Cellphone shoppers generally judge wireless carriers based on their networks’ speed, size and—above all—reliability. But reliability extends to customer service. Will your carrier be able to help when something goes wrong? And can you get your questions answered in a timely fashion?
With that in mind, we performed a survey of the country’s four largest service providers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless—to determine which offers the best service and which could use some lessons in customer appreciation.
How We Tested
To get a complete view of each carrier’s customer support options, we visited two of their brick-and-mortar stores, placed two phone calls to their tech-support hotlines and tried to connect with them via their Web services. For our tests, we used purchased phones (instead of review units) to help ensure we received genuine user experiences.
Our test beds included an AT&T Motorola Atrix 4G, a Sprint EVO 4G, a T-Mobile G2x and a Verizon Wireless Motorola Droid X. To ensure our testing was fair, we posed the same three questions to each carrier’s service representatives: “How can I tether my phone to my notebook,” “How can I upload photos from my phone to Facebook?” and “How do I improve my phone’s battery life?”
In-Store Support: A-
We visited our first AT&T store at 7 p.m. EST on a weekend and waited 20 minutes before Wayne approached us. Despite the small crowd, our customer service rep took the time to demonstrate how to upload a photo to Facebook, making sure we could repeat the steps on our own. He then correctly explained that in order to tether our phone we would have to sign up for a 4GB tethering plan at $45 a month.
When it came to our battery-life question, the AT&T associate told us to reduce our display brightness, before telling us to look into purchasing a secondary battery or battery charger, skimpy but certainly useful advice.
We walked into our second AT&T store at roughly 8 p.m. on a weekend and were immediately greeted by Kim. After showing us how to upload photos to Facebook, she informed us that tethering our phone would require signing up for AT&T’s tethering plan. On our battery question, Kim correctly suggested we turn off our phone’s radios when not using them and reduce our screen brightness.
Online Support: B+
AT&T’s website was easy to navigate and find answers. After entering our account information, we were promptly connected with Cameron via live chat. He told us how to set up a tethering plan and provided us with a user manual for uploading our photos to Facebook. He also helpfully mentioned that apps that update in the background will drain battery and told us to update them less often. The AT&T rep went on to rightly point out that using our phone’s 4G connection would put a strain on our battery’s performance, but he failed to tell us that using Wi-Fi would be a better choice.
Phone Support: B
When we made our first call to AT&T, we were put on hold for roughly 2 minutes before being connected with Jacob. While friendly, he was clearly in a rush. He accurately explained how to tether our phone. When it came to our battery life question, he correctly told us to turn off our Atrix 4G’s Bluetooth, wireless and GPS, and to reduce our display brightness.
To upload our photos to Facebook, Jacob told us to simply follow the app’s instructions, something he said he does all the time. This advice isn’t wrong, but he neglected to mention the option to upload pics directly from our phone’s Gallery app.
During our second call, we waited on hold for less than a minute before Jesus in Nevada picked up. While he was personable, Jesus’ thick accent made understanding his advice difficult. It didn’t help matters when he gave us a circuitous explanation for uploading our photos to Facebook, which involved opening the camera app instead of the photo gallery. And while the rep accurately answered our tethering question, he couldn’t provide any tips for improving our device’s battery life besides checking the phone’s notification bar for running apps.
Overall Grade: B+
AT&T’s in-store and Web associates were fairly well informed, offering accurate and friendly advice. The carrier’s phone-based support wasn’t as helpful, but overall AT&T offered the best service.
In-Store Support: C+
We visited our first Sprint store at 4 p.m. EST on a weekday. With the store nearly empty, Krystal was standing by ready to help. She patiently explained how to upload our photos to Facebook. When we asked our battery-life question, she told us we should turn off our Bluetooth and wireless services. She then noticed that we had installed Advanced Task Killer on our phone and proceeded to uninstall it, correctly explaining that the program would reduce our battery life more than help it. For our tethering question, Krystal incorrectly stated that we could not tether our EVO to our notebook.
