I used to think T-Mobile had the best customer service. Now I’m not so sure

T-Mobile

Losing its touch?

Image: T-Mobile, ZDNet

Perhaps I’ve been lucky.

Every time I’ve visited a T-Mobile store, I’ve encountered customer service markedly superior to that of, say, AT&T.

Not so many months ago, I visited both an AT&T and T-Mobile store and discovered opposed attitudes toward me as a customer.

Then again, I’m not a T-Mobile customer. I’ve been with AT&T longer than is healthy. Perhaps new faces are more of an attraction than existing customers.

Perhaps, too, T-Mobile is now struggling to maintain its image as, well, a little more human than the others.

Bloomberg, you see, offered a slightly grim picture of several factors — internal and external — that have, at least in some customers’ eyes, rendered T-Mobile’s customer service as marginally infernal.

First, the company merged with Sprint. Some might observe that any carrier merging with Sprint might have ended up tainted with a diminished image.

Yet this coincided with the departure of — oh, what’s the word? — flamboyant, ra-ra-ish, imaginatively coiffed CEO John Legere.

He emphasized a proactive attitude toward customers. He exemplified it with his populist Twitter persona. He departed, some might suspect, just when he knew things couldn’t get better, and would likely get worse.

And then came the pandemic. Few companies have managed to garland themselves with additional humanity in an atmosphere where many employees worked from home and then quit altogether.

But there seems now to be firm evidence that all is not well at Magenta Mansions.

Perhaps the starkest data comes from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. It shows T-Mobile’s rating slipping a fearsome 5% from 2020 to 2021.

You might think this is nothing. Or inevitable during a pandemic. But what if I told you that Verizon’s rating stayed the same while, gasp, AT&T’s actually rose by a point? Indeed, only US Cellular languished below T-Mobile in the mobile network operator category.

It’s hard, then, to digest the words of T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert: “We are delivering the best service in this industry by any objective measure.”

Is he suggesting that the ACSI is somehow less than objective? And yes, he did add words like “thriving” and “growing.”

It’s easy to drift to Twitter comments and wonder how bad things might be. Or not. What’s harder is merging with a deficient brand for the glory of money and power, and not being an upstart anymore.

T-Mobile traded on something it can no longer be. Indeed, Apple was once an upstart, but had to trade in that image for a more global, corporate, and, frankly, blander persona.

Simultaneously, however, Apple also expanded its customer service capabilities and understood — sometimes very slowly — that, as it grew, it had to respond to customer complaints ever more quickly and a lot more sensitively.

That path may still be open to T-Mobile. It may be an easier path once the pandemic truly eases. It will have to be a path, however, that is led from the top and shows some new imagination.

Ultimately, this isn’t a fine situation for customers. It’s akin to the airline business, where four US airlines own more than 80% of all seats. The incentive to emphasize truly different customer service isn’t as strong as it is for the likes of upstarts like JetBlue.

In the carrier business, there are truly only three big brands. Each, no doubt, looks forward to more transactions occurring online and less customer-to-human interaction, thanks to the glories of AI.

Currently, I sense that there’s enormous dissatisfaction among the customer service personnel of all the big carriers.

Staff from all three big brands tell me of understaffing, customers who are exponentially more offensive, and unseemly pressures to sell items that customers simply don’t need or want.

An optimist might see the current moment as a great branding opportunity for T-Mobile. Pessimists may worry that all three carriers will merely become the same.

I don’t see an un-carrier on the horizon. Do you?

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