In the world of customer demographics, I am, for the most part, a marketer’s dream come true. I’m a single, middle-class male, age 25-40, with disposable income (theoretically), and a love of the newest and greatest products. I have a significant online social presence and talk about the things I like a lot.  I am fiercely loyal to the brands that I feel take care of me. I’m not a crazy bargain hunter, I don’t try to squeeze the most out of every transaction I can, and I treat those who wait on me with respect. In short, I am the kind of customer that almost every single company wants to have.

There’s an old marketing adage that states, “It is always easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer than it is to gain a new one.” This is especially true in the world ruled by social media, because capturing the attention of a customer from amidst the incessant clamor of online reviews, targeted advertising, group deals sites, etc., is a daunting process.  Moreover, when you do something well, your success is trumpeted across the interwebs for people to see.  If you screw up, your story also gets spread all over creation. Simply type either “good customer service” or “bad customer service” into Google, and see what shows up.

This blog post offers examples of both good and bad service that I experienced over the last few months.  It shows how one company really screwed the pooch when it came to customer service, and how another did it right. My little blog forum may not be the most trafficked spot on the web, but I want to reward the company that did well, and do a little public shaming of the company that did not.

*****

On September 20, 2011, the Samsung Epic Touch 4G was released on Sprint.  This was to be the latest and greatest Android phone released for the holiday season.  It was a top-of-the-line product.  My phone at the time, the original Motorola Droid on Verizon, had fallen out of contract, and was in pretty rough shape.  I needed to replace it.  I had been with Verizon for several years, and had liked my experience.  Their customer service had always been good.  But, they didn’t have any great phones, and they had just gotten rid of their unlimited data plans, so I decided I would switch over to Sprint.

My experience with Sprint was not a smooth one.  I was told by the sales rep that I was eligible for a 20% discount on the monthly plan when I went to go in and look at the phone on the day of its release. However, when I went back the next day to actually purchase the phone, I was put onto the full-priced plan. After I got my first bill, I went back to the store to complain, and I was told that I did not, in fact, qualify for the discounted plan, but the sales person who had set up my account hadn’t bothered to tell me that.  I was a little put out, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.  After all, it was something meager–$10 a month.  Not a big deal.

Other than that little snafu, however, I loved the phone.  It was fast, the screen was beautiful, it was lightweight, and it did everything I needed it to.  I had a little issue with the GPS, and the camera certainly wasn’t best-in-class, but I’m used to products not doing everything perfectly.  (Like my old iPhone not making calls…) I talked about my phone to anyone who would listen, and as a direct result of that word of mouth discussion, two of my co-workers actually bought the exact same phone.  Moreover, both of them switched providers in order to do so. If there was any justice in the world, Sprint should have been paying me commission on their accounts.

Only a few days after the phone’s 5-month birthday, I unplugged the phone after charging overnight, and it began to flip out. It kept acting as though I was plugging in the USB cable and trying to connect it to my computer, even though it wasn’t plugged in.  I couldn’t even power down the phone without removing the battery. As soon as I replaced the battery, the phone would resume it’s freak-out activities.  I took it to the Sprint Store.  The tech cleaned it, replaced the battery, and sent me on my way.  I took it home and plugged it back in to charge.  A few hours later, when I unplugged it again, the phone began to behave in the same way, so I returned to the store once again.

I will continue the story by quoting a letter I wrote to Sprint’s customer support department, italicized for emphasis:

When I arrived at the store and they evaluated my phone, I was told that my phone had corrosion on the charging port and motherboard and that, “the only way this kind of corrosion can happen is if the phone had come into contact with water.” I explained that the phone had never been in contact with water. In fact, in the 15 years I’ve owned cell phones, none have ever been water damaged. The representative said that, perhaps it was due to high humidity…and I pointed out that we lived in Seattle, where it rains constantly. The rep even admitted that when they had taken the phone apart, there hadn’t been any sign of water damage, just the corrosion. Even the water sensor spot hadn’t been triggered. Even my charging cables were free of the corrosion. It was just the micro USB port.

