Sprint is in trouble. Customers are abandoning the nation’s third-largest carrier in droves. Efforts to grow by swallowing T-Mobile have been rebuffed. While the company has plenty of support from its new owners in Japan, much of its recent history has been a story of dysfunction.
What’s worse, other CEOs are taunting the hapless company, effectively kicking virtual sand in its face. It seems a pretty safe bet that its smaller competitor, T-Mobile, is about to surpass Sprint in total customers served.
The question is no longer about how long Sprint can stay in the third position, but rather whether the company can remain a relevant force in the wireless industry.
To try to reverse the current trend, Sprint is adopting a response made famous by baseball great Willie Keeler, who explained his success at the plate by saying he would “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” In the wireless carrier business, this means occupying a market segment that doesn’t include T-Mobile, and which may not be particularly well served by bigger rivals AT&T and Verizon.
That market segment is small and midsize businesses, especially businesses that are attracting a lot of younger workers, mainly millennials. To do this, Sprint is launching the Sprint Business brand again.
Sprint is trying to attract businesses by getting the interest of managers who realize that getting the best effort from employees newly out of college is to try to appeal to them by revising the way their companies work. As Sprint puts it, the idea is to embrace new ways of work.
Part of Sprint’s strategy is the creation of a “Future of Work” Website that explores topics such as why people go to work, how they interact and how employees become empowered within the corporation.
According to Sprint’s senior marketing manager for business, Julie Goulding, part of the effort is to create a new philosophy of presenting services that are enabled by Sprint’s technologies, including wireless and wireline communications. “You’re going to see new proof points coming from Sprint and how customers will keep employees engaged,” she said.
Goulding said that the focus will be on solutions, not specifically on technology. “The focus will be on the human element,” she said. “There will be less of tech talk than you see from carriers in general.” She said that the new marketing campaign will focus on business decision-makers who need ideas on how to keep employees engaged.
But what Sprint isn’t saying may be equally important. There does not appear to be much new in the way of products, for example. There also seems to be nothing in the announced plans in regards to more competitive rates or lower prices.
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At this point, all that the new Sprint Business brand appears to be is a marketing campaign.
This is not to suggest that marketing is unimportant, nor is it to suggest the new focus on providing solutions as a service isn’t a good idea, because both are needed in the wireless industry. But the more urgent question for Sprint is whether this new marketing plan is enough to stop Sprint’s slide.
Marin Martinovic, Sprint’s director of business marketing, thinks it is. Martinovic acknowledged the company’s difficulties and he said that a key part of solving it is to leverage Sprint’s high profile in the public service community, where Sprint remains a major player, as a way to raise the company’s profile in the more general business community.
“We see companies evolving as the work style changes,” Martinovic said. He noted that for companies to evolve to meet the demands of the next generation of workers, they need a vision of what those workers expect beyond just getting paid for their time. He said that Sprint wants to be involved in creating that vision and helping with that evolution.
In one sense, Sprint’s new business push is a great idea. Right now, T-Mobile has mostly ignored business users and while that company does have business offerings, it’s not a key area of their current efforts. Right now, it’s clear that T-Mobile’s aggressive approach and price competition are hurting Sprint badly.
What’s not clear is whether signing up business customers is going to reverse the quarterly loss of subscribers that show numbers beyond 300,000 a quarter. Even if the new Sprint Business brand is successful, it’s unlikely that there will be much change beyond perhaps slow the decline, which would be a good start.
The reason is that few businesses operate on impulse. This means that even if a company’s C-level suite decides that Sprint has a point and wants to act on it quickly, it will still take a couple of quarters to make any substantive switch. By then, Sprint will likely be No. 4 in the market and still losing current customers steadily.
While the new Sprint Business brand is a good idea, it’s not enough. There’s every likelihood that nothing that Sprint’s new CEO, Marcelo Claure, can do in time to salvage its No. 3 ranking. But perhaps a new focus on business, on the new workforce and some changes on the consumer side of things can eventually make Sprint competitive again. This would be a good thing. The market still needs Sprint, even in fourth place.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of the name of Sprint’s director of business marketing, Marin Martinovic.