It's fascinating to watch how the cellular phone companies establish policies to increase their revenue while trying not to create so much dissatisfaction that their customers will jump to another carrier. It's akin to walking a tightrope.
It's hard to think of another industry in which there's such an adversarial relationship between the company and its customers. In a survey of best and worst services in this month's Consumers Report magazine, cell-phone service is rated 18 out of 20.
Cellular companies provide a valuable product, but they constantly exploit us. They think more like utilities than retail companies.
Examples? Requiring us to commit to a 2-year contract when buying a new phone; making us pay for things that should be free such as sending a photo; disabling features designed into the phone such as WiFi; charging high per-minute fees when we use more minutes than what we signed up for; paying a huge termination charge.
With other products and services customers choose to work with companies and stores that they like and generally are loyal.
People tell us they love stores such as Target and Nordstrom, love their car company or are loyal to one airline. But I've never met a person that loves his cellular company. We'll select one because it's not as bad than others.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The low satisfaction levels provide an opportunity for one cellular company to rise up above the rest. With a little effort, one company can make some policy changes that sets it apart, creates a buzz and a loyal following. They need to think differently, to steal a phrase from another company. That company can become the company their customers want to love...ok, at least like.
What do they need to do? Here are my suggestions:
No long-term contacts
No longer subject us to long-term contracts and cancellation penalties when signing up for service. You can provide subsidies on phones, but state the amount upfront in the contract, and reduce the cancellation fee to zero as the subsidy is paid off. Alternatively, allow us to pay the full price of the phone or buy it elsewhere and avoid all contracts and cancellation charges.
Don't force us to guess how many minutes we'll use when selecting a call plan. Offer just one plan: Buy minutes on a graduated scale. The more minutes you use, the less per minute you pay.
No longer calculate the minutes used by rounding up to the nearest minute. Instead charge to nearest second. It's just not right to charge for time not being used.
Mobile phone features
No longer disable features from mobile phones that the manufacturers build in and are available elsewhere, such as WiFi, Bluetooth file transfer and Voice over Internet calling.
Sell all phones unlocked. Give the us the freedom to buy SIM cards locally while traveling internationally and pay lower rates.
Answer all calls within 5 minutes or take a message and call back within 30 minutes. Empower customer service representatives to solve problems immediately. If the problem can't be solved on the first call, call back with a solution within 24 hours.
I'm convinced the first company that does this will find positive word of mouth to be more significant to growing their business than all of their current slogans that no one believes anyway.
So which company will it be?
Follow Philip G. Baker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pbaker