10 Dec 2008 9:00 am   //   Filed under: Technology

When it pays to make mistakes

So I recently switched my phone service to AT&T Wireless. I signed up online, to take advantage of a sweet company discount and to avoid having to talk to any cell phone salespeople.

I was also pleased that AT&T waived the activation fee:

Not! When my first billing statement arrive this week, it included a line item labeled “Activation Fee” and a charge of $36. Obviously a mistake. I called customer service and a polite customer service agent credited $36 to my account, effective immediately. As far as my self-interest is concerned, AT&T delivered on its promise and I have no reason to complain.

However, I bet this happens to every single person who signs up for AT&T Wireless using the corporate discount site I used. And I bet most of the customers in my situation just pay the $36.

Does this matter? Last year, AT&T Wireless signed up 9 million new customers. Suppose, for the sake of argument, 10% of them paid a $36 fee they weren’t supposed to pay. Under that scenario, fixing this bug in the billing system would cost AT&T $32 million a year.

Do you think they’re unaware of this?