AT&T Wireless Self-Destruction Largely Blamed On IT Strategy

CIO Magazine published an outstanding article called AT&T Wireless Self-Destructs. The article blames much of the recent bloodletting at AT&T Wireless on a streak of strategic Information Technology policy mistakes. It points to the botched upgrade of AT&T Wireless' Siebel customer relationship management system as the major reason that customers ended up defecting in droves. [ via Smartphone Thoughts ]

This is a great article, but it doesn't hit AT&T Wireless' senior management hard enough. The reason so many of their initiatives failed was because they consistently disregarded the interests of their customers and employees. As recently as 2002, AT&T Wireless won J.D. Power awards for customer service. I was their customer back then, and I knew that I paid a bit of a premium for service, but I always got help when I called or visited an AT&T Wireless store in Manhattan.

AT&T Wireless had a real mishmash of back end system, but they managed to keep running until just about the time when wireless number portability went into effect. These systems fell apart under the stress of mass customer migration, both on and off the AT&T Wireless system, in November 2003. Would that have happened if AT&T Wireless hadn't been trying to simultaneously:

  • migrated GSM customers through Siebel 6 to Siebel 7.5 while keeping TDMA customers on their legacy CRM system,
  • pushed to outsource many key aspects of the in-house IT operation,
  • confirmed layoff rumors eight days before wireless portability day,
  • chosen a different number change administration contractor than its five major competitors, and
  • changed GSM frequency strategies part of the way through a nationwide deployment?

I can't see why any company would segregate customers in separate CRM systems in the manner that AT&T Wireless chose to. If you are going to implement a new CRM system, you need to do a cut-over, not some sort of straddle which goes on indefinitely. I bet someone went to great lengths to say that the new CRM system shouldn't be bogged down with all sorts of legacy information for TDMA customers.

Having to use different systems to support different customers probably resulted in the loss of experienced customer support people. I'm sure some executives thought that was OK at the time. But, when customers started to defect prior to wireless number portability day, simply because they couldn't get help from AT&T Wireless in a timely manner, wouldn't you think that it would alarm some high level managers?

I keep wanting to find something successful or optimistic to say about AT&T Wireless, and I just can't. I feel bad for customers, employees, former employees, and shareholders, but management deserves an even stronger rebuke than they are receiving.