Three Tales of Wireless Customer Service

Today, I had the opportunity to witness the in-store customer service experience of two different major wireless providers, as well as a third company that sells wireless devices.  Each had it’s own particular downsides, and two of them at least had some upside to make up for the downside.


When my wife and I moved from a townhouse in Los Gatos to a loft apartment in San Francisco in April, we knew there’d be some significant differences in our living arrangements.  Most of the differences were for the better at this point in our lives, with our respective jobs being in San Francisco.  The problem we didn’t count on was the terrible cellular reception that comes with a newly-constructed apartment building.  We have beautiful stained concrete floors, and we can hardly hear our neighbors thanks to the concrete throughout the building. Unfortunately, concrete is a major issue for cell phones — the concrete is usually reinforced with steel rebar, which does a fantastic job of blocking cell signals.  We’ve suffered with minimal cell service for a couple of months, and today I finally got fed up with seeing “No Service” on my phone, so I took a trip to an AT&T store.


I’m greeted at the door of the store by a concierge who asks how they can help me. That’s nice. I tell her that I want to pick up an AT&T 3G MicroCell, which plugs in to your broadband connection and acts as a cell signal booster. She says, “Sure, we can help you with that. Can I have your name please?” She takes my name down, which puts me on a waiting list to speak with a sales person… and that waiting list is 15 minutes long. That’s not so nice.

There’s nowhere to sit in the store, and I’m not particularly in the browsing mood for other AT&T products. I’m getting a bit grumpy while I’m sitting on the floor, waiting for my turn to talk to a salesperson.

When it’s finally my turn, the salesperson at least understands my frustration with not having cell service at home when I’m paying for it — not to mention my wife’s personal phone and her work phone. That’s three AT&T phones that barely work in our home. Since the device costs $200, just to get the cell service already pay for, he tells me, “While I can’t give you this device at no cost, I can try to make it up to you by giving you one of these Beats Pill speakers for free. It costs the same amount as the MicroCell.” Seeing as how I’d been looking at the Jambox on display only two minutes earlier, planning to buy one elsewhere, I thought this was an eminently reasonable way to make things up to a long-time AT&T customer.

Verdict: I left the store with my new MicroCell and my new Beats Pill, satisfied with the outcome. If only they’d staffed more people in the store so I didn’t have to wait, or at least had somewhere for me to sit while I waited, I’d have been (almost) impressed with their customer service experience.


My next stop was the Verizon store across the street.  A couple of years ago, I’d purchased a Verizon LTE Mobile Hotspot, due to being fairly mobile around the Bay Area for my job at the time. When I took my current job, the MiFi came in handy while I was doing a long daily commute by train; I could get some work done on the commute, and it especially came in handy when I was on-call. Then when we started driving the commute instead of taking the train, I could use the MiFi in the car if April was driving (or vice versa).

Now, however, my commute is so much shorter, and I’m never more than a few minutes from being able to access a wifi network. I really don’t need to be spending $50 per month with Verizon for a service I no longer use. Might as well go in to cancel it, right?

I go in to the Verizon store, and just like at AT&T, someone comes over to greet me. They’re not as busy as AT&T was — or they’re staffed appropriately — so there’s no need for a concierge. This time, it’s a salesperson who gets right to business. Of course, she wasn’t too thrilled to find out I was trying to cancel a service (while I was carrying an AT&T bag, mind you). “Sir, you’re still on a 2-year contract that doesn’t expire until July 13th.”  Oh right, I tell her, couldn’t remember the date when my contract was up.  “It will be a $60 cancellation fee in order to end your contract early.”  I look  at her incredulously; it’s June 22nd, and they’re going to sweat me for $60 when my contract is up in less than a month?  Can’t you just stop my auto-renewal? “No, you’d have to call for that.” Seriously, I’ve taken the effort to come in to a store to talk to someone in-person, but now I’m being told to call? What’s the point of having customer service as part of your in-store experience at that point?

I’ll be calling Verizon today to cancel my account, $60 fee be damned. I’m going to get hit with a $50 bill anyway, and I figure that the extra $10 they charge me is a good way to avoid getting hit up for another $50 in case I forget to cancel on July 13th.

Verdict: Sayonara, Verizon, you just ensured that my next in-store stop wasn’t going to get you any more of my business.


My final stop was going to be the Apple Store. I’d been wanting to buy an iPad Mini for a while, and I was waiting until after WWDC to make sure Apple didn’t announce a new iPad Mini. I also wanted to get one with a cellular option, since I was getting rid of the Verizon MiFi. My iPad 2 was Wifi only, and I’d often found myself wishing it had the cellular option.

