Believing in something even better: Three problems with my initial experience with US Cellular

I had been with Verizon Wireless since I was first given a cell phone back in late 2003 (I was a very late bloomer) but due to recent policy issues (among many other customer service problems) I decided it was time to abandon ship. Sucks for ol’ Verizon, as I was about to upgrade my month–to–month contract in order to get a hip new phone. The phone I was clinging to was at least four years old, always had charger problems, and had just achieved broken screen status.

I did a little research to look for a more tolerable provider a la a Twitter poll and found that just about every wireless provider came up with an even, unenthusiastic “meh”. Those companies who surpassed their competitors in popularity with an explicit “yay” (or, to be more precise, a luke warm “I’ve never really had problems with these guys”) would soon be knocked down by somebody with an explicit “nay.”

I, myself, had been interested in US Cellular who, in June last year, debuted their new mission statement and design strategy, “Believe in something better.” I liked that. Believe in something better. Not a better wireless company. Not a better phone. Justsomething. Inspiring. I also liked their design choices. Their color was like a blue sky just after a storm. A post–melancholic atmosphere. The dawn of a new day. Their fonts were a combination of Matrix Script and Rosewood Fill.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a presentation by their Senior Field Marketing Manager, Jim Wnorowski and several of his associates from the marketing department. The presentation focused on how they tried to appeal to their customers, primarily by focusing on customer service as well as community involvement. The in’store experience was key. So Saturday I canceled my service with Verizon and popped by US Cellular’s Water Street store to put them to the test.

Overall the experience was good. It wasn’t anything mind bogglingly advanced (which, in the wireless industry, might still be worth a few points) but it was overall a pleasant experience. I was greeted immediately and with warmth and was told to sign up for the next available representative. After roaming the store for a few minutes I was able to sit down to learn what was available and things went quite smoothly.

But there were three issues I felt stood in the way of the outstanding customer service I was expecting. I list them here in order of expanding importance, the last being most important (cuz I gotta keep you reading).

Problem #1 – The Old Number

I couldn’t keep my old phone number. My number originated in Iowa and I was getting a new plan with a new company in a new city. For some reason phone companies are still embracing the idea that area codes still exist. I get calls from local friends that come up listed as Boston, Massachusetts, or calls from my parents that are listed as Perry, Iowa, a place they’ve never lived. The phone I bought (the Two Step) even lists this incorrect area information before the caller’s name. And on top of that you have to pay $2 a month for this useless service. These days the area code just states where the phone originated from, and nothing more relevant or useful than that.

I don’t particularly fault the customer service for that, but as users become more and more attached to their numbers (it has almost become a social security number, but more personal) phone companies are going to have to catch up with the ever shrinking world. US Cellular should lead the way, though I’m sure there are miles of paperwork, bureaucracy, technicalities, and legalities that are getting in the way.

Problem #2 – The Paper Bill

When asked at which address I wanted to receive my bill I gave it to them, but stated that I didn’t want to receive paper bills. I asked if we could just set it up e-mail notification right there and get it out of the way. It couldn’t be done. My representative said that I could do it myself, when I got home, but they couldn’t do it there. Now I ask why not? This is an opportune time for US Cellular to step in and please the customer, save the environment, and save some money. It just seems like one of those things that can be ticked off when filing the “paperwork” with all the other information I’ve given them. X number was registered. X plan was selected. X bonuses were added. Paper bills are turned off. Check, check, check, done.

Problem #3 – The most glaring problem: Prorated Bills, Minutes, and Text Messages

When I signed up for the phone they selected a random billing time to start, a few days after I had purchased the phone. In the meantime, they prorated me for the first few days of use, before the billing time started so I had to pay some $5 in advance, which is one of those hidden ways of nickle–and–diming the customer (if everybody is giving US Cellular an additional $5 [or more, depending on their plan] on top of the two–year contract, it adds up).

But the biggest problem I had with this is that they prorated the minutes and the text message package, too! Over the next four days, until my plan “officially“ started I was only given 29 minutes and 25 text messages.

To a phone company, phone time and data are essentially free. It’s less than water. It’s less than air. There is no extra expense to the company if I were to use two minutes or two million. It’s all the same to them. So it baffles me why they don’t offer 1000 free minutes for your prorated time and 1000 free texts (that would expire at the start of your official contract, of course). Heck, offer unlimited minutes and texts. US Cellular should give it’s customers the ability to call up everyone in their phone book and say &ldquoHey, I just dumped that terrible old Verizon and signed up for US Cellular because their customer service is fantastic. They actually seem to care about me. They even gave me unlimited minutes to tell you how awesome they are. Maybe you should join me. After all, what has Verizon done for you lately?”

When I protested (Since I can’t keep my old number, I have a new phone number, so I’ve gotta call everyone in my phone book to let them know) they gave me an additional fifty minutes. Good, but not great. I have a new company. I have a new phone. I want to use it, but I’m limited. Instead of putting my brand new plan to work, I have to use Facebook instead.

I still have faith in the company, though, and I’m excited to see what new ways they’ll compete to keep me happy, but some of these issues seem elementary. Let’s hope from here on out I’m looking at the post–melancholic sky as the storm moves on.