The carrier that once had a terrible reputation for customer care is now getting higher marks from third parties for improvements it has made.
Ever since Sprint embarked on its companywide initiative to improve customer care, CEO Dan Hesse has provided periodic updates on the company’s progress. In his last quarterly call with analysts this past summer, he cited a number of positive measurements, including the 2010 American Customer Satisfaction Index, also known as the University of Michigan customer satisfaction study, showing Sprint’s customer satisfaction had improved more in the past two years than any U.S. company in the survey – from any industry, not just wireless.
Other third-party entities, like Forrester with its Customer Experience Index, are noticing Sprint’s improvements as well. But it’s still a work in progress. In the latest J.D. Power and Associates Wireless Customer Care Performance Study, Sprint ranked last among the four biggest nationwide facilitiesbased carriers. T-Mobile USA held onto the No. 1 spot, with an overall score of 777. AT&T was second in overall rankings with a score of 757, and Verizon Wireless followed at 749.
However, Sprint rose considerably from where it was ranked. In February 2009, its score was just 657, and by July of this year, it had improved to a score of 734, when the industry average was 753. “They’re light years ahead of where they were,” says Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power and Associates. “They’re making progress.”
Of course, there are different interpretations of that. Ken Hyers, analyst at Technology Business Research, says at one point, Sprint’s customer service was so bad, he thought the carrier would never overcome its problems. “So now that they’re only as bad as their competitors… Not bad, I guess. I wonder how long they’ll remain being only as bad as their competitors and whether they can improve over the industry norm,” he says.
Hyers still remembers “the last straw” when he called Sprint customer service to tell them the reason he needed to drop service was poor coverage. The agent argued that no, the system showed he had coverage – despite his experience to the contrary. “That’s years ago. I’m beyond it, but it’s one of those things that sticks in your mind.”
Those kinds of lingering perceptions are what Sprint has to deal with even as it makes improvements. , Sprint’s chief service officer and the person charged with turning around the situation, admits the early days were equivalent to drinking from a fire hose – literally and figuratively.
A couple years ago, when Hesse made customer service one of the company’s top three priorities, he gave Johnson the “air cover” to do what was necessary, and the entire company got behind the effort, Johnson says, which made his job easier. Back in those days, the average number of times a customer called into Sprint’s customer care center was eight per year – twice as high as the competition.
Since then, Sprint has gotten that tally down to four per year, on par with the industry average. So how did they do it?
Simply Everything wasn’t just a catchy marketing ploy. A couple years ago, one of the big drivers behind calls to customer service were billing-related issues. Simply Everything and Simply Everything for Data take a lot of the guesswork out of a subscriber’s bill.
The other big driver of calls to customer service was related to equipment, and that’s still the case today, but it’s more about upgrades than problems. Sprint’s highest value customers use the phones more and churn less often, but they also have questions about set-up and features. When the HTC EVO 4G went on sale this past summer, the spike in volume that Sprint saw was mostly tied around activations as opposed to other issues, according to the carrier.
On the other end of the equation is how the carrier works with its customer care associates. Sprint uses various metrics to measure the performance of associates, but Johnson says he doesn’t want them getting hung up on how much time they spend on the phone with a customer. That usually leads to associates trying to get off the phone as quickly as possibly, which results in customers calling back multiple times to get the problem fixed. Sprint will use handle times as a metric to manage staffing needs, but Johnson says job No. 1 for care associates is to solve the customer’s problem.
Sprint doesn’t disclose how many customer care associates it employs, but it has closed 30 call centers – those deemed underperforming – leaving it with a total of 44.
Johnson says Sprint’s customer care at one point was too heavily outsourced. Now it’s more of a 50-50 split between outside vendors and Sprint personnel. Sprint’s contracts with its vendors state they must meet certain performance targets, and they have access to all the tools that Sprint has internally. Sprint also rewards higher quality vendors by giving them more volume. “Their centers are performing as well as our own,” he says.
PARTNERS PLAY ROLE
Partners – everyone from EDS to IBM and those in between – play an important role in Sprint’s customer service story, and Johnson gives them due credit.
In 2008, Sprint started implementing a new performance and analysis tool in its call centers to help deliver clearly defined metrics for customer care representatives and supervisors. The Merced Performance Suite, from Merced Systems, provides customer care agents with information on customer satisfaction, detailed call quality reporting and greater visibility into individual agent call metrics.
Under the “improvements never cease” category, Sprint earlier this year announced it was partnering with Knowlagent, a provider of call center talent management solutions, to deploy technology that delivers training directly to call center agents’ desks during down times, or times when there is “excess agent availability” between calls. The goal is to ensure agents always have access to the training they need to continue improving interactions with customers.
Sprint also works with ClickFox on customer experience analytics, which give Sprint visibility into how its customers behave when interacting with retail stores, websites, automated IVR systems and call center agents. Sprint says self-service improvements are a big priority, and ClickFox helps make the experience better for customers.
What’s next for Sprint? “We’re not No. 1,” Johnson says, adding it is his intention to change that situation.
Toward that end, he’s not afraid to hear what customers have to say. A few years ago, Sprint saw anonymous blogs pop up with commentary about the company, and instead of ignoring them, it established an open forum as part of the Buzz About Wireless website for customers to share information with each other. “I look at every comment as a good thing,” he says, because positive or negative, that customer was willing to take the time to say something.