The Apple Store was, of course, far busier than AT&T and Verizon combined. I was met once again with a concierge who pointed me to the iPad Mini display station, giving me a few minutes to play with one before I made my purchase. I’d made my decision before leaving the house, but it was nice to give myself a moment to confirm ‘this is what I want!’ before I bought it.

It only took three seconds to spot an available Apple Store employee, and with quick eye contact and the briefest of head-nods in his direction, I had someone ready to help me. I told him what model I wanted and the accompanying cover, and off he went to fetch my merchandise.  The checkout process was speedy and painless, and I was back out on the street with my new iPad Mini in my bag in less than five minutes.  I’d initially planned to get the Verizon model, so that I’d have an alternative network if my AT&T iPhone wasn’t getting good coverage when traveling.  Instead, I chose the AT&T model over the Verizon model, thanks to the previous section’s experience.

However, there is a downside to the ultra-efficiency of the Apple Store process. It was so quick and painless that I didn’t take any time to browse the rest of the store, when in fact I actually did have something else that I’d meant to pick up while I was there.

Verdict: I was ripe for a cross-sell, but that opportunity passed Apple by — or, at least, that store missed selling another unit, since I’m going to order the remaining item online!

In Summary

In the span of an hour, three in-store experiences had the following effects on me as a customer:

  • AT&T managed to keep me as a customer, and even had me adding an additional service (the iPad Mini’s cellular option). Lifetime customer value goes up.
  • Verizon was losing my immediate business, but compounded that by losing my potential future business (again, the iPad Mini’s cellular option). Lifetime customer value goes down.
  • Apple will almost always get my business, but the physical store lost out to the online store when it came to getting another product purchase out of me. Lifetime customer value remains high, but an opportunity was missed.


    1. Clear though it may be, it doesn’t seamlessly solve for three iPhones not being to make/receive phone calls. When incoming phone calls to our cell phones don’t ring because we can’t get signal, Skype doesn’t solve for that problem — unless we train everyone we know and love, or work with, that Skype is the only way to contact us.

      1. Sorry, that’s not true. With Skype Premium, you get another phone number that automatically rings your skype account, wherever you are logged in. You then forward your mobile to that number. I have this down to one click on my phone, from within my phone app. None of your callers need be notified of anything. In fact, you can even tell Skype to masquerade calls from Skype as coming from your mobile number, so that number is truly private if you wish it to be so. Or, you can make that number your main number and keep your mobile number private and forward all your skype calls to your mobile (which in your case you don’t want to do). Either way works, however.

  1. Do you feel like AT&T bought you off instead of serving you? Meanwhile Verizon has taken the human factor right out! Do we mistake speed and turnover as customer service? Like you said, there may have been more you needed, or al least more he could have provided, had he actually served you. I like this blog a lot. I am putting together a customer service consultancy which focuses directly on front of the house food service and retail.

    1. Thanks for reading, conhippy! Good luck with your consultancy 🙂

      Oh, they definitely bought me off. I would equate AT&T’s tactic to “hush money”, giving me something tangible to redirect me from complaining. I’m already stuck with an AT&T contract, so by giving me the Pill, they keep me from kicking and screaming. They know they’re unlikely to lose me as a customer so easily — my lifetime value shows that — so they attempt to resolve my immediate problem as quietly as possible. “Here Jason, go play with this portable bluetooth speaker to distract you from bitching about our cell service. We both know we own your soul.”

    1. “Hey listen man, how do I know that this whole planet isn’t conceivably just an electron in some other atom?” – Dennis Miller

  2. How would you suggest Apple change? slowing your transaction down so you have a chance to browse and maybe buy something else doesn’t seem like a productive change — although its probably the reason grocery stores place dairy in the back, and bread at the opposite corner of the store. You even report the extra time you spent re-confirming your selection as “nice”.

    Sounds like Apple got the balance pretty close to right.

    1. Pretty close, but not perfect. A few simple, engaging questions would’ve opened the door for them:
      “Have you used an iPad before?”
      “Are you looking for something for personal use or business?”
      “Do you need any help setting it up? Migrating data from another device?”
      “Do you want to activate the cellular plan while you’re here in the store?”

      Even if I’d answered in the negative for those questions, the door would’ve been opened to engage in more conversation. More conversation could’ve led to me saying, “Oh, hey, I was also thinking about getting XYZ…”. Especially since I didn’t have to go more than 15 feet into the store, I never had a chance to remember, “Oh right, I was so focused on picking up milk [iPad Mini], I forgot that I also needed to grab a loaf of bread [Apple Magic Mouse].”

      I’m all for speeding up the transaction, but the faster the transaction, the less chance the store has to coax another purchase from me. As the consumer, I don’t mind that at all, though I do find it interesting from an armchair quarterback perspective in analyzing the interaction.

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