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AT&T wins J.D. Power honors for customer buying experience

Company wins top spot in survey ranking the nation's four major wireless carriers in terms of in-store and online purchase experience. Sprint, which fell to third place, had been No. 1 in the survey previously.

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

AT&T has been working hard to improve its customer service and purchase experience. And it looks like the hard work is paying off.

On Thursday, J.D. Power announced that AT&T took the top position in its consumer purchase experience poll. And in early August, J.D. Power also named the company tops in solving customers' problems.

In the consumer purchase poll, AT&T scored high both in the experience of buying a phone and mobile service in its retail locations as well as online. Two years ago, AT&T ranked last with respect to the other three nationwide operators in J.D. Power's Purchase Experience survey.

Sprint drops to third place
AT&T's gain came at Sprint's expense. Sprint, which had commanded the top spot for sales experience, fell to third place. Verizon Wireless ranked second. And T-Mobile USA placed fourth.

The survey included responses from more than 8,500 U.S. mobile customers. Questions included inquiries about the in-store and online purchase experience as well as the promotional offers offered by each company.

Customers' dissatisfaction with Sprint is likely caused by a series of tumultuous events over the past several months. For one, Sprint shut down its Nextel iDEN network, which forced millions of its customers to sign up for new service. The company also took over some territories once owned and operated by U.S. Cellular, which also forced some customers to migrate.

And at the corporate level, the company faced much uncertainty over the past six months as Japan's Softbank and Dish Network openly and aggressively vied for control of the company. Earlier this summer, Dish relinquished its bid for Sprint and Softbank bought the company. Separately, Sprint also battled Dish Network for Clearwire, which was majority owned by Sprint. The carrier ended up defeating Dish for Clearwire and now has full control over the company.

But AT&T's success and improved customer service appear to be about much more than Sprint's woes. The company also beat Verizon in a separate J.D. Power survey released in early August, which measured three attributes in customer care: telephone assistance, online support and in-store personnel.

Wireless competition heats up
There's little question that AT&T will tout the new accolades as it competes more aggressively wireless customers. With wireless penetration nearing 100 percent in the U.S., operators are doing all they can to steal customers from one another in an effort to grow subscribership.

AT&T sees improved customers care and an improved sales experience as an important part not only winning new customers, but retaining old ones. This is true more than ever as companies, such as T-Mobile, introduce new service plans and upgrade policies to attract new customers.

T-Mobile's CEO John Legere boasted during the company's second quarter conference call about the company's success in attracting customers from AT&T and Sprint with its new service plans. He said that since the introduction of the Simple Choice no-contract plan and a new promotion begun in July that allows customers to upgrade devices with no money down on a new device, T-Mobile has seen twice as many people porting their service from AT&T than it did a year ago.

And he said that AT&T is nervous.

"Even though they don't want to admit it, AT&T is in full fight-back mode," he said on the call.

AT&T expands 4G LTE markets

But customer care isn't the only area that AT&T is focused on improving. The company is also quickly rolling out its 4G LTE service. And on Wednesday it announced it had reached another six markets with its service.

  • Rockford, IL
  • Fairmont, MN
  • Owatonna, MN
  • Rochester, MN
  • Williston, ND
  • Youngstown-Warren, OH

AT&T has also expanded service in seven existing markets. In total, AT&T now serves 365 markets with 4G LTE service.