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How T-Mobile rebuilt its customer service to be less sucky and more about you

Fewer bots, more humans.

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This is how T-Mobile employees greet visitors to their customer care centers. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Thunderous applause erupts as I enter the building. I look around and blanketing my field of vision is a small army of black-and-magenta-garbed T-Mobile employees shouting, screaming and waving thunder sticks at me. They form a path deeper in, yet I'm already dizzy and overwhelmed from the sensory overload.

As far as greetings go, this is insane.

I walk through the lobby and past the security checkpoint, assuming the festivities end there. Nope. This parade of emphatic cheers goes on for nearly 240 feet, or two-thirds of a football field, to the other side of the building. It takes me a minute and a half to walk to the other end of the building. But as the center of attention for hundreds of extremely excited workers, it feels like an eternity.

Now playing: Watch this: T-Mobile aims to dismantle crappy customer service
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One sight catches my attention. It's my face. But in emoji form. On a poster. Again. And again.

Someone actually took the time to create my emoji and blow it up into multiple signs.

This is a small taste of the celebrity treatment T-Mobile CEO John Legere must receive.

It's an appropriate welcome given the nature of Wednesday's Un-carrier event, held here at the company's Charleston, South Carolina, customer care facility. (All visitors got the same treatment as they walked into the event.) The wireless carrier announced the nationwide launch of a program in its customer care centers to offer more dedicated service and the kind of treatment you'd normally get as a frequent flyer or patron of a luxury retailer.

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T-Mobile offered this greeting to everyone at the Un-carrier event. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

It's a curious swerve for T-Mobile, which garners a lot of attention for its Un-carrier events because of industry-changing moves like its elimination of contracts and phone subsidies or its offer of unlimited text messaging and low-speed data overseas. At a time when carriers have been busy introducing new unlimited data plans or hyping up 5G, T-Mobile opted to pull back the curtain on a project it's been working on for the last two years.  

Consumers may be disappointed in the lack of a flashy new consumer perk or, as some had speculated, an update to T-Mobile's plans for an over-the-top video service. Others might be perfectly fine with their carrier's customer service. But Legere believes this focus will cause a ripple effect once consumers understand what they're getting.

"It's going to be the biggest thing we've ever done," he said in an interview on Tuesday.

But just as an insurance, T-Mobile also announced that its customer would get a year of free Pandora Plus service and special access to tickets through Live Nation

I had a chance to visit the call center a day before the event to talk with some of the customer care employees who are part of this Team of Experts program. They provided me with insight into how the program has changed the culture at the company and how it's intended to lead to less frustrating, more capable service for you.

Team of Experts

T-Mobile chose to hold its Un-carrier event at this facility because it's the newest -- employees moved in here in February -- and, with more than 1,000 customer care workers, the biggest. Walking down "main street," the central hallway that served as the setting of that insane greeting, I see a movie theater, gym, video game room and even a row of massage chairs.

There's a wall dedicated to the employees who have served in the military, one of the touches Legere insisted be a fixture at all of the company's 17 nationwide call center facilities.

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The Charleston facility is dubbed "Charleston Heat." 

Roger Cheng/CNET

At first glance, the call center itself doesn't look different from the norm. A former K-Mart store, the area is massive, with customers working in an open space format. What's different, however, is the vibe. Customer care represents and managers are hanging out. They break into song and dance. There's a palpable energy.

"This is not like most call centers," said Matthew Dixon, chief product and research officer for Tethr, which offers an artificial intelligence platform designed to pick out insights from customer call data. "People seem happy here, which is unusual."

Team of Experts creates "pods," or "communities," of 40 people dedicated to a specific region of a big market, handling about 120,000 people. You call customer service and you'll get the same 40 people who know your history and even preferences based on where you live.

For instance, Antonio Rivers, who manages a team covering part of Philadelphia, said that the phrase, "I understand," tends to trigger a lot of anger with his customers. The more casual, "I get you," is preferred.

The shift to a more local focus runs counter to the wider trend of companies moving their customer call centers into fewer facilities either in the US or overseas, with a computer system called an Interactive Voice Response typically shuttling callers to a random employee.

"This really allows you to own your customers," said Kashana Kitzpatrick, who runs another community.

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T-Mobile CEO John Legere mixes it up with his team. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

The upshot for consumers is avoiding the dreaded automated phone tree, where you're stuck pushing buttons or saying numbers until you're finally diverted to a human operator.

"You get a level of personalized and white glove service that regular customers aren't privy to," Dixon said.  "Here they're delivering that at scale."

Likewise, you won't be transferred to another department. Each team member is able to coordinate with other facets of T-Mobile, including retail and network operations, and is ultimately assessed based on their ability to solve the problem, and not how long they spent on the call -- another usual metric for call centers.

