Porting Your Number: Understanding the Porter
By Al Berrios (contact Al Berrios)

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> The First Impression With the Retail Brand
> The Manager
> Pass And Fumble: The Atypical Customer Experience?
> The Ultimate Customer Service Experience
> A New Wireless Carrier Business Model
> The Future of the Wireless Business

This holiday season, I decided to treat myself. I wanted to reconnect an original Motorola v-phone, (remember those, best phone ever made! Even works underground!!). The problem was that I originally got the phone from MCI Wireless, (remember them, Worldcom larcenists!) After 4 years with a basic Nokia handset on AT&T, I figured it was time for a change anyway, but who would reconnect this older model phone? Verizon, that's who. My good buddy had the same phone and recently decided to pass it on to his aunt who connected it with Verizon. Since she was a current customer, I was lead to believe it would be a hassle-free hook-up. Yea, you know it wasn't, otherwise, I wouldn't tell you this story.

The First Impression With the Retail Brand

So there I am at my local Verizon store in Jersey City, NJ and I'm not sure whether to get a new MS Pocket PC handset (since I needed a new PDA anyway) or reconnect the last phone I wish to own (it was made before Motorola screwed itself over by missing consumer trends). I asked the lady behind the counter for advice and she passed me over to another associate. After 2 minutes, he came to my assistance. Before hearing me out, he flatly denied that Verizon could reconnect my obsolete handset. Stunned, I informed him he was wrong and politely insisted he reconnect it. He recommended I not try to reconnect my v-phone because there may be problems with my service if it even worked (my v-phone was dual mode and I risked paying roaming charges through Verizon, while current handsets are tri-band, facilitating all those "anytime" minutes).

I felt discouraged by the associate. However, he was in for a bigger headache when I told him I'm also interested in keeping the same number I currently have and insisted for more advice. He clearly was getting frustrated with my desire to downgrade and initiate a port. He made another attempt to dissuade me by telling me that a port will take up to 76 hours and again mentioned that there's no guarantee that Verizon's service will work on my v-phone, (in other words, he really didn't want to go through all this trouble for me for nothing.) I decided that I should reconsider. I walked around the store looking at the Pocket PC models. I didn't like any of them and thought about getting a Palm-based platform instead. (Just because I prefer the "stone-age" doesn't mean I'm not familiar with my choices.)

I decided to contact my buddy to see if his aunt was having any problems with her service. He said no, but I needed one final assurance. I walked back into the store and asked one of the greeting-associates for a friendlier ear. After explaining that I could save $500 by reconnecting my old phone and not getting the Pocket PC model I wanted, she looked at me with a "DUH!-Go-for-the-reconnection" look. I concurred and stood back on the activation line. By this time, I believe I had been at this store for about 35-40 minutes.

The associate saw me and obviously tried to ignore me. Being the patient customer that I am, I requested he reconnect my phone with the same number I was currently using. I stayed firm and with a huff, he went to speak to someone else in the back. He soon came out and actually tried to sell me another phone. I appreciated his attempts, however, why would I want to pay for a brand new phone when this phone did everything I wanted it to do and was free? He checked out some things online and seemed genuinely lost as to what to do next. After about 10 minutes, he started filling out some paperwork. He said, "Do you want a one-year or two-year agreement?" "One year," I replied. "Well, no one does the one-year. It isn't as good as the two-year." I shot back, "Then why did you offer it?" The associate had his worse nightmare confirmed - I was going to be a customer that took more than 10 minutes and he wasn't getting paid enough to deal with me.

The Manager

What appeared to be the manager materialized behind him with a Santa hat. He peeked to see if there was anything he could help with and after the associate explained to him what I wanted, the manager claimed that the two-year was a better agreement because I received a $100 credit at the end of the agreement. I value flexibility more than discounts and committing to pay close to $1000 bucks just to get $100 back wasn't my cup of tea. I politely rejected the two-year agreement and insisted on the one-year. The manager said I was making a big mistake because Verizon's the best service around and even after 1 year, I'd be back. "About 98% of all my customers take the two-year," he remarked.

Clearly, he didn't realize whom he was pitting wits with. It's obvious he was a good sales guy - pressuring me with logic, majority rules, and knowledge that I'd been there close to an hour and was willing to do anything just to leave. However as good as he was, all it did was get me upset at him and more determined to get what I wanted. "Why is it so hard to just get what I want?" I protested. He claimed he was only trying to help me by informing me of my options, so that I don't claim later that he never did. He continued by calling my phone unreliable and worthless. (Thanks.) To humor him, I asked him to explain to me the benefit of the two-year contract and if it was so great, why does Verizon offer a one-year. By this point, it was clear these guys made some sort of commission on handsets and plans sold, otherwise, why the hard sell?

