Another Case of Wasting $$ and Angering Your Customer


How many trees did your iPhone bill kill? –

As with my petty hotel complaints, here's another example of a company doing “too much” (the waste of overprocessing). This time it's AT&T (I'm sorry, they like to be the friendlier new at&t). And it's not my complaint, it was in the news.

I have an at&t cell phone (not an iPhone) and my bill details every tiny example of data usage and messaging (photo at left, click for bigger image). I don't text message, but I use the phone's internet to check my Yahoo Mail via its browser, so every data exchange detail is listed on the bill. Maybe unnecessary, since it's flat fee pricing and I don't care to reconcile all of that (ex: “I didn't use those 35 kb of data transfer last Tuesday!”).

That phone's bill, if you were to print it, is 11 pages. I set my account up for “e-Billing” so I don't get the bill in the mail (although I do have to print the WHOLE thing for corporate expense purposes, which is a different type of waste and a different topic – submitting paper receipts seems so 20th century). Maybe it's cheaper to let at&t print the bill (on their huge printers compared to my inkjet), but then there's the waste of shipping that paper (and please, nobody bring up “carbon offsets”). Ideally, my work expense report processing people could view my phone bill electronically (or just trust that I'm submitting the right amount).

Anyway, back to the USA Today story. With the new Apple iPhone, it's a data intensive device (“the internet, on your phone” as the ads say). The at&t billing department decided, with iPhone:

  1. We must detail all of the data usage detail
  2. We must, by default, send a paper bill to the customers

I guess they didn't “decide,” they just kept their old practices in place. You have to “opt in” to e-billing. I guess many customers didn't realize this, and one customer made a YouTube video about her 300 page bill. A bill that was shipped IN A BOX! You can watch that video if you want, below.

This reminded me of our discussion about overprocessing and hotel housekeeping. This article states the same point I had made, that sometimes saving costs and keeping your customer happy are aligned, rather than being a tradeoff:

Rob Enderle, an independent analyst at the Enderle Group, calls the finely detailed bills “stupid.”

Not only does it cost AT&T more to do this, it just upsets customers. It's bad business,” he says.

It's too bad that e-Billing can't be a default, considering you could view the bill on your iPhone!

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I may be dating myself, but I remember the early Saturday Night Live bit with Lilly Tomlin as The Phone Lady. The tag line was “we don’t care, we don’t have to…we’re the phone company.” We broke them up and hated the results, let them get together again and we still hate the results. The bills are the way they are because of customers who complained about transparency. Too many people complained they never called certain numbers they were charge for, so AT&T itemized every charge to prove the usage. Who is at the root of this problem — the phone company or the customers?

  2. It says so much about AT&T’s lack of customer focus that their spokesman blamed customers for the problem – they should know to select the option they wanted from those we give them. Then there was some crazy suggestions, by a consultant I think, that the customers didn’t know what they were talking about this was good for AT&T because it reduced customer support calls (all those people wanting to know the name of some image file they viewed at 1:33.22 on July 22nd – what?). This is from my memory of Marketplace last night.

    To think AT&T had Deming, Shewhart… working for them, to say nothing of Bell Labs and now they can’t even admit they are extremely lame when they clearly are.

    Trying to defend this puts you in the manager class of the pointy haired boss.

    Related: Ackoff and Bell LabsiPhone and AT&T is bad newsHow to manage by listening to customers

  3. I wonder if..

    1)The AT&T product manager for iPhone identified this as a potential problem and tried to get the default changed, but couldn’t get it through the organization, or

    2)No one at AT&T thought about this problem up front

    In either case, the next test will be how long it takes them to fix it.

  4. Too funny… I admit I use at&t as well and the bills contain more glossy printed marketing garbage then the actual bill itself.

    What gets me is not the itemized bill but those whacky taxes and other regulatory fees which are _never_ the same any given month.



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