"Everybody gets rock star status," said President Mike Sievert. 

Customers who don't have the time to deal with a care specialist in person can also send a message via the T-Mobile app. Each community has a person dedicated to handling messages. 

The Team of Experts only works from 7 a.m.  to 9 p.m., based on your local time. During off hours or times when there's high call volume, one of T-Mobile's global call centers takes over, but the company plans to finish rolling out the Team of Experts program overseas by the beginning of next year.

Meaningful impact

This isn't just about helping the customer. The Team of Experts model has yielded a 13 percent reduction in costs over a year earlier, thanks to fewer calls, according to Callie Field, who runs customer care for T-Mobile. The company's postpaid phone churn, or customer turnover rate, was at a record low of 0.95 percent in the second quarter. Two years ago, its turnover rate was 1.27 percent.

After the move to this model, T-Mobile saw a 56 percent increase in the likelihood that a customer would recommend the service, also called a Net Promoter Score.

Still, there's a risk that consumers will be underwhelmed by the news. Customer care falls below other factors like network coverage and price, and isn't something you think about until things go wrong. There's also the issue that this isn't new -- customers in select regions have already experienced this. With companies like Verizon and AT&T trumpeting news about 5G, there's a chance this gets lost in the noise.

Still, it may ultimately foster customer loyalty.

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This is T-Mobile's biggest and newest call center, with more than 1,000 care specialists who moved in here in February. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

"Showing you care for customers and giving personal attention to address pain points is a brand image T-Mobile needs to keep up," said Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.

Legere, meanwhile, challenged his competitors to follow this model.

"We're willing to give tours," he said. "We're willing to give blueprints."

I'm not holding my breath for Verizon or AT&T to take him up on that offer.  

The other benefit is to the employees themselves. These smaller teams all require leaders, which has meant more internal promotions. With bonuses tied to team performance, there's more of a sense of teamwork than in the usual care center, which ranks employees individually.

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T-Mobile CEO John Legere takes the stage. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

Field said the employee turnover rate was at 42 percent three years ago. This year, it's trending at 20 percent -- an unusually low number for a job that requires you to field angry calls all day.

For some of these employees, perks like the improved bonuses are literally life-changing.

"I have an expert who was homeless when she first started working at T-Mobile," said Joy Stanfield, a customer care manager based in Chattanooga, Tenn. "That was over a year ago. She's getting ready to buy her first house."

A nicer John Legere?

There's a certain irony to Legere talking about customer care -- a field where being unfailingly polite is a prerequisite -- given his colorful language. And indeed, this, in a sense, is a muzzled, safer John Legere.

During our 30-minute interview, there wasn't a single F-bomb.

He has reason to keep his head down. Bombastic CEOs have courted controversy lately (hello, Elon Musk!), and he doesn't want to piss off the government regulators who are deciding the fate of T-Mobile's proposed merger with Sprint.

Of course, that didn't stop him from launching into a tirade at AT&T and Verizon during the Un-carrier event. He noted how his competitors "shit themselves" after T-Mobile launched its unlimited plan. He also called Comcast the "king of suck." But he remained relatively tame throughout the rest of the presentation. 

Comcast and Verizon declined to comment. AT&T didn't comment specifically on Legere's remark, but in regard to T-Mobile's Pandora offering, a spokesperson said, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." AT&T lets customers choose between Pandora Premium and Amazon Music as a free add-on in the upper tier of its unlimited plan.

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T-Mobile CEO John Legere (center) 

Roger Cheng/CNET

The effect Legere has on his employees is easy to see.  "Meeting John is like meeting a rock star," said Irene Page, a senior operations manager in Charleston.

But there isn't a mob that overwhelms in the call center. Employees say hello, and he shakes their hands. There are the inevitable compliments for his magenta Giuseppe Zanotti kicks. As Legere walks through one of the pods, the team erupts in cheer -- but not for him. One of the employees managed to convince a customer to add a line, sparking a song and dance routine.

It's a far cry from that crazy greeting I and other Un-carrier guests received, a practice called the "clap-in" and performed across all of its care centers whenever guests arrive.

I'm told the clap-ins for Legere typically takes 30 minutes to an hour because of the sheer volume of selfies and handshakes. Compared to him, I was practically sprinting through the procession.

I guess there's still a long way to go before becoming a true rock star.

The story originally published Aug. 15 at 8:31 a.m. PT.
Updates, 11:28 a.m.: Adds background information and a response from Comcast; 11:51 a.m.: Includes response from Verizon; 4:32 p.m.: Adds comment from AT&T.

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