The manager explained, I rejected, and insisted on getting my old phone reconnected with my old number. The manager left me in the hands of the original associate. The associate then passed me towards the middle of the counter to another associate who, I suppose, had the patience to deal with my sort of issue.

Pass And Fumble: The Atypical Customer Experience?

As we're going through the signing up process (again), he tells me he's giving me a 917 number. I reminded him that I was "porting". With his voice raised, he said I should have told him that in the beginning. Stupefied, I tell him his co-worker started me off, and should have informed you. (The original associate actually permitted this new associate to do everything all over again from scratch!) No sweat… I walked him through it… all over again.

As we're half-way through, the associate realizes that he can't process me because I was giving him incomplete information. The manager turns up again to help the new associate. "What's your account number?" he asks. "I don't know, can't you just look it up?" Apparently not, because his next response would have gotten him fired if I were a mystery shopper, "Sorry, we can't. You'll have to come back with your complete information."

Startled, but not defeated, I reply that that was unacceptable. After over an hour and a half, I wasn't about to just leave. There's a solution to this problem and we're going to find it together. He instructed me to call AT&T for the information. I did, and learned that my information wasn't complete, it was just that I got my service so long ago, new information was required that wasn't required back then. Go figure. (AT&T did make an attempt to prevent me from porting, however, too little, too late. After 4 years, two off-contract, of excessive charges with no attempts to show appreciation to such a high-value customer, I didn't feel they deserved my business any longer.)

Anyway, information retrieved, we continued with the sign-up process. It felt like I was now on a mission. It had now been 2 hours and I was almost near the end. The process was complete and I signed my contract for a basic plan (which is one of the worse compared to AT&T and T-Mobile, which I also got for my wife and received a much more generous minute plan for the same monthly fee.) After all this time, the manager decides to bond with me. He asks me what I do for a living. I say consult. The other associate says, "Wow, so why don't you just pay for a new phone since you got the money?" (I can't believe that I was once as obnoxious and ignorant as this guy when I worked retail.) Luckily, the manager demonstrated why he was such a good salesman and answered for me, "It isn't about the money; it's about principle." Although it was clear he understood me, my response was, "Wow, you must be a genius! You're right!"

Yes, I was upset, and venting at this cast of characters wasn't going to speed the process up any faster. But what the hell, I had earned an opportunity for sarcasm. Unfortunately, the associates and manager didn't agree with my sentiments. After the associate explained to me what he had just done, he ordered me to continue my journey to the final end of the counter, where the Solectron Global Services associate a.k.a. Verizon Technical associate, was going to "re-program" my phone. In other words, the phone was so old, he didn't know how to do it and wasn't going to spend his valuable time finishing something he was forced into by another associate. On to my 5th associate I merrily went.

The Ultimate Customer Service Experience

A younger associate, he knew how to turn on the phone, but without color, he was lost. He tried to relate to me by telling me how mad he'd be if he'd been passed around like I had for the last 2 hours and 30 minutes. At that moment, I could see in his eyes that he was having difficulty reprogramming my phone. He went to his supervisor several times for assistance, but nothing. He then says to me, "I'm sorry man, I don't think we're gonna get this phone to work." I patiently said, "That's not the answer I'm looking for after all this time. There is a solution to this problem and you're going to find it - I believe in you." He looked down, tried again, and went back to his supervisor. This time, the supervisor came out and took charge. In 5 seconds he realized the problem - the technician had been typing in the number incorrectly. One minute later, my phone was working. (Can you hear the voices singing "Hallelujah"?)

At close to 3 hours, I never thought this experience was going to end. I went around the store and thanked everyone except the associate that tried to discourage me then passed me over, and left the store with my old phone and old number. And best of all, the 76-hour waiting period for the porting to work actually took just an hour, during which I could make outside calls, and still receive them on my old handset.

The joy I felt was indescribable - I beat a corporate giant trying to pressure me into doing something I didn't want to do; I overcame the obstacle of an associate unwilling to help me; I saved at least $500 bucks!!!; and I got what I wanted, my v-phone with the same number. Thank you FCC! But after three hours, I also got something more valuable - insight into the average Joe's experience today in dealing with a wireless service provider.

