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No Way Out

  • February 12, 2001, 12:00 AM EST
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I bought my little blue Nokia 8290 cell phone about five months ago. It fit unobtrusively into my front pocket. It had great features. It came with the highly touted VoiceStream service. It seemed perfect. No more roaming charges. Much like spokeswoman Jamie Lee Curtis, I wanted to "Get more from life." So I signed on the dotted line.

What do I get for my $48.19 a month? I can play games. I can place calls. Unfortunately, no one can call me. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a cell phone. Plus, trying to cancel my contract makes me feel like Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. I'm not a convicted felon, yet Ashley, a supervisor in VoiceStream's customer-service department, views my contract like a denied parole: It's a no-way-out policy.

After endless calls to the customer-service line at the Bellevue, Wash.-based company, I was sent to Supervisor Ashley. She told me there are problems in the New York metro area with 22 of the company's towers.

"If I could come and build a tower on your land so your phone would work, I would," said Ashley. But she can't. She also couldn't tell me when the problem would be fixed or compensate me for the months of useless service for which I've already paid.

She refused to give me her full name, only her location. What I wanted was someone accountable to customers. Ashley did offer to change my number. No promises, but it might help. She also offered me 100 free minutes. Ironic, isn't it? I don't want more, I want less. I want out. Not possible, she said, unless I pay the $200 cancellation fee. VoiceStream is breaching its contract, and I pay. I'm willing to eat the $175 for the phone. But pay for its mistakes, no way.

Jamie Lee can dive under dining-room tables and off verandas and still get service. But can she build New Yorkers a working tower?

VoiceStream spent about $100 million on advertising last year, per Competitive Media Reporting, to stay ahead of a growing group of competitors clamoring for our attention. But VoiceStream needs to do much more if it intends to be competitive. Cute phones only go so far.

In any category, especially a cluttered one, company execs need to remember the key lesson in marketing 101: service. Fancy devices attract customers, but you won't retain them if you don't back up your offerings with quality service.

Of course, VoiceStream isn't the only culprit. A colleague had a similar problem with Palm V. First, she reported a stuck calendar button to customer service. They told her to return the Palm V.

She did (was charged $100) and received another. The replacement model didn't work, either. So she called back, was put on hold for 45 minutes, then told to e-mail. She complied—and was directed to customer service!

Eventually, a rep sent a retooled model in exchange for the broken one. Satisfaction? Nope. That model was a dud. Finally, after cancelling the $100 Visa charge and threatening legal action, a rep sent her a new model.

A lifetime warranty may be passé in a disposable society, but respect for customers never goes out of style.

What ever happened to the customer is always right?