Presenting: another epic saga of wireless phone company incompetence...bear with me.

I'd had my Sprint cell phone and plan since 2001 - six years of relatively problem free operation (minor billing annoyances aside). And they recognized that I was a loyal customer who always paid my bill on time - in recent years they regularly sent me offers to "upgrade my plan" or my phone and receive a billing credit (but we all know this is because they wanted me to renew my vows and sign on to a new contract).

Recently, I decided that I wanted to look at a phone upgrade. 6 years had taken its toll on my Samsung A500, and I was excited about the possibility of a phone that would better sync up its contacts and calendar with my computer. I had asked Slashdot about such a product a few years ago, but the offerings were much more promising now.


So I went into the Sprint Store. I said "I'm interested in upgrading to a new phone, but only if I'm able to keep my current plan and features at the same price" -- the folks at Consumerist.com have taught me well about what to ask for and how to ask. And it was important - I was using my A500 as a modem for my Mac laptop when I didn't otherwise have network access, and I wanted that to continue. As a part of that feature - it was called Unlimited PCS Vision - I also had unlimited text messaging, which was important for my business use.

The person at the store said "We can do that. You can have this new phone (a Motorola Razor V3M) and the same plan you have now with the same features at the same price, as long as you renew your contract for 2 years." I thought that was reasonable - I'll commit to them, they'll keep things as they are with me, we'll all be happy. And I again had the Sprint store representative explicitly confirm that the above important features would still be present on my new plan.

About a week after the purchase, I tried to use the new phone as a modem. It didn't work, and I called customer service to ask why.

Sprint: "Sir, you don't have that feature enabled on your plan any more."

Me: "Well, the folks at the Sprint Store told me that feature would continue to be on my plan at no additional charge."

Sprint: "Okay, we can go ahead and get that enabled for you so you can use your cell phone as a modem with your laptop. Just wait a few hours for that feature to be enabled and then try again."

Me: "Thanks, I'll do that!"

About a week or two after that, I finally had a chance to try using the phone as a modem again, this time when I really needed it. It didn't work. I called them back.

Me: "When I changed over to my new plan, the person in the store guaranteed me that I would continue to have the same features, including using my phone as a modem for my laptop. I called a week ago and they told me that I should be able to use this feature once it was turned on. It still doesn't work."

Sprint: "Well, actually, you would need to pay for a data plan to do that, and those start at $39/month."

Me: "But what about what I was told when I got the new phone and what I was told since then by customer service."

Sprint: "I'm sorry, they didn't know what they were talking about."

So then I have the choice to make: 1) take my phone back to the store and demand that they give me a refund and put me back on my old plan with my beat up old phone, 2) fight Sprint on their failure to honor statements made by their representatives, or 3) just live with it.

I was doing fine with #3 until today, when the Sprint bill showed up and included charges for text messages. I shouldn't be billed for text messages, because my old plan had unlimited text messaging that I was never billed for, so my NEW plan should have unlimited text messaging too. I called Sprint again.

"We are unable to answer your call at this time. Please try again later."

Their phone system was apparently overloaded. I called back a few minutes later.

"We estimate your wait time to be 3 minutes or less."

And then 3 minutes went by, and their phone system disconnected the call. I called back again, and their phone system disconnected the call.

I called back again and finally get through.

Sprint: "This is Jim, how can I help you?"

Me: "I'm having a really frustrating time with Sprint today, and your phone system just hung up on me three times in a row."

Sprint: Silence. For a good 10 seconds. He wasn't going to respond to my frustration.

Me: "Anyway, the bill and the customer service reps say that I have unlimited text messages, and yet I've been billed for text messages."

Sprint: "You don't have unlimited text messages. Let me see what I can find here. I see what you're talking about, you were billed when you shouldn't be. As far as I can see, you've never had text messaging. I'll give you a credit for the text messages on this bill, but in the future, you should consider adding a text messaging option to your plan, maybe 300 messages or so."

Me: "You don't understand. I used to have unlimited text messaging. I was told that I should still have unlimited text messaging. I don't want to add it on because I should already have it."

