Subscribers more satisfied with cell-phone carriers

Sprint jumps 11% in customer satisfaction survey

Nobody loves their wireless carrier, but a new study of wireless customers shows signs of improvement. Customer satisfaction with wireless services from both small and large carriers reached an all-time high for the second year, according to a study.

Nobody loves their wireless carrier, but a new study of wireless customers shows signs of improvement. Customer satisfaction with wireless services from both small and large carriers reached an all-time high for the second year, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

However, compared with other U.S. industries selling products and services, wireless services still rank "well below the average" in customer satisfaction, said David VanAmburg, ACSI managing director in an interview today, when the results were released .

"While customer satisfaction for wireless services is improving and there's optimism, it's an area still near the bottom" when compared to more than 200 companies selling goods and services in 44 industries, he added.

The optimism for wireless services stems from a finding that customer satisfaction increased 4% over the past year ending in March, setting a new all-time high of 72 on ACSI's 100-point scale, VanAmburg said. The overall national index for all the companies ACSI studies is now at 75.9. ACSI is a private company affiliated with the University of Michigan.

ACSI attributed the increase in customer satisfaction to new wireless services, simplified usage plans and better pricing. One example ACSI gave is Sprint Nextel's "Beyond Talk" plan, which combines unlimited text, e-mail and Internet for $25 a month , the lowest in the industry.

VanAmburg admitted that there have been a mixed bag of pluses and minuses in wireless services to tally up in the past year. On the minus side, consumer groups have bashed exclusive smartphone contracts , such as the one AT&T has with Apple 's iPhone ; customers forums are filled with complaints about the wireless network deficiencies of AT&T and other carriers; and onerous early termination fees of hundreds of dollars for certain phones have made headlines.

Only last week, Google Inc. dropped plans to sell the Nexus One smartphone via the Web in a marketing approach seen by some as an alternative to the way traditional wireless carriers do business.

On the plus side, Sprint was a high point, increasing its score to 70, up 11% over its 2009 figure. ACSI attributed Sprint's improved score to a recovery after Sprint's 2004 acquisition of Nextel, when Nextel customers described lower customer satisfaction than Sprint customers.

Of all the wireless carriers, the group that did best in customer satisfaction were the smaller providers, such as TracFone, Metro PCS and U.S Cellular, which that have barraged TV and radio airwaves with wacky ads promoting low rates and easy contract terms. As a group they scored 76 on ACSI's index, up 4%, although individual results were not available.

Below that group, T-Mobile USA got 73, up 4.1%, and tied with Verizon Wireless, which dropped 1.4% from 74 in 2009. Sprint Nextel's 70 beat out AT&T's 69, which was up 3%.

More than two years after introducing the iPhone, AT&T "seems to have made strides to resolve the strains on its network caused by the rapid growth of iPhone usage," ACSI said in a statement.

VanAmburg said overall customer satisfaction scores for wireless services have gradually improved since the ACSI study began in 2004. That year, the average for the group was 65, and dropped to 63 in 2005. The number increased to 66 in 2006, then increased to 68 in both 2007 and 2008, rose to 69 in 2009 and then 72 in 2010.

Customer satisfaction with wireless service is "getting better but not in an absolute sense compared to other industries," VanAmburg said.

Probably the biggest reason for the improvement was the institution of number portability nationwide at the beginning of the decade, he said, meaning a customer could switch carriers and still keep a phone number.

"With number portability, it's a little easier to switch carriers, and these companies have to try a little bit harder to keep you. It might cost a $100 or $200 to switch, but it is not as painful when you don't lose your number," VanAmburg said.

ACSI asked 16 questions via telephone of 250 qualified adults per company in its study, VanAmburg said. That puts the margin of error at 3 ASCI index points or less, he said.

The 16 questions relate to a customer's expectations for a company, among other factors. For example, customers are asked whether they have complained about a product or service and how that experience affected their loyalty to a company.

For the sake of the ACSI score, three of the 16 questions are asked with results combined. Those three questions look at how satisfied a customer feels with a company; whether the customer's expectations have been exceeded or fallen short; and how well the company has done compared to what a customer would consider to be an ideal company.

While wireless services were rated below the ACSI average of 75.9 for 200 companies, some other companies in the information industry performed lower. For example, cable and satellite TV companies overall got a 66, but it was still the highest score in 10 years. Traditional local and long distance phone services, not wireless, were at 75. Reader satisfaction with newspapers was 65, although that is a three-year high.

ACSI also includes computer software with other information businesses and noted that Microsoft Corp. jumped to 76 , up 9%, with Windows 7 , an improvement from a plunge in 2007 with Windows Vista. All other software makers are at a 77 satisfaction level, ACSI said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

Read more about mobile and wireless in Computerworld's Mobile and Wireless Knowledge Center.

This story, "Subscribers more satisfied with cell-phone carriers" was originally published by Computerworld.

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