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updated 9/9/2008 12:52:06 AM ET 2008-09-09T04:52:06

Sprint Nextel Corp. is making a big push to help customers understand their phones, creating a formal program to make store employees available to explain their products and set them up for buyers.

The campaign to be announced Tuesday is the first official program for in-person help by a cell carrier, but is similar to moves in the wider consumer electronics industry to demystify gadgets through one-on-one contact.

Sprint closed all of its 1,219 stores on Sunday Aug. 17 to train its employees for the "Ready Now" program. The goal is that customers should leave stores with their phones "completely set up and personalized," said Kim Dixon, Sprint's senior vice president of stores.

Customers "have got these really great devices ... but they just don't know how to set it all up," Dixon said.

Employees will now set up e-mail access, move over contacts from an old phone, connect Bluetooth headsets and explain other functions.

Customers who don't have time for the 10-minute to half-hour sessions can make appointments for later visits. These free sessions will be available to existing subscribers as well, even if they aren't buying a new phone or accessory, Dixon said.

The company tested the system in St. Louis and Pittsburgh in July, and customer satisfaction improved so much that the company rushed it into a nationwide launch, she said.

"Not only will the customer be more satisfied, but as a business, we expect to reduce the number of returns," Dixon said. Over the holidays, as many as 20 percent of "smart" phones Sprint sold were returned because the customer didn't understand them.

Apart from reduced return rates, the company saw signs that the uptake of data services like e-mail and mobile Web access improved in the trial cities. As competition has cut into margins on the voice side, cell carriers are looking to data services as the new way to improve profits.

The program is reminiscent of the "Genius Bars" of Apple Inc.'s stores, where customers go to get help with their Macs and iPods. On Friday, Microsoft Corp. said it plans to deploy its own customer-service representatives, called "Gurus," at retailers like Best Buy Co. and Circuit City Stores Inc. to help people with their PC purchases, but they won't offer technical support to people who have already bought.

Best Buy Mobile has run campaigns called "Walk Out Working," under which store employees set up select gadgets for customers. It currently applies to smart phones.

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