Dealing with a mobile carrier's customer service is among most people's least favorite activities. First you navigate your way through an automated phone tree, responding to a robo-voice that often misunderstands what you say. Then you spend a long time waiting on hold. Then you finally reach a human being who knows nothing at all about you, so that you have to give all your information and explain your problem all over again.

T-Mobile is attempting to fix all that with a new customer service approach called "Team of Experts" that it's rolling out to its customers today. Here's how it differs from the customer service you're accustomed to (in both good and bad ways):

1. No bots.

"'Your call is important to us' are the six emptiest words ever robo-spoken," T-Mobile CEO John Legere said at the event announcing the new format. Instead of navigating your way through an automated response tree that attempts to solve or at least identify your problem before involving a human being. "While other brands mechanize customer service, we're going the other way--no bots, no bouncing, no B.S.," Legere declared.

Mobile carriers and other companies principally use bots because they can cut customer service costs, of course. But--if you can stand talking to an algorithm--they can sometimes solve common problems or provide information more quickly than a human would. Still, on balance, Legere is right that most customers are fed up with them and would rather not have to deal with a bot.

2. A dedicated team.

With "Team of Experts" you will be automatically assigned to a team of 30-40 customer service agents who, T-Mobile says, will all sit and work together. That means if you're not calling for the first time, there's a decent chance that the person you're talking to will already be familiar with you and your issue--or can just ask someone nearby. That might alleviate the frequent annoyance of having to explain what you need over and over again to different people who are each hearing it for the first time. You and your team members may get to know each other over time. To help that process along, T-Mobile will show you a picture of your team, so you can see what they look like.

Furthermore, you'll be assigned to a team that serves your particular region which means its members will be familiar with any local issues. When I lived in New York, I once got a call from Central Hudson asking why I hadn't paid my bill during a major snow storm and power outage. The person who called me was in Oklahoma and had no idea there was anything unusual going on. So having a team with local knowledge is probably a good thing. On the other hand, it seems likely that teams could get overloaded and thus slow to respond when a local event such as a storm or power outage causes many customers to call in at once.

3. You can time your conversation (or chat).

One obvious drawback to using dedicated teams at and eschewing bots is that there's a danger of longer wait times, especially if a local event causes many customers from the same region to contact customer service at the same time. But T-Mobile is making the reasonable bet that what really frustrates customers is less that they aren't getting immediate answers and more that they have to waste their time sitting on hold or waiting for the next chat message.

T-Mobile is attempting to fix that problem by allowing customers to choose to get a call back, or schedule a call in advance. Those options are becoming standard for customer service everywhere--even the Social Security Administration offers them. But the company is also hoping to solve the waiting-in-chat problem by offering asynchronous communications: You can message your Team of Experts via the T-Mobile app or iMessage (if you're an Apple user) and then close the app and go about your business. When you come back to it, your message (and one hopes, a response) will be there waiting for you.

4. The team isn't 24/7.

At least, not yet, and not for everyone. With 30 to 40 people on a team, there aren't enough "experts" to be available all the time to all customers. So if you call after 9 pm or 7 pm in your time zone, you'll reach a standard "customer care" agent as opposed to a team member. T-Mobile says it will begin offering 24/7 Team of Experts service to post-paid customers early in 2019.

5. You aren't stuck with it.

Unlike most customer service scenarios, you don't have to use your Team of Experts if you don't want to. You can opt for traditional customer service with automated responses and a nationwide call center. 

Will other carriers copy this approach?

The mobile industry is one where better customer service could deliver a serious competitive advantage. That's because mobile carriers have proved to be very good at signing up new customers, but not so good at getting those customers to stick around. Phone numbers are increasingly portable and two-year contracts that come with a subsidized phone seem quaint these days. Meanwhile, there's always some appealing offer to lure customers away.

Customer service that is less unpleasant to use could well motivate customers to stay with T-Mobile. And encouraging customer service agents and customers to get to know one another is definitely a very smart move on T-Mobile's part. Injecting even a minimal human connection into an industry that's never had any at all could make a huge difference to customer loyalty.

If all this works the way T-Mobile expects, it might only be a matter of time before other carriers follow suit, just as they did when T-Mobile brought back unlimited data and every other carrier followed suit. It might even spread beyond the mobile industry to other consumer-facing services and utilities. At least I hope so, because having a dedicated customer service team, and maybe even a human connection, sounds like a good thing to me.

Published on: Aug 15, 2018
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