Google Voice, Sprint integration from the horse's mouth (Q&A)

Google and Sprint rolled out a joint telephony service almost two weeks ago. We checked in with Google to talk about integration kinks, customer service, and the finer details of mobile-to-mobile calling.

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Prompt to enable Google Voice with your Sprint number
Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Google officially launched its Google Voice integration for Sprint on May 6, giving Sprint customers the option of getting Google Voice calling features on their Sprint phones with only minimal setup.

Although my personal experience has so far been smooth, others have reported frustrations, including being thrown into account limbo after a Sprint customer service representative accidentally disabled a Google account after changing a plan.

I interviewed Vincent Paquet, senior product manager for Google Voice, over the phone today to talk about Google's challenges during this first month of partnership, including kinks, customer service, and the finer details of mobile-to-mobile calling.

Q: How many new subscribers did Google Voice gain as a result of the Sprint integration?
Paquet: Unfortunately, that's nothing we can share. Certainly a lot and in the range of what we expected.

I heard about some kinks when the integration first launched. What were the main problems?
Paquet: So, I think the one that's been the most attacked in the forums was the fact [that if you change your plan,] the change actually disabled the integration on the Sprint side. Since it wasn't an expected behavior, we didn't know about it from the Google Voice side. Unfortunately for the users, it's pretty annoying. So we've been working with Sprint on fixing those. We're still working on a permanent fix in the first place, but we have a temporary fix in place. This is probably the most visible issue, but to be perfectly honest, we're talking about tens of users, so it's a small number.

We've had some questions around billing, and one of the few changes is the fact that if you do have a Sprint phone and you choose Option 2, to display your Google Voice number, then the number that you display isn't the Sprint number anymore. So you still do get the benefit of mobile-to-mobile minutes, but the recipient doesn't, because the number of the call plan isn't a Sprint number. I think that's just something that we need to message a bit better. Whenever you call using Google Voice, it's the exact same behavior with the app. We've had a few issues where it could surprise users. Most users won't notice if they're calling somebody else, but if they're on the same family plan, they might notice.

You taught me something. When I called Sprint a few weeks back to ask about mobile-to-mobile calling, they said it would work, no problem.
Paquet: Well, there are the two options. If you choose Option 1, to turn your Sprint number into your Google Voice number, it does work. If you choose Option 2, it's expected that it won't because Google Voice numbers act like a land line.

Editor's note: To clarify, the first option, turning your Sprint-issued number into your Google Voice number, will not affect mobile-to-mobile minutes between in-network callers. The second option folds your Sprint-issued number into your existing Google Voice number. When other callers dial a Google Voice number, it comes out of their bank of minutes. Mobile-to-mobile benefits don't kick in because Google Voice numbers pose as land lines, not as mobile phone numbers assigned to a specific network.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Voice plan customers tend to be a vocal bunch, and demand customer service hotlines to answer their questions and concerns. Yet Google traditionally sources its help in online documents and forums.There's a perception that Google doesn't care about human-focused customer service, and that Sprint can't and won't field questions on Google Voice. That puts customers in a perceived no-man's land when there's a problem.
Paquet: What we've been telling users is that for questions regarding the Sprint side and billing issues and so on, they should call Sprint because we don't have access to their Sprint bill. I would say we have been very active in all the forums. All the issues related to the integration have been addressed by [Google] employees. I think it's the best way to make sure the issues that have been discovered are fixed quickly.

I don't want to speak for Sprint, but I think Sprint has realized that the information needs to be fed to their very large network of support agents. I know they're working really hard making that happen. I would suspect that some people would call Sprint and not get the answers they wanted, so they come to our forums. We've been working with Sprint to make sure that their support team is trained on Google Voice. At this stage, we have no plans to offer a different kind of support. Again, it's a free service, so we're not able to offer live customer support.

Will Google Voice customers receive any exclusive new features on Sprint? What else can the newly integrated look forward to?
Paquet: As we push new features to Google Voice, we want them to be available to all Google Voice users. Part of the discussion very early on with Sprint was to make sure that Sprint users would get access to all the Google Voice features.

Is the Google Voice team looking into similar integration agreements with other carriers?
No comment.

What message would you like Sprint's new Google Voice subscribers to know?
Paquet: We have a fairly good overview of the integration on our Web site. We have some FAQs and we've actually designed a separate Sprint section for prospective users. We're definitely hoping that this section can help answer questions. Based on the early feedback, we've definitely made some changes to make things clearer when we discovered they weren't, but I'd certainly advise users to start there.

In the grand scheme of things, we have way, way, way more happy users out there than those who have been affected by issues. The fact that you can get your Sprint number forwarded to several phones, the visual voice mail, and the international calls are really amazing.