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Sprint embarks on quest to fix its image, one house call at a time

The struggling carrier's Direct 2 You program, which brings a customer rep to a place of your choosing, now serves New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver.

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Sprint customer Michelle Hamilton admires her new smartphone delivered to her home by Sprint customer rep Brett Golba, who also helped her with her setup. Roger Cheng/CNET

NEW YORK -- Michelle Hamilton may not have always liked Sprint, but she's stuck with the wireless service since 1998.

They were far from blissful years. Like millions of other Sprint customers, she suffered through long stretches of poor call quality. She complained that she "hated" her local carrier, and often got into arguments with the sales representatives. "Sprint has worked my nerves for years," Hamilton said.

So why didn't the 55-year-old accountant ever switch? "I've had fights with everybody," she said with a chuckle. "There's no one else."

But Hamilton was all smiles on Friday after a Sprint representative showed up at her home with her brand-new gold Samsung Galaxy S5. He sat with her for more than an hour, set up the new smartphone, downloaded her favorite apps and made sure her old text messages and e-mails transferred over to the new phone. She was impressed.

"They have stepped their game up with this," Hamilton said.

Hamilton was an early participant of Sprint's Direct 2 You program, which dispatches an employee to deliver and help set up your new smartphone at a place of your choosing -- all for free. After launching in Sprint's home market of Kansas City in April and Chicago a few weeks later, the carrier on Monday officially expanded the program to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, and plans to roll into new markets later this year.

Direct 2 You, available for customers who are upgrading their devices or signing up online, is just the latest step taken by the nation's third-largest wireless carrier to rehabilitate its reputation for poor customer service and network coverage. It's also seen as a way to expand its retail presence, which is the weakest of the four national carriers. With Direct 2 You, Sprint adds an element of service that could potentially distinguish it from its rivals as carriers become more aggressive in winning over customers.

"It's interesting, and it's certainly unique and it's the kind of thing that's hard for competitors to respond to quickly because it takes some significant investment to get it up and running," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

Whether the program moves the needle, however, remains to be seen. Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure has amped up the pressure on the industry by cutting prices and offering attractive leasing options for its smartphones. That has already helped halt its subscriber losses -- it added 1.2 million net new customers in the first calendar quarter of the year.

Sprint's 'magic touch'

Direct 2 You sales representative Brett Golba wore a black button-down shirt with a Sprint logo on his left vest pocket, khakis and a matching black Sprint messenger bag. But he put on his most important accessory right before he walked into Hamilton's apartment: a pair of light blue booties that he slipped over his shoes, as a courtesy to avoid scuffing up the floors.

Golba, who had worked in the field at DirecTV and Time Warner Cable, joined Sprint in March and has helped the company usher in Direct 2 You to Kansas City and Chicago. He started taking appointments in the New York area a week ago as part of a trial run for the program. After training the local reps for the next few weeks, he'll move on to another market.

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Golba sets up Hamilton's Samsung Galaxy S5. Roger Cheng/CNET

I came along with Golba to witness the Direct 2 You process in person, (I, unfortunately, did not have booties.)

Hamilton welcomed us in, apologized for the renovation work going on and offered us drinks. It was a sunny day, and she and insisted we go through the set-up process on her apartment's balcony overlooking Harlem.

Golba helped her sign into her accounts -- a problem complicated by the fact that she had forgotten her password. Aside from basic phone calls and text message, she had one other obsession: video. Whether at home or in the office, her smartphone has largely replaced her television, and she wanted Golba to load up key apps such as HBO Go (for "Game of Thrones") and ABC ("Scandal") on her new smartphone.

Hamilton, wearing a blue-and-white patterned shirt and dark blue jeans, had us laughing all hour long: animatedly alternating between ranting against Sprint and enticing Golba to join her at a salsa-dancing club with the promise of eligible women. And she beamed when Golba activated her Galaxy S5, which replaces her beat-up Galaxy S4.

"I am happy now," she said. "I like that magic touch."

Extending the Sprint brand

That's exactly the reaction Sprint is going for with its Direct 2 You program. The company promises to eventually deploy 5,000 Sprint-logo cars and Direct 2 You reps nationwide.

It's quite the departure from the usual routine with carriers and cable providers, where you wait for a technician during a three-hour block. Here, customers pick where and when they want the rep, and the rep shows up on time.

"People have been surprised by how nice we are," Golba said. "People are really loving it."

The locations so far have varied. One rep met with a parent at her child's soccer game; another met a customer near the beach.

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Golba stands next to a Direct 2 You-branded car. Sprint plans to eventually have 5,000 cars on the road across the country. Roger Cheng/CNET

But this level of personal service begs the question: How much can Sprint actually handle if it takes off? Golba said he is shooting for reps to meet with two to three customers a day. Will that work in a metropolis like New York? And if Sprint can't meet demand, couldn't the effort backfire?

"It's an amazing problem to have to ramp up for," said Karen Paletta, the northeastern regional vice president for Sprint. She said she hopes to expand the service as quickly as possible, and has a plan to put more resources in areas where demand jumps.

She expects the New York market will take off. "New Yorkers want to be on the cutting edge," Paletta said. "It will go viral, and I'm hoping very quickly."

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The personal touch: Sprint's customer rep Golba established the human connection with Hamilton, while spending an hour setting up her smartphone. Roger Cheng/CNET

Direct 2 You gives Sprint some added benefits. The black-and-yellow cars serve as moving billboards for Sprint and the program. The sales reps in the field can help the carrier extend the reach of its retail stores, Paletta said.

Sprint is well aware that it has fewer stores than its rivals, and is trying to narrow the gap through a deal with RadioShack to expand its retail presence.

Direct 2 You may not be for everybody. Some customers may not want to buy a smartphone before checking it out in a store.

"It's an interesting experiment, but I just think it's probably too much of a departure from how people normally buy phones to really move the needle for Sprint competitively," Dawson said.

But the program may have given for Hamilton a reason to like Sprint beyond the deals she usually finagles out of the carrier.

"This is the best thing they've come up with," she said.