Lowenstein's view: Who ya gonna call? Page 2

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If a customer had this sort of experience with a newly purchased smartphone, they would be apoplectic and the FCC would be organizing yet another inquiry into wireless carrier "practices." At the same time, it is going to be increasingly challenging for wireless operators to provide quality support for advanced devices, especially when many of the problems have little to do with the core service they provide. The iPhone is an industry exception: Apple, rather than AT&T, provides most of the support--and there are limits to how much of that support is free. As for other devices, should AT&T have to pay to support a call from a customer who is having trouble syncing their BlackBerry with their Mac calendar, for example?

I think we are going to see some important changes in the customer service infrastructure for wireless. First, we might see some tiering of service options. Customers coming in through unlocked devices, or on monthly or pay-as-you-go plans, might not have access to the same support level as "full fare" (high ARPU, postpaid) customers (this is already happening). It is entirely possible that operators will borrow from the "computing" playbook and start charging for customer support, in certain circumstances. Second, operators are going to set some new rules about what they will or won't support, especially for devices that are primarily using them for a "pipe" and not much else. Third, I think operators are going to start demanding their OEM partners provide more of a support infrastructure for customers. There are very few examples where subscribers can contact a device manufacturer directly--and in many cases, it's tied to part of a support "package," such as Apple Care, for the iPhone. You can be sure that other third-party support companies, such as Geek Squad, see support for mobile devices as a major opportunity, now that Best Buy's mobile retail presence is well established.

Finally, with phones being less centric to an "operator relationship," customer service might become a more important differentiator going forward. For example, operators might provide a premium level of customer support--for example, direct number to an Android specialist--for high value customers. This could be also be value-added aspect of purchasing a device through the operator channel: T-Mobile in the case of the Nexus One. Operators might also consider that their large call centers, consisting of thousands of increasingly highly trained specialists, are a valuable resource that could provide revenue generating opportunities, be it paid support options from existing customers, or a resource that can be used by other companies in the consumer electronics industry. It's not inconceivable that Dell may consider using a carrier's data tech support for its new smartphone rather sending customers off to some crummy off-shore call center.

Operators could also consider requiring OEMs and other parties to help fund the cost of running these centers. Additionally, customer support and device expertise should remain an important differentiator for the operator-owned store, as opposed to the other channels through which customers might purchase their device or otherwise engage their wireless service.

Just as phones have become small computers, where service is concerned we're likely to end up with some hybrid of the do-it-yourself Internet experience and the more traditional "telephony" approach of the wireless industry.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter.

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