Sunday, March 20, 2011

Thoughts on AT&T Purchase of T-Mobile

My initial reaction to AT&T's purchase of T-Mobile is one of concern. This has very little to do with the technology and everything to do with company culture. I am very happy with T-Mobile mainly because of their customer service and pricing. I used to work for T-Mobile in their customer care department years ago. I can tell you that they have something good going on there. 

Let's start off by clarifying that the buyout is not all gloom and doom. It actually helps out both customers of AT&T and T-Mobile. Both companies use GSM, so they are technologically compatible. The only thing that separates them are the frequencies they use, and not much beyond that. Plenty of people have jailbroken iPhones running on the T-Mobile network. You can currently buy unlocked GSM phones that will run on any GSM network provided you have a SIM card.

From experience, I can tell you that AT&T has better rural coverage than T-Mobile. When T-Mobile customers roam, they hop on to AT&T towers. Most services work while roaming, except network-centric features like the free mobile to mobile calling. While you are roaming, those calls are straight anytime minutes. So, this is a win for T-Mobile customers.

The doubling of frequencies and availability of network capacity is a definite win for customers of both companies. Where I have issues is that I'm a big fan of T-Mobile customer service. When I worked there, they treated us very well. Of course, they expected us to treat our customers well too. At the end of the day, many of my co-workers were not eager to leave as you see in other companies. They would stick around for another hour or two. In short, T-mobile has a great company culture that comes through in what they do.

Do you remember T-Mobile's Get More campaign? That campaign is gone; but the spirit lives on. T-Mobile has always strived to give customers more minutes and features at a lower cost. In addition, they have always aimed at providing handsets with the greatest features. Of course, this has not always translated into the biggest or fastest network until their recent drive to HSPA+.

I'll admit that I've never been an AT&T or Cingular mobile customer. I've been a Sprint customer, and I've met with engineers from Nextel, a company Sprint acquired. In fact, I'm currently a simultaneous customer of Boost Mobile and T-Mobile.

When I was with Sprint, I hated calling customer service. Each rep would tell me something different concerning my account. They would always nickel and dimed me into huge bills. I would always have to call two or three times to sort things out. When Sprint acquired Nextel, Sprint's company culture simply crushed what was otherwise a growing business. My engineer friends would show me maps of their drives looking for dead spots when they were just Nextel. They would tweak their towers to maximize coverage. Once Sprint acquired them, they had to standardize all towers, even if it meant poor reception in some areas.

What Sprint did to Nextel network coverage, they worsened through their customer service. 
This is my concern for my own T-Mobile experience. I worry that AT&T's company culture will carry over to my own mobile experience. With T-Mobile, I was willing to do with a little less because they treat me right. This is really important when it comes to data products.

I mentioned earlier that I have service with TMO and Boost. I'm using Boost for my voice service and the walkie-talkie feature. I have no problem using voice service with the lowest bidder. Boost currently has an offer where your bill goes down to $35/mo for unlimited voice/text/data. I use my T-mobile phone on the lowest voice plan and have unlimited data. I can live without reliable voice; data is my livelihood.

With Boost, the consensus is that they have terrible customer service. Fortunately, their handsets are very affordable. I think, rather than troubleshoot a problem, I would buy a new handset, move the SIM card, and go about my business. Most of what I need to do can be done on their website.

Data is a different issue. If you have a data problem, you MUST call customer care. So, in those rare instances where I've had problems with my data service, I have had no reservations calling T-Mobile for help. For this reason, I would have stayed with T-Mobile forever. I worry that my experience will decline after the acquisition like the experiences of Nextel customers after Sprint. I don't think AT&T will try to instill T-Mobile customer care standards in their own people. To the victor go the spoils, after all.

Having dealt with AT&T for their other services, I can't say that I've been mistreated. They have been helpful; but it always seems like I'm just a number to them. T-Mobile practices "one and done"; they aim to limit your need to ask for help to one phone call. In other words, they want to ensure your request is fulfilled by the end of the phone call. If it isn't, that rep is charged with following through to take care of the problem for you. 
If, and this is a big IF, my customer service experience deteriorates, it seems I'm running out of options on where to take my service. I think AT&T will do OK, perhaps not as magical as T-Mobile. But, IF things get bad, I'm definitely not going to Sprint. I guess that just leaves Verizon. But, I don't think we'll get to that point, right? I think the technological benefits will likely outweigh the plain vanilla customer care experience. 
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