AT&T, T-Mobile customer satisfaction on the decline

AT&T see its satisfaction score drop to its lowest point since 2005 in the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index. Verizon and Sprint lead the way among large wireless carriers.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read
The history of ACSI scores in the wireless industry.
The history of ACSI scores in the wireless industry. ACSI

AT&T and T-Mobile need to get working to improve their image among subscribers, according to results released today from the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

According to the group, AT&T Mobility's customer satisfaction score over the past year was 66 out of a possible 100, dropping 4 percent year over year. AT&T's rating was the lowest it has been since 2005 when it earned a 62 in ACSI's study. Its high over the last eight years was 71 in 2008.

But AT&T says churn rates matter more than surveys.

"With the nation's fastest mobile broadband network and the ability to talk and surf the Web at the same time plus access to the broadest international coverage of any U.S. provider, AT&T customers have a lot to be satisfied about, and we've seen that reflected in our churn (or customer loyalty) metrics," an AT&T spokesperson told CNET in an e-mailed statement today. "We believe that churn, not surveys, are the best indicator of true customer satisfaction because it reflects the most important way people vote, namely, with their feet."

T-Mobile USA also saw its score drop by 4 percent year over year to land at 70.

Earlier this year, AT&T announced plans to acquire T-Mobile for $39 billion from Deutsche Telekom. The companies are currently undergoing a rigorous regulatory-approval process. If all goes its way, AT&T will be able to close its acquisition early next year and cement itself as the biggest carrier in the market with about 130 million subscribers.

However, the drop in customer-satisfaction scores for AT&T and T-Mobile do not bode well for the possible combined firm. Not only are the companies starting out at a low point, but as ACSI founder Claes Fornell points out, customer satisfaction usually dips after a merger is completed.

"It is common to find a reduction in customer satisfaction after mergers, but it is rare for customer satisfaction to drop ahead of a merger," Fornell said in a statement. "Assuming the deal is approved, it remains to be seen if a much larger AT&T can regain the strength of its customer relationships."

Two rivals that aren't involved in the merger, however, are doing just fine in ACSI's survey.

Both Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel led the way among major carriers with scores of 72 in ACSI's study. Verizon's score dipped 1 percent in ACSI's latest survey, while Sprint's was up 3 percent year over year and up a whopping 16 points over its low in 2008 of 56. And as one might expect, Sprint was quick to celebrate its gains in customer satisfaction.

"Improving the customer experience has been Sprint's No. 1 goal for three-plus years, so it is gratifying to be recognized by the highly respected American Customer Satisfaction Index for having the most satisfied customers in the wireless industry," Sprint CEO Dan Hesse said in a statement today. "We will strive to provide an even better experience for customers in the future."

T-Mobile did not immediately respond to CNET's request for comment.

Update at 10:52 a.m. PT to include AT&T statement.