A New Wireless Carrier Business Model

Whether you're aware of it or not, the carriers make a substantial amount of their revenue from handset sales. Last time I changed my plan, (about 4 years ago), phones were still given away for free with good enough credit. Today, everyone has to pay. This rankled me and made me even more determined to reconnect my basic phone. I don't want video games, music, or calendars - I just want to make a phone call. The experience was similar to the record labels that make us buy an entire album when all we really want is one track. It's evident that carriers have figured out how to extract more profit from their networks (i.e. data transfer), however, they forgot that not every consumer wants it. And although the carriers have plans that don't encourage you to transfer data, they're awful. And handset makers are oblivious to consumers who just want phones to call each other.

This is especially true of older consumers. I wasn't the only one in that store that day trying to reconnect or hold onto a really good phone. During the day, older folks where coming in with Motorala StarTacs. Remember those? Great phones, too, but they pre-date my v-phone. Although the majority were upgraded to digital camera gizmos, some walked out intimidated by the thought of dealing with complicated pricing and plans, changing (or keeping) numbers, or the thought of giving up their reliable technology that they have mastered.

I'm not saying to stop innovating or forcing upgrades on customers to increase profitability. If the FCC hadn't forced broadcasters to go digital, manufacturers would have never tapped into consumers' profitable desire to buy countless flat-plasma displays. I am saying that manufacturers should consider entry-level handsets with stripped-down prices to go along with them. It's not just the price, but reliability of the handset. Low-tech is reliable tech, and often, that's more convenient (and valuable) to certain types of consumers. All your choices shouldn't be high-tech.

But the most obvious area of improvement is in the training offered to retail associates and licensed distributors. The training appears to be solely focused on selling, doesn't encompass special offers from the corporate office, and doesn't take into account the nature of the business - high-involvement decision-making that needs patience, not just explanations. Even the army is "deprogramming" their soldiers to be nicer in Iraq.

In my case, the training I encountered from everyone other than the manager is some of the worst I've ever encountered. I believe that my situation isn't rare, just that the great masses of consumers that typically adopt a new gizmo 3 to 7 years after the "Alphas" and "Influentials" adopt it are coming out now. I would advise carriers to retrain their sales forces with basic negotiation skills, behavioral psychology, and courtesy, and stop training them like stock brokers working for bonuses and commissions. The reason these late adopters adopt late, is because they don't like the hard-sell.

I've seen data that says consumers are changing phones and services at least once a year, maybe twice, however, does anyone know why? To escape fees, get better reception, take advantage of promotions? I don't believe it's because they're seeking the next cool gee-whiz functionality. I do believe these numbers are skewed by heavy switchers, mostly younger, mobile folks, and doesn't take into account Neanderthals like me that actually like simpler phones, even though I can write HTML code.

Based on our research on human behavior, there are two classes of consumers: young and adult. Younger consumers care more about the features because from their perspective, a wireless carrier gives them the liberty to choose, something they can't normally do anywhere else. Adult consumers care more about the practicality of their carriers - prices and convenience. You could say that they're more rational than their younger counterparts.

The Future of the Wireless Business

I believe that spectacular handset design innovation from the handset manufacturers that aids functionality more than style, will ultimately drive another growth spurt in the industry. During my three-hour adventure, I found it fascinating the way the habits of younger consumers have changed in how they operate handsets. No longer is one hand acceptable to even type in a number. Two are always required. I used to find this odd since I always used one hand, even to text, but habits have been changed by the mere addition or features to handsets and it's evident when seeing a younger person dial a number. I bought my wife a feature-packed Samsung on T-Mobile and it's such a toy. I dial the keys just to hear the cute sounds; I constantly change settings to personalize; I play all the games and surf the web. And frankly, one hand really isn't enough anymore.

Another behavioral change al berrios & co. has been tracking has been in the way carrier features are perceived. For example, when you think of roll-over minutes, what comes to mind? When you think of "can you hear me now?" When you're considering your options, specific positioning definitely helps in differentiating from competitors. Your wireless brand's survival may ultimately depend on promoting a particular feature, rather than service, price, or latest handsets.

When a consumer habit changes, it doesn't take long to spread across to the rest of the population. And whichever manufacturer catches this wave before it hits, will lead the market.

> Wireless Industry
> Wireless Companies
> The FCC
> Media Trade Groups

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