The tone of Sprint's recent annual analyst conference was definitely upbeat, reflecting the telecom carrier's feeling that it is starting to turn the corner on issues of wireless customer service, satisfaction and trust.
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... Sprint realizes that its future viability is tied closely to its ability to satisfy subscribers' needs and provide quality wireless customer service.
Frost & Sullivan
The company shared metrics that it said show a significant year-over-year increase in customer satisfaction, including a bump of nearly 35% among subscribers who had previously been the least satisfied with their service. CEO Dan Hesse said Sprint's new "simplicity, value, network" mantra will consistently frame its efforts going forward.
But Sprint also admitted that it has a long way to go. In particular, Sprint's subscriber base continues to decline, albeit at a reduced rate year-over-year. Also, while its focus has been to approach the market with new phone instruments on a routine basis, Sprint is very frank that the company is essentially playing a game of containment when it comes to the Apple iPhone, providing customers with instruments that, while not as glitzy as the Apple devices, remain superior to most other devices on the market.
Sprint offered an example of its strategy with the introduction of the new HTC EVO 4G smartphone. The EVO 4G is a dual-mode phone that defaults to 3G but can utilize the WiMAX network where it is available.
Featuring a high-resolution touch-screen and the capability to export HD-quality video to an external video monitor, the EVO 4G raises the bar for what a phone should be able to do, though it will probably pale in comparison to the hotly anticipated new iPhone. Nevertheless, the EVO 4G provides cutting-edge technology to Sprint subscribers in a form that is very competitive with the best devices now available.
One bone of contention in the analyst session was Sprint's dependence on Clearwire's 4G WiMAX network deployment. Although 4G is now available in 32 markets, with more coming, it is not yet ubiquitous, and where it is available, coverage can be uncertain. Sprint is counting on a first-to-market position to drive demand, yet the spotty coverage that still characterizes its 4G WiMAX network may serve as a source of serious discontent for consumers who adopt the service early.
In fact, with other major carriers rapidly improving their 3G network coverage and capability, or even pursuing plans to deploy their own 4G solutions, Sprint may be in the position of having primed expectations only to watch disgruntled customers migrate to competitors' more comprehensive networks.
Still, Sprint realizes that its future viability is tied closely to its ability to satisfy subscribers' needs and provide quality wireless customer service. This also involves focusing on the customer experience management component of its service by enhancing processes to solve consumer problems quickly and with a high degree of satisfaction.
Sprint also acknowledged that the wireless market has moved to embrace prepaid customers, noting that it is prepared to fight for dominance in that area with a variety of brands and plans designed to reach a wide range of demographic groups. Neil Lindsay, head of marketing for Sprint's prepaid division, said the company's prepaid subscriber-adds now exceed its postpaid adds. Sprint is prepared to ride this dynamic and is looking for more ways to leverage it, including presenting a variety of smartphone offerings.
All in all, Sprint showed a refreshing willingness to discuss its shortcomings, demonstrating that it is serious about continuing to focus on improved wireless customer service and higher consumer satisfaction. The only concern -- the availability and reliability of its 4G WiMAX network coverage -- seems not to worry Sprint very much. As Hesse noted, the company is primarily focused on providing an excellent 3G experience, with the added ability to take subscribers into the 4G world as their needs develop. The second half of this year will show whether that approach will work.
About the author: Mike Jude is a program manager at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan in charge of the consumer communication services practice. He brings 30 years of experience in technology management in manufacturing, wide-area network design, intellectual property management and public policy. Jude holds degrees in electrical engineering and engineering management and a Ph.D. in decision analysis. He is co-author of The Case for Virtual Business Processes: Reduce Costs, Improve Efficiencies and Focus on Your Core Business, Cisco Press, 2003.