A Cell-phone Strategy Worth Making Noise About
There’s an old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And nowhere has this seemingly worn-out notion been given new meaning than in the world of cell phone service.

In an industry plagued by customer complaints and lackluster service, one of the best-kept secrets is that speaking up may be your best strategy for getting better service. The Wall Street Journal even reports that carriers from AT&T to Sprint are slavishly attending to a select group of customers with perks such as instant resolution of billing problems, concierge-like hand-holding in decoding the instruction book and ahead-of-the-masses access to the best new phones.

Why the newfound love? Because customers, such as busy building service contractors, demand it.

While there’s really no way of telling how many people get the deluxe treatment, industry insiders believe it’s growing as more people insist on better service. Indeed, the Journal reports that several carriers say that in this age of incredible competition for every customer, they’ve been pressed to offer excellent service to unusually tenacious cell phone users.

One strategy that has worked for Cingular Wireless customers with a service complaint is to call the main switchboard and ask for the company’s president and chief executive, Stephen Carter. The company says that people who insist on speaking to him will get their requests handled by high-level customer service people in the Office of the President.

This aggressive strategy is hardly new. Banks, credit card companies and even airlines routinely offer deluxe service for their best customers. Even customers who don’t qualify for gold-plated treatment are learning to work the system. If you’re willing to negotiate, and even threaten to switch carriers, you may get goodies such as discounts on new phones, credit on bills and free minutes.

Your efforts for better service should start at the service center, according to a colleague who recently scored some new cell phone perks. The thing is, all callers dial the same main number, but front-line service people are trained to pay particular attention to people with big monthly balances. In today’s competitive market a monthly cell phone bill of at least $75 will generally merit some attention.

Most of the big carriers, including Cingular Wireless and AT&T Wireless, offer subscribers who threaten to quit extra incentives, ranging from a free month to extra minutes. One thing to keep in mind as you try this more aggressive approach to better service is that wireless companies need you – bad.

Carriers are struggling with slowing subscriber growth, soaring expenses and fierce competition. Since about 47 percent of Americans now own a cell phone, the industry already has snared the easiest and most lucrative customers – namely you, the road-warrior business person. Now they are forced to court other groups such as parents, teenagers and even folks with lousy credit. Meanwhile, user loyalty is fading.

The number of subscribers who ditch their service plan each year has risen to 30 percent of the total number who own a cell phone. Five years ago, that number was 25 percent.

So go ahead, make a fuss. Better cell phone service may only be a quick complaint away.

Paul Kennedy is a Mosinee, Wis.-based business and technology writer.

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