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Selling iPhone X. T-Mobile and Verizon salespeople speak out

Commentary: After visiting several different carrier stores, I had emails from all over the US, offering deep salesperson feelings

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Not loved by carrier store salespeople?

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

It's been a pulsating few weeks.

I've wandered around various carrier stores and Best Buy, learning about phones and failing to find a single salesperson to tell me that iPhone X is the best phone you can buy.

Phone salespeople from all over America contacted me afterward. Some were sympathetic. 

For example, one Best Buy manager in Colorado insisted his was the best Best Buy in Colorado and should I ever venture there, he would ensure that I would get the best phone for me.

A T-Mobile manager was positively annoyed that the salesman at the T-Mobile store I'd visited seemed intent on selling me an iPhone 8 Plus rather than an iPhone X

Many though, especially those who work for Verizon and T-Mobile, wanted to go into substantive issues.

Are salespeople incentivized to sell one phone, rather than another?

Could the fact that not one salesperson insisted that iPhone X was the best phone have anything to do with commissions?

Some salespeople said that regardless of whether the phone was a flip phone or an X, the incentives are the same. 

I heard from one enterprising Texas-based salesman, currently at a Verizon store, who'd worked in the stores of four different carriers.

"When I worked at AT&T we had incentives for the S8. For every pre-order, we got an 8-dollar spiff. T-Mobile only has 'sell this much of that phone and we will give you that phone.' Sprint does not. Verizon, if we meet a quota and sell a certain amount of the phones, we get a free one," he said. (A spiff is what salespeople call an incentive. It's different from a spliff.)

A T-Mobile salesman from the northwest went into more detail about spiffs.

"Occasionally we get spiffs on some devices. It isn't a huge jump in commission but it is usually just more incentive to get rid of aging phones. These spiffs usually only last a  month at a time and the short list -- it's always short, never more than four but usually 2 or 3 -- can change drastically or be completely gone altogether," he said.

So what sorts of devices are on the list? 

"Typically the list are of phones that have been replaced that were bad performers from the get-go or sales have dropped significantly," he told me.

Other T-Mobile salespeople agreed that this was the case, but not all. 

However, the man from the northwest insisted that one thing was always consistent: "The iPhone in any iteration has never been one of those phones."

Another T-Mobile employee offered a further nuance about spiffs: "If we do get them, they are rarely from T-Mobile. There may be an incentive to win a free phone from LG or Samsung if you sell x amount of said device."

So what's wrong with iPhone X? Why aren't salespeople pushing it? 

Some salespeople told me that there's still some backlog in delivery, so they don't bother pushing a phone that isn't immediately available.

The T-Mobile salesman from the northwest was more concrete about the phone itself -- and the iPhone 8.

"We've seen a big interest in both phones. Tons of pre-orders for both. What I noticed was the iPhone 8 people that pre-ordered laughed at the price of the X and never gave it a second thought. For their own reasons they decided the X wasn't worth it," he said.

He, though, had his own reasons for believing that the X isn't, as Apple insists, "the future of the smartphone."

"We see the spec sheet and it really doesn't look that different. From my point of view, the major differences are the bezel-less screen, FaceID and the cameras -- for FaceID and augmented reality. You take those away and for the most part the spec sheets look identical," he said. 

Oh, but people don't buy phones for the specs. They're emotional. They buy them for the prettiness and, well, the showing-off factor, don't they?

Still, the "iPhone X isn't exciting" argument was one I'd heard when I went into the T-Mobile store too. I was told animojis and better selfies were the two biggest reasons to buy the phone. If you're not moved by those, get an iPhone 8 Plus, I was told.

However, the T-Mobile salesman from the northwest added a crucial point: "Apple also doesn't have reps come to the stores like the other big brands to show off their goods and try to give us real world hands-on examples of their technology. I'm sure they don't feel they need to."

I'm sure, too.

In essence, then, it seems that Apple expects the enormous hype it generates to obviate the need to do too much (anything) in the way of sell-in to stores. Except, of course, to its own stores. But even there, I was told the staff only see new phones a matter of hours before they go on sale.

A Verizon salesman, who said he was regularly a top performer at Verizon-- put it a different way: 'If you really want to know why you are led one way or the other, it's whatever I think is going to get you out of my store fastest, so I can move on to the next person. That's the only incentive we have to push certain models."

The person-to-person interaction is, for some salespeople, pure sales. It could be a car. It happens to be a phone.

"We aren't here to spend half an hour helping you figure it out," the Verizon salesman added.

Verizon and T-Mobile declined to comment. Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Do salespeople encourage customers to switch from iOS to Android, or vice versa?

In my in-person visits, some salespeople have told me that it's extremely difficult to switch operating systems. Some have told me it's easy. Most have told me that Android is better and the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 are the best phones one can buy.

Some salesperson readers offered a similar view. Others had more nuance.

One Verizon salesman gave me a commercial reason why he doesn't encourage switching.

"I don't push customers to go to a different phone OS, because the customer will most likely return it. I usually ask a series of questions if you come in asking me about that. I honestly sell with integrity because I don't want a return on my commissions," he said.

A T-Mobile employee added: "When people want to switch over from Android to iPhone I tell them they will miss their back button. Going from iPhone to Android, people would miss their iMessage and iTunes."

"Phones are investments. Why sell a phone the customer is not used to? Why curse them for 1 or 2 years? If you came to my store, I would explain the differences and make you see what you are deciding," added the Verizon employee.

In essence, then, going to a carrier store involves the same level of caveat emptor as any other transaction.

You'll find good salespeople and bad ones. You'll find people with their own motivations and ones that want to see you happy, because they believe that's the best approach to doing business.

I'm still trying to find one who'll tell the iPhone X is the best phone you can buy.