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Published: Friday, 7/13/2007

Lost art of customer service

SPRINT Nextel Corp. can't figure out why in the last quarter it gained far fewer wireless customers than its competitors.

Let us suggest that maybe it's due to the decision to summarily drop a number of paying subscribers who used customer service too often, at least in the opinion of company bean counters.

That's an unbelievable attitude for a service organization, particularly one in the competitive cell-phone business.

Any business can and should drop customers who don't pay their bills or otherwise don't live up to the contract they signed. But that's not why Sprint sent letters telling some 1,000 subscribers it will terminate them by late July.

Sprint says these people called customer service as many as 40 and 50 times a month. Granted, some wanted information about other customers that the company couldn't provide. But others called repeatedly about legitimate issues, like billing.

That's what subscribers with problems are entitled to do. In the case of still-erratic wireless phone systems, service questions and complaints are legion. In the wake of the controversy, Sprint is attempting to appease those who were jilted by waiving early termination fees and forgiving final bills. But it's too little, too late.

The episode could turn out to be a public relations disaster because nothing travels faster these days than bad news about poor cell-phone service. In the most recent quarter, AT&T added 1.2 million new customers; Verizon, 1.7 million. Sprint trailed badly, adding only 600,000.

Maybe, just maybe, the customers are catching on.

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