AT&T to 'lifelong customer:' Shut up & talk to the lawyers

Send a thoughtful suggestion to AT&T's chief exec, and what do you get? A letter from the company's lawyers suggesting that you quietly go away.

shhhhh quiet mouth lips
Credit: Thinkstock

You don't need an MBA to know that in business, few things are more important than listening to your customers. So it's surprising that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who earned an MBA from the University of Oklahoma, told a customer that AT&T isn't at all interested in his suggestions. Ever. In fact, if you send Stephenson an unsolicited suggestion, you'll get a similar response from his lawyers.

Randall Stephenson, AT&T Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson

Sounds crazy, but it's true.

Tell it to the attorneys

Alfred Valrie, a resident of the Southern California town of El Sereno, had a couple of good ideas he thought he'd share with AT&T. A self-described lifelong AT&T customer, Valrie dropped a note to Stephenson:

"Hi. I have two suggestions. Please do not contact me in regards to these. These are suggestions. Allow unlimited data for DSL customers, particularly those in neighborhoods not serviced by U-verse. Bring back text messaging plans like 1,000 Messages for $10 or create a new plan like 500 Messages for $7."

You'd think an executive would be pleased as punch to get such a civilized note from a customer. Not Stephenson.

He referred Valrie's email to AT&T's legal department, which, according to a column in The Los Angeles Times, sent a response that read like this:

"AT&T has a policy of not entertaining unsolicited offers to adopt, analyze, develop, license or purchase third-party intellectual property ... from members of the general public. Therefore, we respectfully decline to consider your suggestion."

The letter was signed by Thomas A. Restaino, AT&T's chief intellectual property counsel. When LA Times columnist David Lazarus asked AT&T why it won't listen to customers, he got the following response:

"In the past, we've had customers send us unsolicited ideas and then later threaten to take legal action, claiming we stole their ideas," she explained. "That's why our responses have been a bit formal and legalistic. It's so we can protect ourselves."

T-Mo blasts AT&T

That is, of course, mind boggling.

john legere

T-Mobile CEO John Legere

When word of AT&T's behavior got out, T-Mobile's hyper-combative CEO John Legere jumped into the act. Legere had his team create an email address,, that collects ideas for AT&T services and sends the best ones on to Stephenson. The Twitter hashtag #IdeasforRandall is also being used to harvest ideas.

"It absolutely amazes me that Randall would tell a lifelong customer to basically go away and talk to my lawyers," Legere said in a statement. "I interact with customers on a daily basis so I can hear their ideas firsthand. It's called living in the 21st century."

I sometimes find Legere to be a bit ... bumptious. But this time he's right. As for Stephenson, I think he should have to forfeit that MBA.

This story, "AT&T to 'lifelong customer:' Shut up & talk to the lawyers" was originally published by CIO.

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