Ask Verizon Wireless Regional President Marquett Smith why his company came out on top for overall performance for a wireless company in a recent RootMetrics report, and he cites the continuous build-out of the Verizon LTE network.
In fact, Verizon was also the winner in the subcategories of reliability, data, call and text performance, according to the RootMetrics report. While Verizon was on top for the overall testing, the company didn’t win everything. For example, AT&T won the nationwide speed test, edging out Verizon, which was followed closely by T-Mobile. Sprint was a distant fourth.
“Our network is our rock,” Smith said, sitting at a lunch table in the back of a newly opened Verizon Experience store in Alexandria, Va. “We concentrate on that. We make sure we have a solid network.”
Even though the company has been reporting that most areas in the U.S. are “substantially built-out,” Verizon Wireless has continued to add LTE capacity to its existing network. In addition to backhaul improvements that have added capacity, the result is that Verizon’s LTE is more widely available than the 4G services of other carriers, despite the fact that some other carriers may have faster data speeds in some areas.
That may explain the RootMetrics results, and it helps explain a similar network quality win awarded by J.D. Power, which listed Verizon Wireless as top in network quality after surveying customers for the last six months of 2013. But J.D. Power surveys typically include factors beyond the technical performance of the network, including aspects of customer support.
J.D. Power’s 2013 second half report noted that this is the first time since its study was broken down by regions that Verizon Wireless has been on top in all six regions of the U.S. The J.D. Power report was based on responses from more than 26,000 customers. The RootMetrics 2013 second half report was based on actual network performance tests rather than on surveys.
The RootMetrics testing involves driving around 125 metropolitan areas and directly testing the coverage, speed and connection reliability for the four major U.S. wireless carriers.
But Verizon has been doing more than just working to build up the performance of its LTE network. Smith told eWEEK that he’s been working hard to transform how the company approaches its customers. “Our customer support side at this store is a primary example,” he said, referring to the Verizon store where the interview was being held. “We’ve evolved our customer experience,” he said. “Our philosophy is that we have to earn the right to get the customer and earn the right to keep the customer.”
Smith said a big part of Verizon’s improved customer experience was employee training and employee empowerment. “We have hands-on training for customer service,” Smith explained, pointing out that Verizon Wireless employees are trained in every device the company sells. “We make sure our employees have hands-on experience so they know what to suggest. We have wireless workshops. We give you the support you deserve.”
Smith said that Verizon employees in call centers get similar training. “Call center training carries across the footprint,” Smith said. “Our general philosophy of customer service is the same.”
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Changing the customer service culture at Verizon Wireless was an important part of the change. “We have a consistent customer service culture,” Smith said. “We’re going to transition to wireless lifestyle.
“This allows the customer to approach it the way they live,” Smith said, pointing to the new design of Verizon stores, called Smart Stores, that feature areas devoted to specific lifestyle items. “Before, it was all blended together. Now, we qualify you when you first come in, and we can walk you to the right part of the store that places you where you can discover what suits you the best.”
There’s a section of the store devoted to fitness, for example, a section devoted to high-end audio (where you can buy Beats and Bose headphones), and a home automation section where Verizon is selling lighting systems that can be controlled by a mobile phone or high-end programmable thermostats. There’s also a section for children and for gaming. Around the store are hundreds of accessories. All these sections are aimed at expanding the customer experience and the sales opportunity well beyond the mobile phone.
Smith said that part of the equation is for Verizon Wireless to engage the community in a number of ways and to give back to the community where possible. Smith was visiting the Alexandria, Va., store to donate $10,000 that Verizon raised from cell phone recycling to Artemis House of Fairfax County, Va. Artemis House is a shelter for abused women and has been a focus for Verizon Wireless.
So, how well is this working? The improved network quality speaks to the constant upgrades that Verizon has as an ongoing project nationally as well as in the mid-Atlantic area. Smith is regional president for Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. “One of the things we’re seeing is extended customer engagement,” Smith said.
He said that the changes are affecting Verizon employees as well as customers. “Employees are very excited to have the opportunity.”
Smith said the new design for Verizon’s stores will spread nationwide, with each store having lifestyle areas, approachable displays, no counters and a dedicated area for helping customers use their devices. “Our goal is to delight our customers,” Smith said. “If you want to see it up close and personal, all you have to do is visit one of our stores.”
That Verizon Wireless is focusing on improving the customer experience is no surprise in a service provider market that has gotten more competitive than ever.
The phone industry, especially the mobile sector, has been roiled by a fight for the bottom end of the wireless business. T-Mobile shook things up when it dumped contracts, lowered prices and started offering to pay off the contracts of other carriers.
Rather than participate in a race to the bottom, Verizon Wireless has chosen to improve the customer experience with more accessible stores, better customer service and better coverage. While Verizon also competes with no-contract, low-priced phones and service, the real battle seems to be for customers who, as Smith said, want to be “delighted.”