Disclaimer: I worked at Cingular/AT&T for about 9 years as a designer in the mobile marketing organization, but never for what we termed the "dot com group." In many ways it's both disappointing and unsurprising that this is the user experience.
A few weeks ago it was determined that 2 members of my family were eligible for phone upgrades. Since I'm the CTO for this unit, it was my job to do the research and figure out the best path forward for the upgrades. The best time for me to do this was later in the evening after work and dinner. I logged into my account and followed the semi-clear path to find out my upgrade options. In the "I want to..." drop down, I select "Manage my plan > Check upgrade eligibility."
Once there I see my phones and there is an blue tab in the bottom corner that says: Chat Available. I want to ask a few questions, and I click the tab to talk (chat) with a customer service rep. I click "Wireless," then "Billing, Usage, Plans, and features." in the following choices.
When the tab opens I'm presented with a list of options and one more stage of workflow to theoretically refine my choices so that the CSR can more quickly and efficiently aid me in answering my questions. Standard stuff.
Does this continue the workflow and open the chat window (which I have successfully used before)? No it does not, instead I'm presented with the following screen:
Confusing right? Um, I haven't made an order yet. Plus the number doesn't help, it just sends me up a tree of automated choices that don't answer my questions.
If chat wasn't available then don't present it as an option. How about the tab says: Chat Offline, and if anyone clicks on it, it opens to show the hours when live chat is available, and/or when the phone center is active. That would be an acceptable experience! Zappos does this and it's fine, and it works.
The experience at AT&T is one of my personal UX pet peeves and the overarching moral of the story: Workflow. Don't make customers do workflow without payoff, it is a cul-de-sac of tears and frustration. Plus I will write about it and offer up a sarcastic tweet or two, trust me, nobody wants that!
In conclusion: If your help is offline declare it, tell the users when it's available or offer links to self-serve that actually work. Don't make me do workflow when I don't have to, and make sure workflow has a result. Please.
Thanks for reading!