At our second Sprint location, we waited about 10 minutes before Felix offered his assistance. He told us that improving an Android phone’s battery life was impossible, and instead told us our best bet was to purchase a second battery to bring with us when we travel. Despite this obvious sales pitch, Felix went on to satisfactorily answer both our Facebook photo and Wi-Fi tethering questions.
Online Support: D
Sprint’s website is extremely clean and easy to navigate. Each device has its own support page complete with FAQs, video tutorials and troubleshooting guides. Unfortunately, our conversation with chat specialist Quinn was extremely confusing. Quinn spent the bulk of our conversation telling us to upload photos to Facebook by connecting our EVO to our notebook and accessing the images through Windows Explorer. Uploading the photos via our phone’s gallery or Facebook app would have been far quicker.
Quinn also provided little information for improving our battery life beyond closing apps, not using vibration mode too often and fully charging our phone. The most disappointing part of our chat was when, instead of explaining how to properly tether our phone to our notebook, Quinn told us to call .?.?. technical support.
Phone Support: A
On our tests, Sprint’s biggest strength was its phone support. We made our first call at noon on a weekday. After navigating a short menu tree, we started talking with Ryan from the Philippines. Throughout our 24-minute call, Ryan remained both patient and personable, offering the most accurate answers for our questions of any representative. His answers for our Facebook and tethering queries were spot-on, and he gave us a tutorial on how to best improve our phone’s battery life, including turning off its wireless radios and reducing our display brightness.
Neiko from Florida, who answered our call in about a minute, was also very helpful. He quickly answered our Facebook uploading query and walked us through the proper steps for tethering our phone. Neiko also told us to that the best way to improve our battery life was to disable our radio antennas and reduce our screen brightness.
Overall Grade: C+
Sprint’s phone support was top-notch, but its Web and in-store support have fallen off since last year.
In-Store Support: A
We visited our first T-Mobile store at 1 p.m. EST on a weekday and waited 10 minutes before Tim offered his assistance. When we posed our tethering question, he accurately explained that we would need to sign up for a $14.99-per-month tethering plan and showed us how to enable our phone’s hotspot.
The T-Mobile associate then helped us upload a photo to Facebook, making sure we understood each step. For our battery life question, Tim helpfully said we should turn off our T-Mobile G2x’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios and set our display to automatic brightness. He was also the only support specialist to suggest that we disable our 4G connection in the wireless settings menu as a means to conserve battery life.
An hour later, we stopped in at our second T-Mobile location, which was empty save for one other customer. Crystal, a new employee, provided us with assistance with backup from her co-worker James. Crystal correctly explained that we would need to add a tethering plan to our account if we wanted to use our G2x as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and showed us how to upload our photos to Facebook. She stumbled a bit while explaining how we could save battery life, but James jumped right in, saying we needed to turn off wireless radios we weren’t using and reduce our display’s brightness.
Online Support: B
We signed onto T-Mobile’s support chat at about 4:30 p.m. and waited less than 3 minutes before Liubov joined us. The rep rightly informed us about a T-Mobile tethering plan. For our battery question, Liubov simply told us to turn off our phone’s radios.
The T-Mobile associate answered our Facebook question by sending us a link to a copy of our phone’s user manual and told us which pages had instructions for uploading photos to Facebook. Our main problem with T-Mobile’s Web support was how long it took to get all our queries answered. We ended up talking with Liubov for roughly 30 minutes, far longer than our Web chats with the other carriers.
Phone Support: C
We made our first call to T-Mobile’s customer support line at 1 p.m., and after working our way through a lengthy automated answering system and waiting on hold for 5 minutes, Afe picked up the phone. She answered our tethering question by explaining how to activate tethering on our phone and how to connect a Windows PC and Mac to it. She then noted we were not signed up for a tethering plan and asked if we would like to register for one. Afe also accurately answered our Facebook question, despite admittedly not having an Android phone handy. For our battery life question, she told us to turn off our G2x’s Wi-Fi and reduce our display brightness.