Jim took the hint that it was time to transfer me to someone else. He put me on hold. For 10 minutes. And then he came back and said "they" had him on hold, but that he wasn't going to lose me. And so he put me on hold again. For 15 more minutes. And then he came back:

Sprint: "Basically you got lucky the last few years texting for free. When you got a new phone, the system updated and caught itself. You should have been billed all that time."

Me: "When I went into that store and told them that I wanted to continue my past plan for the same price, and explicitly mentioned unlimited text messaging and using my phone as a modem, and when that Sprint representative told me that I *would* have those features, Sprint made a commitment to me to have those features on my plan at the same price. Now how are you going to honor that commitment?"

Sprint: "What if I said 'okay we can do that,' then we'd have to go back and charge you for all the text messaging you used over the years that we didn't catch. I had a supervisor review this and they said there's no way we can give you unlimited text messaging."

Me: "All that time I was told I was getting unlimited text messages as a part of the Unlimited Sprint Vision, so I don't see how you could retroactively tell me that I wasn't supposed to have that feature. Could I talk to that supervisor?"

As I sat on hold again, I pondered how I had predicted this when I walked out of the Sprint Store with my new phone. "Surely it can't be that easy," I had thought. "Surely I will be wrapped up in a long miserable phone conversation with Sprint a few weeks from now." And there I was.

Finally a supervisor, Robert, got on the line. I re-explained the situation from start to finish, and that I expected Sprint to either honor its commitment or let me go back to my old plan and features. Robert said that neither would be possible.

Sprint: "You weren't supposed to be using your phone as a modem or getting unlimited text messaging all that time."

Me: "So the person at the Sprint store who told me I could have those features on my new plan at the same price was essentially lying to me, or didn't know what she was talking about?"

Sprint: "It sounds like that was a miscommunication, yes."

Robert ended up giving me a credit for the billing on this month's text messaging, and added an unlimited text messaging line item to my plan at no charge. I confirmed that if I wanted to use my phone as a modem I would have to pay $39/month more, which there's no way I could justify.

At the end of my now hour-long phone call, I asked Robert how I could register my extreme dissatisfaction with Sprint's service, and in the monotone, robotic voice of someone who had explained the answer thousands of times, he suggested I e-mail the corporate office via "dub dub dub dot sprint dot com." When he asked me if there was anything else he could do for me today, I laughed out loud and struggled to restrain myself from saying anything other than a pleasant good-bye.

Summary: I had a plan and a phone and a wireless company I was reasonably happy with. I wanted a new phone but wanted everything else to stay the same, and was promised by Sprint multiple times that it could, should, and would. I believed them. Time passed, and Sprint came to admit that they could not honor their earlier commitments, that I additionally couldn't go back to my old phone and plan, that their computerized billing system and customer service staff aren't capable of handling such a simple change, and that they don't care enough about their customers to try to do any better the next time.

Is it really possible for things to have gotten so bad?

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Update on 6/28/07: This weblog entry has quickly become one of the more popular on my site, largely due to its tendency to appear high in web searches for "sprint customer service" and related queries. As you'll see if you read the comments, Sprint did contact me as a result of it, and I was able to talk to someone a bit more in depth about my concerns. So as not to leave my original post title's question so open ended - can Sprint really be this bad? - I want to list some concrete steps that I think Sprint should take to "resolve" this particular issue. If they can do these things, I'll be happy to note that here, close the comments on this blog entry and move on.

  1. A representative of the local Sprint store, where all of this began, should contact me to apologize for giving out incorrect information.
  2. Sprint should communicate what specific actions they've taken internally as a result of my concerns about customer service procedures.
  3. Sprint should communicate what specific steps they're taking to improve the quality and humanity of their customer service procedures overall.
  4. Sprint should compensate me for the time I spent dealing with this issue. Since I don't want to bother calculating what that translates to in terms of my normal wages, I'll suggest a $250 donation in my name to the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

What do you think, Sprint?