Now that I regularly write about e-marketing, I wanted to experience the emerging world of e-commerce over wireless devices. I like the idea of using my cell phone as an Internet device, and the advertising by Sprint (FON) told me they had just what I wanted.

OK, So I Need to Upgrade.

Not too long ago I bought a Motorola (MOT) StarTAC cell phone to use with my local Sprint PCS service. I love the phone; the service is spotty but ok.

I learned from early research that my StarTAC is not the dual-band phone I would need for a web browser feature. So, I needed to upgrade my phone. OK, sure. This is the price we pay for having new technologies - right?

Upgrading a phone to enjoy the promises of the wireless age is what many of us will need to do. If you have a cheap throw away phone the cell phone companies often advertise, this may not be much of a problem. But if you've spent real money on a cell phone (especially those purchased recently), the prospects of trashing your cell phone for an upgraded version is unappealing.

In light of the disincentive customers have to trash their old cell phones, companies that sell web phones can help make this migration onto the wireless Internet easier by providing incentives to transfer. In fact, these companies have an incentive to do just that.

If people upgrade to phones with web browser and surf as much as wireless phone companies hope, the companies stand to make a bundle off of additional service charges. They could start providing credits to customers who upgrade on their system - even a small token would help take the sting out of upgrading. In short, they could stop thinking short tem and focus more on the long term consequences of having satisfied and loyal customers.

Seems logical, doesn't it? I thought so. So, I decided to go for it.

I focused on Sprint to help me, rather than on Motorola, because Sprint loves to plaster their name all over my phone. I wanted to see if Sprint would help me migrate to the wireless net by giving me at least a small credit for my recently purchased phone.

Two problems hit me in the face when I tried to do this: transfer hell and upgrade sting.


First, what should be a relatively seamless upgrade purchase process consumed most of a day. Why? I was caught in transfer hell.

After attempting a visit to a Sprint PCS store where the salespeople seemed blissfully unaware of the long lines, I jumped onto the Internet to their web site to get a phone number. No luck. While their web site has lots of information, you won't find a phone number (type "phone number" into the search, for example, and you'll get "No documents matched the query").

Eventually, using some cunning, I located a phone number and plunged into the labyrinth of the Sprint help system. I learned, but only after re-dialing several times, how to trick their voicemail system into letting me talk to a live person.

Hours later, after countless dropped calls, dead-ends, and Sprint's "customer advocates" bouncing me all around their network, I finally learned what wanted to learn about the phone.

At the end of the day I did buy a new upgraded phone - at a local Radio Shack.


As if these barriers weren't enough, Sprint seemed to deliberately put more hurdles in the way of the migration process.

My first encounter to a real customer advocate confirmed what I had hoped - that I could use my current phone as a credit on upgrading to a phone with a browser, but only if I had insurance (which I did). In any case, I would need to speak with another person. Several hours later the phone hell experience ended in my being told that Sprint would not give me any credits towards upgrading my phone.

Note: Before sending me email about Sprint's rebate offers for online purchases, realize that I didn't want to purchase my upgraded cell phone that way. I'm sure a company with "customer advocates" would understand this sentiment.

Unfortunately, upgrade sting didn't end here. Later, after I purchased my web-enabled phone (without any help from Sprint, of course), I called Sprint to order the web service. I was then told by the Sprint customer advocate that I would have to pay $30 to upgrade my account with a web service (call this insult to injury). Sprint waived the upgrade service fee - but only after I made a huge stink with the manger.

I finally set up the service and ordered the browser feature that Sprint promised would be available for me to use within a few hours.


So, how do I like this new browser that I ordered 2 days ago? Frankly, I don't know, Sprint still hasn't been able to activate my browser - they said they're still working on it. Like I said, it isn't that easy migrating onto the wireless Internet with Sprint.

These incidents haven't surprised anyone I've spoken with. In fact, Stewart Alsop's recent column in Fortune suggests the incredibly poor service I encountered with Sprint is quite pervasive.


Ok, that's Sprint. But more generally, how will the cell phone industry deal with the upgrading issue people like me and you will face as we try to move us on to the wireless Internet? It seems they have a basic decision about whether or not to strand people with their older phones.

Companies have to realize that to customers, purchasing a cell phone is a "system purchase". No one gets much use out of a phone without service, or service without a phone. In such cases (think razors and blades), it's the service - and this is Sprint - that make out the most.

So, could they have given me a credit - even a small one - for the phone I guess I will now have to sell on E-Bay (EBAY)? I'm sure they could have. True, they would need to craft some deal with Motorola that makes helping customers upgrade profitable for both companies.

Would it be hard for companies like Sprint to stop stranding customers with outdated equipment? I don't know. I'm their customer - not their therapist!

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image of Allen Weiss

Allen Weiss is founder, CEO, and Positioning Practice Lead at MarketingProfs. Over the years he has worked with companies such as Texas Instruments, Informix, Vanafi, and EMI Music Distribution to help them position their products defensively in a competitive environment. He is also the founder of Insight4Peace and the former director of Mindful USC.