AT&T topped all four national carriers for the third time in a row for customer purchase satisfaction in-store, on the phone or on the Web, according to market research firm J.D. Power.
The results, released Thursday, were based on surveys conducted in the first half of 2014 with 10,079 wireless customers who had made a purchase from a wireless carrier recently.
T-Mobile finished second behind AT&T, followed by Verizon Wireless in third, and Sprint last. While AT&T kept its top ranking in the two prior surveys, Sprint dropped to last place from second in the previous survey for the last half of 2013. T-Mobile and Verizon both moved up a position over the previous survey.
On a 1,000-point scale, AT&T scored 801; T-Mobile, 796; Verizon, 788; and Sprint, 781. The average ranking was 792.
J.D. Power found that customer satisfaction with the buying experience was higher for those who entered a physical store and received a device demonstration. Twice as many customers who got a device demo said they would definitely shop at the same carrier again compared to those who didn't receive a demonstration.
The research firm found that sales reps at all the carriers spend an average of about eight minutes demonstrating how to operate a new device, although numbers for individual carriers weren't provided. By getting a demonstration, customers also spend less time in a store than those who don't.
J.D. Power said the store sales representative was the biggest factor in customer satisfaction. Ranked in order after the store sales rep were the carrier's website, store facility, promotions, cost of service and the phone sales representative.
Both J.D. Power and AT&T correlated AT&T's three consecutive top rankings in purchase satisfaction with how few customers leave AT&T for another carrier, a phenomenon called churn in the industry. AT&T had its lowest churn rate ever in the quarter that ended June 30, hitting 0.86% for its 68 million customers with postpaid plans. Overall, with postpaid and prepaid customers, AT&T has 116.6 million wireless subscribers.
AT&T also said it added 1 million net new subscribers for the quarter, half of whom bought smartphones.
"If you get survey results like J.D. Powers' and postpaid churn in the last quarter is its lowest ever, it's an indication that customers are more than satisfied with the service you're providing and very, very happy with the purchase experience, including in-store," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel.
Siegel said the purchase experience is "one of many important indicators of customer satisfaction." J.D. Power and other companies also rank other factors in overall satisfaction with wireless carriers that include the quality of the products sold, price for service, network reach and reliability.
For example, RootMetrics in July gave Verizon the top ranking for network performance in U.S. cities for the first half of 2014.
Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications at J.D. Power, said it's hard to separate the buying experience from network performance and other indicators in how a customer judges a carrier. "We do know that people do tend to spend more if they are satisfied with a carrier, and may add more family members to a plan or stay with that carrier longer or buy more accessories," he said.
"You can't silo all the factors, and if you had a great experience in a store, but start using a phone and can't connect to anything or don't have a product that works, you'll probably switch carriers," Parsons added. "All the influences are tied together."
AT&T said the customer purchase experience has been enhanced with the recent hiring of 1,000 in-store reps and managers, intensive training, improved store design and the ability to buy a product online and pick it up in-store. Stores also have new self-service kiosks, and reps now use tablets to help customers instead of fixed point-of-sale terminals.
Opinions vary on how important the customer-buying experience matters in overall customer satisfaction. "The buying experience is probably not the primary reason somebody would choose AT&T, but bad customer service is always a turnoff and you can lose many customers that way," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "I have been known to walk out of stores where the service was sub-par."
Still Gold said he believes the top criteria for choosing a carrier is price along with network coverage, then the devices that are available. "If you have bad coverage and network performance, no amount of good in-store experience will compensate," he said.