Eventually, the representative explained that only option open to me was to buy a new phone…that my phone couldn’t even be shipped somewhere for repair at my expense because the damage was so severe. She even suggested that I sell it on eBay without disclosing the problem, which I found to be more than a little loathsome. I had purchased the phone five months earlier–it should have been under the hardware warrantee. There is no way for me to prove that the phone had not been water damaged. (You can’t prove a negative.) In researching online, this appears to be a known issue with the Epic Touch 4G. See http://androidforums.com/samsung-epic-4g-touch/503449-phone-thinks-its-plugged-when-its-not.html and http://forums.androidcentral.com/sprint-galaxy-s-ii-epic-4g-touch/152858-corrosion-charging-port.html.

I ended up purchasing a brand new version of the same phone out of necessity, but I was quite upset by the entire experience. I had previously been a Sprint customer in 2003-2004. I had such a bad experience with customer service at that time, that I cancelled my account and refused to pay the early termination fee because I had been blatantly lied to by a customer service rep—a lie which ended up costing me nearly $400. It took until 2011 for me to come back to the company, and I did it specifically for this phone. If the Galaxy S II had been on Verizon, I would have stayed with them. To have another poor experience within mere months of switching providers does not bide well for my long-term relationship with Sprint…

I find it unfortunate that responsible adults are being treated as though they are guilty until proven innocent. My phone wasn’t water damaged. Aside from one small scratch on the upper-right hand corner of the screen, it was still in perfect shape. (In fact, the repair tech actually scratched the screen trying to open the phone.) I simply wish to be treated like a valued customer and not as a devious charlatan trying to get someone else to pay for my mistakes. If I had gotten the phone wet, I wouldn’t have even bothered asking to have it repaired. I simply would have bought a new one. But this was a design flaw or hardware flaw with the device. This could not have been caused by my actions, and I feel as though it would have been only appropriate for Sprint to have taken responsibility for the shortcoming in this particular phone.

That’s right. I was not only forced to spend $500 on a brand new phone to replace one less than six months old that had a factory defect, but I was actually encouraged by the saleswoman at Sprint to sell my old phone on eBay without telling anyone about the problem.  (She must have gotten her training from the Bank of America School of Customer Service.)  I walked out of Sprint with my new phone, and a very bad taste in my mouth. When my contract is up in 18 months, I will be leaving Sprint again, and this time, for good.  As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”  After my initial horrible experience with a lying Sprint Customer Service Rep, I should have known better never to go back. Now I do.

For the record, I sent the letter (actually printed, signed, stamped, and mailed) to Sprint Customer Service over two weeks ago, and have yet to hear back from them. It is my hope that they will take responsibility both for the defective device and the devious nature of their sales people, and do something to make this situation better.  I’m honestly not holding my breath, but if they do, then that will go a long way toward keeping me as a customer when my contract is up. It sure seems like it would be cheaper to do that than to spend tens of millions of dollars producing and airing expensive commercials starring Sprint CEO Dan Hess. It is, after all, easier to keep your existing customers than find new ones.

*****

On the opposite end of the spectrum from my experience with Sprint was my experience with a small company called Waterfi.

Back in June, I started swimming again for exercise.  I love to swim, but I’ve always had a difficult time with keeping myself entertained while swimming.  Swimming laps can be boring, so I purchased an awesome device from Waterfi, an iPod Shuffle that had been taken apart, waterproofed, and put back together. I could clip the ipod on my goggle strap, put in some waterproof headphones, and listen to audiobooks or podcasts while I swam. It was awesome. I even glowed about the product on my blog here: http://www.mattarmstrong.net/wordpress/2011/07/21/i-want-to-pumpme-up/.

When I ordered the iPod, I ordered an entire package which included the device, headphones, and some velcro straps for cable management.  The package arrived, but only contained the device, and was missing everything else. So, I emailed the company, and within minutes, I received a response with an apology, and a promise that they would overnight the remainder of the items in my order.  Excellent service.

The warrantee on this device is only 30 days, which is understandable. Taking an electronic device underwater can be a little risky. They figure that if something going to go wrong, it will happen pretty early on.  I used the iPod for months and months without a single problem.  Again, much like with my phone, I glowed about this product to anyone who would listen. As a direct result of my word of mouth, I know three people who have purchased the device, and two more that have it on their wishlist.

