Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile garner top customer care ratings

Sprint Nextel, AT&T score average in J.D. Power ratings

Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile USA and Alltel today tied for the highest ranking in wireless customer care awarded by J.D. Power and Associates. But AT&T and Sprint Nextel finished no better than average, even as the overall industry rating improved.

J.D. Power based its ranking on feedback from more than 12,000 wireless customers who had contacted their carrier's customer care department in the past year.

Each of the top three carriers earned an overall score of 747 out of 1,000 points, which were awarded based on how well wireless carriers service their customers through telephone calls, during visits to a retail wireless store or over the Web. The study looked at overall customer satisfaction as well as how efficient the carriers were at solving problems and how long customers were put on hold.

The only other two carriers evaluated by J.D. Power were AT&T and Sprint Nextel. No total score for either company was released, but Sprint Nextel finished with an overall satisfaction rating of two out of five, while AT&T got three out of five. The top three got five out of five as an overall rating.

Customer care has been a persistent concern at Sprint for the past two years, but Sprint executives have repeatedly said that it is improving. AT&T, meanwhile, has come under criticism from iPhone customers because of certain features that were unavailable or networks that weren't performing well for a period in 2008. However, it's unknown how directly those problems affected the company's overall customer care rating.

Customer care has been a major concern to the entire industry as well. J.D. Power reported in a statement today that overall customer care for the carriers has improved considerably, to 735 out of 1,000, up 12 points from the first wave of the study released in February.

J.D. Power said shorter wait times and getting a problem resolved on the first contact have helped improve customer satisfaction. More than 75% of calls to customer service are resolved on the first contact, up from 66% just six months ago. The average time on hold is now 5.55 minutes, up from 6.58 in February.

Verizon acquired Alltel in January, and Verizon today said in a statement that the acquisition has helped improve customer care. Customer care employees and systems at Alltel have now been fully integrated into Verizon, officials said.

T-Mobile's strength was its ability to transfer customers from an automated telephone response system to a live service representative, while Verizon performed best at identifying customer problems quickly and resolving them smoothly with service representatives.

The study also found that nearly one-third of customer contacts with a carrier pertain to the cost of service. In addition, 10% of customers said they are likely to switch carriers when an issue is resolved in one contact by phone or Web or in the store, while 17% said they are likely to switch if they must make a contact two or three times to resolve a problem.

While customer care is a top criterion for wireless customers in picking a carrier, network coverage and reliability are also a major concern. J.D. Power evaluates those factors in other studies, but network access is widely variable and hard to measure, as editors at Consumer Reports have recently noted.

T-Mobile, the smallest carrier in the group studied, has come under criticism from some bloggers and customers for not adequately expanding its network reach. A T-Mobile spokeswoman today said the carrier has reached 176 cities with its faster 3G network and has attracted customers with new Android-based phones.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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