zimages/7/28571.gifTechnology integration is never easy, especially with new implementations such as the Treo 650. Circuit Citys CIO discovered that fact and has been trying to come up with the next big thing. To read more, click here.

I cant 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 Cingulars 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 companys problems with integrating AT&T Wireless and Cingular. Those problems include sales reps who had no idea what the companys different data plans included, a Web site that didnt mention most data plans and referenced others in a confusing or misleading fashion, and support that also didnt understand data options and couldnt 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 didnt think our experience was typical.

/zimages/7/28571.gifWith aggressive Web sales of consumer electronic products such as the Treo 650, some electronics retailers are having to get creative. Tweeters CIO wants to take customer service to the next level. To read about his plans, click here.

"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 its a $79.99 plan. Not only is that plan the most expensive, but its not even the plan that works with the Treo.

Next Page: Trying to buy the Treo 650: Cingulars version of Alice in Wonderland.