- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sprint Nextel Corp., not too long ago an industry punching bag for cellphone frustration, has climbed from “worst to first,” according to a new customer satisfaction survey released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, callers appear to be losing faith with many other top carriers in the industry. After their proposed merger, AT&T slid to its worst score since the pre-iPhone age, and T-Mobile suffered a similar fate. Even Verizon Wireless, which tied with Sprint for the most satisfied customers, dipped for the second consecutive year.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index found similar declines across the information sector for cellphone manufacturers and traditional telephone service providers.

“Improving the customer experience has been Sprints No. 1 goal for three-plus years, so it is gratifying to be recognized by the highly respected American Customer Satisfaction Index for having the most satisfied customers in the wireless industry,” Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said in a statement.

The ACSI survey is a national economic indicator that measures customer satisfaction on a scale of 100. Satisfaction among all industries rose slightly to 75.6 in the first quarter of this year. But the wireless telephone sector dropped 1.4 percentage points to 71.

AT&T officials said they take customer surveys seriously, but also said their own internal data showed strong brand loyalty and lower rates of customers switching to rival carriers, or “churn.”

“We believe that churn, not surveys, are the best indicator of true customer satisfaction because it reflects the most important way people vote, namely, with their feet,” AT&T said in a statement Tuesday.

Just three years ago, Sprint trailed among the industry’s leading services with a score of 56. But the nation’s third-largest carrier has since improved 16 points to 72.

Sprint’s recent successes have been well-documented. The Overland Park, Kan.-based carrier was one of 40 companies recognized as a J.D. Power 2011 Customer Service Champion, and it was ranked No. 1 in call satisfaction in an April 2011 Vocalabs survey.

Sprint officials credit the improvements to its focus on first-call resolution. “When customers call up for help,” spokesman John Taylor explained, “they don’t want to be transferred, they don’t want to talk to anybody else. They want to make one call to get all their problems solved.”

Mr. Taylor also credited the company’s unlimited calling plans, along with a 30-day money-back guarantee policy. These offers helped the company add more than 1.1 million wireless subscribers in its first quarter results reported in April.

“We’re starting to turn things around,” Mr. Taylor said, “and we’re doing so by focusing on the customer.”

But the survey proved less satisfying for AT&T and T-Mobile, which both dropped 4 percent to 66 and 70, respectively. In March, the two companies announced a proposed $39 billion merger, and it appears customers don’t like the idea.

“It is common to find a reduction in customer satisfaction after mergers, but it is rare for customer satisfaction to drop ahead of a merger,” ACSI founder Claes Fornell said. “Assuming the deal is approved, it remains to be seen if a much larger AT&T can regain the strength of its customer relationships.”

Customer satisfaction with traditional fixed-line telephone service also fell 2.7 percent to 73, as companies devoted fewer resources to the shrinking industry and turned their focus toward the cellphone market. AT&T declined from 76 in this category to 71.

Smaller prepaid carriers, such as TracFone and U.S. Cellular, improved 1 percent to 77 to lead the cellphone category.

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