Our second call to T-Mobile was a nightmare. After we sat on hold for 5 minutes, our representative Alvin answered. Unfortunately, it was too difficult to understand her, and she was unable to answer many of our questions properly. Although she correctly advised us to sign up for a qualifying plan to tether our phone, she was unable to explain how to upload our photos to Facebook. She also gave poor advice for our battery-life question, explaining that using the phone while the battery was charging would damage it. Neither rep would tell us their geographical location.
Overall Grade: B
T-Mobile’s in-store associates were friendly and able to answer each of our questions well. And although our Web experience was decent, it took a while to get answers. T-Mobile fell down on the job with its phone support.
In-Store Support: B
Our first visit to a Verizon Wireless store took place at approximately 1:30 p.m. EST on a weekday. Upon entering the store, an associate asked if we needed help before ushering us to the back of the store, where we waited less than 3 minutes to speak with Linda. A friendly woman, Linda breezed through our Facebook question, providing step-by-step instructions for uploading photos from our Droid X to the social network.
When we asked about tethering, she correctly informed us that we would have to sign up for a tethering plan at a minimum of $20 a month for 2GB. She also made sure to mention that exceeding that limit would incur additional charges. For our battery life question, Linda told us to reduce our phone’s display brightness and turn off wireless radios when not using them. Her one misstep was advising us to install the Advanced Task Killer app.
Later that day we visited a second Verizon Wireless location, where we were immediately met by Lydia. After explaining how to upload photos to Facebook, she accurately informed us that we would need to sign up for a tethering plan. The one area where Lydia failed to impress was in improving our phone’s battery life. Instead of offering a solution, the clearly stumped rep told us there was no way to improve our battery’s performance.
Online Support: C
Unlike its rivals, Verizon Wireless doesn’t offer an online chat service for customer support. Instead, Big Red provides an email service that promises users a response within 24 hours. But when we sent our questions, we ended up waiting a full three days for a reply. Fortunately, our support specialist Terrance responded with an exhaustive list of tips for all our questions, including step-by-step instructions on how to sign up for a tethering plan, post our photos on Facebook and improve our battery life.
Verizon Wireless also offers community forums, although navigating them without using a keyword search can prove unbearably difficult for first-time users.
Phone Support: B
We made our first call to Verizon Wireless at 2 p.m. on a weekday. After slogging through an option tree, we were connected with Brian from New Mexico. He tackled our tethering question with ease, then provided us with step-by-step instructions for uploading photos from our Droid X to Facebook, waiting for us to complete each step before moving on. But when we asked Brian how to improve our phone’s battery life, he only suggested that we close our apps when we were finished using them.
We made our second call to Verizon Wireless the next day at 5 p.m. and were speaking with Kristy within 3 minutes. She correctly explained Verizon’s wireless tethering plan. The Verizon Wireless rep also provided an in-depth explanation for uploading our photos to Facebook and provided helpful tips for increasing our phone’s battery life, such as turning off our Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. She did not, however, mention anything about reducing our phone’s display brightness, which could save a good deal of power.
Overall Grade: B-
Verizon’s in-store and phone-support specialists were friendly and knowledgeable, easily answering our tethering and Facebook questions. However, we found the carrier’s Web-based support severely lacking.
What struck us most about this year’s testing was how kind and patient most of the carriers’ associates were. It seems that all the service providers are keenly aware that these experiences can make the difference between a subscriber sticking around and jumping ship. With a few exceptions, most carrier reps provided correct answers for our tethering and Facebook questions. Unsurprisingly, our battery question elicited the widest variety of responses, with tips ranging from practical to just plain wrong.
In the end, AT&T came out on top. From the helpful hands-on approach taken by in-store associates to prompt online support, the carrier gets customer service right. The runner-up was T-Mobile, which offered even better in-store help but somewhat lackluster phone-based support. Verizon Wireless came in third because of its weak online support, and Sprint brought up the rear. Its associates just weren’t as knowledgeable as they should be.
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