Mobile Carriers Not Getting the Signal

Being a cell phone carrier nowadays must be brutal.

On one hand, the phones themselves can practically do everything short of making a double espresso (although if I downloaded the right app, my new Samsung might do that for me, too). The technology has advanced astonishingly fast—the svelte and alluring cell phone that seduced me a mere two years ago came to feel like a clunky and not-so-smart artifact I couldn’t wait to dump—and there’s no sign that it will slow down anytime soon. Shall I instant-message that new bistro for a reservation? No problem! How about high-res cameras front and back? Sure, when I shoot the Grand Canyon I want a close-up of my eyeball at the same time! Sudoku on demand? I’m on game 51 at the “Challenging” level! The frosting on this scrumptious digital cake is that I can even make phone calls—although texting is usually faster.

On the other hand, despite their ever-expanding spate of features and capabilities, cell phones—or more precisely and remarkably, smartphones—already seem to risk becoming commodities. The product life cycle of many models can be measured in weeks, at a time when more than 87 million Americans now own smartphones, according to a comScore report issued in November. The carriers themselves—Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile at the top of the heap—face an equally daunting challenge: How to beat their competitors with offers just good enough, just simple enough to entice and retain customers?

The extent of all this churn might well cause Charles Dickens, if he were reporting for CNET, to summarize the state of the cell phone industry in 2011 quite tellingly: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”

In her remarkable book, Resonate, CEO and educator Nancy Duarte notes that “if two products have the same features, the one that appeals to an emotional need will be chosen.” In a recent online discussion of retail promotion strategy, Carol Spieckerman, president of NewMarketBuilders, commented that “when everyone has access to the same raw materials, sourcing, supply chain efficiencies, and democratized design, brand is really the ONLY difference.” [emphasis in original]

As a hardcore loyalist of cell phone carrier “X” for 15 years, I embodied the twin stars of Duarte’s and Spieckerman’s points. I couldn’t wait to trade up, and I eagerly scoured the company’s website for details on the various smartphone features. But that all changed when I hit the nearby corporate retail store.

Indifference reigned, and the store wasn’t even busy. The rep assigned to me pointed vaguely to a wall display. I asked about the data plan for all four members in our family plan. “Lemme go check,” he said.  Meanwhile, I tried a demo phone but couldn’t access the Internet. “Yeah,” the rep said when he returned.  “Customers mess ’em up, and our techs have to reset them.”

“Would that be possible to do today?” I asked. No, apparently not until late on Sunday.

“OK,” I said. “But I’m ready to buy four new phones and contracts today if I can try them out.”

“Gotcha,” he replied, then paused. “Thanks for coming in,” he added, as he turned away.

With the rep nowhere in sight, I left the store 10 minutes later and, after some thought, ended up in a competitor’s store down the street. I didn’t simply want a new smartphone, I realized; I wanted a brand whose ambassadors would share my excitement. If I were an IT manager aiming to equip my colleagues with mobile devices to help them win in the field, the process would have differed, but the desire would have been exactly the same. Let’s make some cool stuff happen!

As it turned out, my needs were met on the second try. A responsive sales rep understood and shared my delight with the new capabilities a smartphone would provide; by that simple human connection—by making a mash-up of gee-whiz technical features into somethinghumanly relevant—the rep made me a new brand ambassador.

We’ll see if that feeling lasts; for now, I’m enjoying my new phone. One might expect that intense competition in an industry would raise the level of customer service; however, the forces of commoditization may be hitting cell phone carriers much as they have the airlines, eroding investment in almost any aspect of the post-purchase brand experience. Brand loyalty? Lifetime customers? Whatever.

If that’s the case, then being a cell phone carrier nowadays must truly be brutal—especially if you work on the retail side.


by Pete Healy
Vice President – Account Planning

Follow Pete on Twitter @PeteHealy