Image: cell phone users
Lucas Jackson  /  Reuters file
J.D. Power and Associates surveyed more than 7,000 cell customers and found dissatisfaction by many when it came to their experiences in wireless retail stores.
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msnbc.com
updated 5/22/2008 9:08:49 PM ET 2008-05-23T01:08:49

A friend of mine was in a wireless retail store recently, and wanted to buy a smartphone. In an unusual move, the sales rep tried to dissuade her, saying my pal didn’t need Internet and e-mail service. She disagreed, left, and returned later to buy the smartphone she had eyed.

Sometimes the experience is the reverse — customers get a phone that's way more complicated or expensive than they really want. Either way, “overall customer satisfaction with the wireless retail sales experience has reached its lowest level since 2005,” according to a recent report from J.D. Power and Associates.

Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power, said the company’s findings are based on experiences reported by 7,154 wireless customers who completed a wireless retail sales transaction in the months of January 2008 and September 2007.

Scores declined in four areas that J.D. Power says drive overall wireless retail sales satisfaction. Ranked by importance, they are: sales staff (51 percent), store display (17 percent), store facility (16 percent) and price/promotion (16 percent).

Among the issues, Parsons said: customer confusion over products, plans and billing.

Part of the problem, he said, may be because of the growing number of phones and monthly plans that are more complex, with a variety of features such as Internet, e-mail, GPS, music and TV available, along with sales representatives who are not providing enough information for consumers to make sound decisions.

“There’s more services being offered through the phone, additional data plans, and just the fact of what you can do on the phone has changed over time,” Parsons said.

“Consumers are looking for that neutral voice that says, ‘Here are the plans that are available. Let’s talk about what your needs are, and direct those needs toward a plan that will mostly match your needs.’  ”

Customers, he said, “are not getting the right information, or if they’re getting the information, it’s not intuitive enough or detailed enough for them to make an educated decision about the products” and services.

T-Mobile had the highest ranking for wireless retail sales satisfaction in the J.D. Power survey, with 716 out of 1,000 points, followed by Alltel (714), Verizon Wireless (706), AT&T (693) and Sprint Nextel (654).

J.D. Power said that overall, the score declined to an average of 699 points on a 1,000-point scale, “down 10 points from the last reporting period (October, 2007) and down 17 points since May, 2007.”

Changes in the wireless industry, including “an increase in the number of new products and services, have made it difficult for carriers to maintain the same level of customer satisfaction since the inaugural study in 2004,” Parsons said in a statement about the survey.

Improvements coming
Wireless representatives contacted for this story all said that improvements are in the works to make phone shopping better and easier.

Sprint Nextel has been losing customers at a ferocious clip, more than 1 million subscribers last year, and about 1 million in the first quarter of this year. Poor service has been among the company’s problems.

“We are proud of the various customer-friendly initiatives we’ve launched” in the last few months to “improve the customer’s experience in our retail stores,” said Roni Singleton, public relations manager for Sprint Nextel, in an e-mail interview.

Among the improvements Singleton cited: In-store service and repair “to reduce the need to send phones out for repair, as well as decrease the wait time for customers,” “tools that better enable our retail store employees to ensure new customers understand the features of their device and how they will be billed right at the point-of-sale,” and “a designated host to assist customers as they enter the store, and a virtual cue that lets customers browse and shop while waiting for a sales representative.”

“We firmly believe that our investments are paying off as our customers are telling us they are seeing improvements,” Singleton said.

AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel said J.D. Power’s findings are in contrast to what the company hears from its customers.

“We’ve made these retail environments more inviting than ever, so that customers can really experience the technology,” he said.

“When they get their bill with what they buy, and it includes service, they get what we call a service summary. That explains exactly what they’re buying in detail, and even estimates what their first month’s bill will be. We try to make it crystal clear.”

Siegel said AT&T prides itself “on having the most able, competent and knowledgeable sales force in the wireless industry.

“These folks undergo training all the time,” he said. “They’re constantly updated on the latest products and services, taught how to sell it, how to discuss it with customers.”

To further help customers understand a phone’s features, he said, AT&T will start using Microsoft’s Surface touchscreen computer in its stores. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

“You can actually put your phone onto what looks like a tabletop, and then you can see what features it has, what applications, and what you can add to it,” Siegel said. “As we roll that out, it’s going to make buying even better.”

Making it a simpler experience
Verizon Wireless spokesman Thomas Pica said, “There are lots of surveys out there and they say lots of different things. Our customers have been the most loyal in the industry for 14 straight quarters. The wireless industry measures loyalty by looking at churn, or turnover, rates, and we have had the lowest churn rate in the industry for 14 straight quarters.

“That said, we’re aware the products and services are becoming more sophisticated and more complex, and that’s something that we need to help customers with. It’s something we’re working on all the time. We recognize that customers want service to be simpler and easier.

“We’re doing some things in our billing systems, our products, the tools we use to serve customers to make it a simpler experience.”

Among them, by the end of the year, Pica said, more than 280 of the company’s 1,400 stores will have a “greeter kiosk system” that will make the cell phone shopping experience “much simpler and more attractive.”

“When a customer walks in the store, and if there’s any kind of wait at all, they enter their information at the kiosk, so they don’t have to wait in a line, and they’re called when their turn comes,” he said.

“And while they’re waiting, they will have demo bars, where they can go look and see what’s new to learn about products and services they might be interested in.”

Verizon Wireless, he said, has “a very intense feedback system with our customers, and we really look at any issues they have.

"We’ve got a pretty good internal mechanism in place, so when there are issues, we look at them and resolve them as quickly as possible. We not only want our customers to stay with us, we want them to be promoters of Verizon Wireless to their friends, relatives and colleagues.”

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