In December, I had my iPod clipped to the pocket of my jeans at work.  I stood up and started to walk about of my office, but as I passed through the door, I lost my balance, and ran into the door jamb.  My iPod got caught on the jamb, and the device got “guillotined.” The clip on the back (which makes up the back panel of the device) got bent, and the waterproofing was ruined instantly.  I was not pleased. 

Knowing that this was entirely my fault, and that the device was out of warrantee, I contacted Waterfi to ask about the cost of repair, if repair was even possible.  If not, I was planning on purchasing a brand new iPod. I liked the product, and I was willing to take responsibility for my own clumsiness.  Again, I got a response in mere minutes.  “Sure,” said the reply, “Send it in. The repair will be less than $20, if there’s any cost at all.”  Encouraged, I threw my device into a padded envelope, and sent it off.

A couple of weeks later, I had a package from Waterfi in my mailbox.  “Huh,” I thought. “They must not have needed to charge my anything for the repair.”  When I opened the envelope, however, I was flabbergasted. They hadn’t repaired my device, they had replaced it with a new one.

Now, let me do a compare and contrast here.

  Sprint Water-fi
Problem Device Manufacturing Flaw Clumsy Oaf
Caused by Samsung Me
Cost to Fix Wouldn’t Even Attempt $20 Max
Company Response Tough Titties. It’s your problem now. Why don’t you try to sell it on eBay? Here, let us give you a new one—it’s just easier than trying to fix the old one.
Cost to me $529 Postage to ship a padded envelope
Benefit to Company Lost a customer. This time for good. A ton of word of mouth, customer loyalty, and I know what to get people for upcoming birthdays…

 

I know I’m not alone.  Everyone has both good and bad customer service experiences. And, having been burned by Sprint before, I should not have been surprised that it happened again five months into my new contract.  (I should never have switched in the first place.) Sprint, you should know better. You should expect better.  As the smallest of the “major” cell carriers in the US, you should be doing everything in your power to gain and keep customers.  You can’t afford to provide such terrible service. Up until this fall, your devices have been woefully behind those of your competitors. You finally got the iPhone, years after everyone else, and a good Android phone, and then you pull this stunt. It’s pretty astonishing when I can honestly say that I had better customer service from AT&T…and they’re terrible.

And to any other companies out there who may stumble across my little blog rant: learn the lesson. I’m a reasonable customer. I don’t make a lot of demands, or expect a lot for nothing. I just want to be treated with respect. I want you to own up to the mistakes made in your manufacturing chain, or your customer service personnel. If they make a mistake, it’s your job as a business, to take responsibility for that. Even when it’s not your responsibility, sometime a little extra effort engenders an insane amount of goodwill.  Going out of your way just a little bit for a customer can win you that customer’s heart for life. If you don’t, you will lose customers, and they may never come back again.  I’m not saying the customer is always right. But you shouldn’t assume that they’re wrong.

  • Scott Robison

    I bought a new phone from T-Mobile in December, and also bought a $60 “Power Skin” for it, a combination protective case and external battery. Haven’t had any problems with the phone but the power skin USB port failed less than three months later. I took it to the same store from whence I bought it, complete with original packaging and receipt, and was told that they don’t accept returns or provide exchanges after 30 days.

    I told the guy something to the effect of “I know this is a store policy, so I’m not upset with you personally, but when I spend $60 on a product that does not work for even three months, I expect better than to be told there is nothing that can be done.”  He went and spoke to the store manager, who authorized exchanging it anyway. That was better than the experience you’ve had with Sprint (and I will remember your experience with Sprint for future reference) but it should never have gone that far. If you sell a product, you need to be willing to support it for a reasonable period of time, and you darn well better treat customers well and not like nuisances to be rid of as quickly as possible.

    T-Mobile has been a fairly reliable company to me. Customer service hasn’t been stellar, but it hasn’t been so bad that I have felt compelled to leave.  Unfortunately, this level of customer service has been about par for the few cell phone companies I’ve used. Is there anyone out there that provides quality customer service? Of course, any organization the size of major cell providers is going to have bad apples that have given someone bad customer service, and we tend to share more horror stories than good experiences.

    I’ll stop rambling now. Nice post.