Telecoms Grapple with Support Inequality

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Maintaining customer satisfaction is no easy task for wireless carriers, but the latest J.D. Power & Associates 2012 U.S. Wireless Customer Care Performance Study says the real challenge is to be consistent with support.

The semiannual study measures the effectiveness of full-service and noncontract carriers in their customer service efforts across telephone, retail, and online channels.

"What it really comes down to is consistency," remarks Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power & Associates. "We look at, 'Does the carrier have the right account information [and a consistent response] if I go into a store and then go back to my office and call the 800 number?'"

Based on the responses of 7,428 wireless full-service customers and 3,026 noncontract customers during the first six months of 2012, the study found that while satisfaction levels for tiered data and pricing plans were lower than for unlimited plans across most customer points of contact, the greatest gap occurred in the telephone channel.

Tiered customers tend to call their wireless carriers more for discrepancies in billing and related charges. On average, they spend a minute longer on hold than unlimited data plan customers. But the challenge is in resolving service calls in a timelier manner and ensuring tiered customers are, at the least, as satisfied with support as unlimited customers.

"A lot of it has to do with the re-education of their customers," Parsons explains. "If you're a customer moving across carriers…it behooves the sales and customer reps to really go over and make the customer understand, 'Here's what one gigabyte of data is applicable to.' They need to do more due diligence on the carrier side to really educate customers about these plans."

Verizon Wireless, which ranked highest among full-service carriers for customer care performance, offered customers a "two for one" deal when it first introduced tiered plans, Parsons says, in which customers could be upgraded to 4GB if they bought 2GB data plans.

Additionally, Parsons says providers "may become more flexible on pricing or include more data minutes within the same pricing plans that they have now."

While Parsons points out that contract plans generally score higher than their noncontract counterparts in buyer experience and performance, the tide is turning. "Some of these new prepaid plans are almost acting like a contract plan without the contract," he adds. "The devices are similar. The price points tend to be lower…they're catching up."

With greater parity in service offerings, Parsons says the only real spaces for carriers to differentiate themselves are in customer care and retail sales.

In the study, four in 10 full-service customers who resolved their issues online used the carrier's online chat function for customer service. Also, 67 percent of full-service customers with customer service issues used mobile applications. For those who used their carrier's app, overall satisfaction was about 42 points higher among full-service customers than those who did not.

Parsons calls social customer care "the next frontier" for wireless carriers to tackle. He notes that while traditional customer support incident levels remain steady at between 40 percent and 45 percent, they have actually dropped to the high 30s this year.

"This [indicates] that social media is taking some of that pressure away," Parsons says. "Having alternative [contact channels] makes it easier for a customer and gives him a choice in how he feels comfortable contacting the carrier."

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