Sprint gets top marks in annual customer satisfaction survey

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) topped the charts in terms of customer satisfaction, according to a new report from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Sprint's score of 71 nudged it just ahead of Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which scored a 70 on a 100-point scale. Both carriers recorded scores of 72 in last year's ACSI survey.

While Verizon's score has been relatively constant since 2007 (rising to 74 in 2009 before dipping down to 70 in 2012), Sprint's score represents a dramatic improvement from 2008, when it had an all-time-low score of 56. Sprint received scores of 63 in 2009 and 70 in 2010 before hitting 72 in 2011. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse continually points to the company's improvement in customer care as one of the carrier's signature achievements since he took over in late 2007 from Gary Forsee. 

Overall customer satisfaction with the nation's wireless carriers dipped slightly in 2012 compared with a survey in 2011, according to the survey--though smaller carriers outpaced the Tier 1 operators. Overall customer satisfaction with wireless carriers fell slightly to 70, down from 71 in 2011. However, Tier 2 and Tier 3 carriers, including the likes of U.S. Cellular and MVNO TracFone, achieved a score of 76, according to the report.

The ACSI was founded in 1994 by the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. The ACSI uses data from interviews with roughly 70,000 customers annually as inputs to an econometric model for measuring customer satisfaction with more than 225 companies in 47 industries and 10 economic sectors, as well as over 100 services, programs, and websites of federal government agencies. The survey also covers consumers' attitudes about handsets, fixed-line phone service, subscription TV service, computer software and information and entertainment choices.

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), which was mired in discussions over its failed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA last year, saw its score shoot up to 69 from 66 in 2011, which had been its lowest since 2006, before the carrier's launch of the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone. T-Mobile also scored a 69 in the 2012 survey, down from 71 in 2011.

David VanAmburg, managing director of the ACSI, noted that while Sprint continues to lead in customer satisfaction, the gap between top and bottom is very narrow, as only 2 points separates Sprint from laggards AT&T and T-Mobile. He said overall customer satisfaction with the largest wireless telephone companies is below average for service-based industries.

"AT&T makes a significant move to within striking distance of the industry lead, a combination of improving service and some evening out of the bandwidth burden now that Verizon and Sprint also offer the iPhone," he said. "The big customer satisfaction challenge for wireless carriers remains how to keep up with rapid growth as more customers adopt cell phone services, and especially as the smartphone market and its bandwidth-eating data plans expands, while at the same time improving the reliability of service."

The new report comes amid the backdrop of cuts that carriers are making to their customer care centers. T-Mobile USA said in late March it would cut 1,900 jobs as it moves to consolidate the number of its call centers around the country from 24 down to 17. However, the nation's No. 4 carrier said it would begin hiring immediately at the remaining 17 call centers and expects to fill as many as 1,400 positions, resulting in 1,900 net jobs lost.

Similarly, Verizon said in March that it would close a handful of call centers across the country in a move that could affect up to 3,175 jobs. 

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