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AT&T gains in customer satisfaction as Verizon dips

AT&T is now close to Verizon in customer satisfaction, but Sprint grabs the top spot, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

AT&T is catching up with Verizon, at least in customer satisfaction.
AT&T is catching up with Verizon, at least in customer satisfaction.
Josh Long/CNET

Dinged for poor customer service in the past, AT&T has been staging a rebound.

The carrier scored a grade of 69 out of 100 this year in a report out today from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. That proved to be a 5 percent boost from 2011, putting it on par with T-Mobile, which lost 1 percent.

Customer satisfaction was low for both AT&T and T-Mobile last year amid all the merger troubles, but AT&T at least was able to recover.

"AT&T is within striking distance of the industry lead for the first time since 2008, when it had an exclusive deal with iPhone," ACSI founder Claes Fornell said in the report. "Although AT&T continues to play catch-up with Verizon, its more than 700,000 new subscribers in Q4 2011 were AT&T's biggest gain in five quarters."

The company is in fact hot on the heels of Verizon Wireless, which scored 70 out of 100, down 3 percent from last year.

Once the king of the carriers at customer satisfaction, Verizon has seen its score continue to dwindle. This year marked the third in a row in which the carrier saw a drop in satisfaction, which the ACSI blamed on new upgrade fees and greater stress on Verizon's network.

"New fees for phone upgrades and a surge in traffic accessing data has increased Verizon's revenue, but at the expense of customer satisfaction," Fornell said. "Verizon's prices have gone up, but its reliability has not improved. Plus, bandwidth is increasingly challenged by Verizon's nearly 110 million users."

But overall, Sprint now leads the U.S. carrier market with the highest level of satisfied customers.

Capturing a score of 71 out of 100 (a 1 percent dip from last year), Sprint Nextel has slowly been working its way up the ranks, all the way from just 56 in 2008. Adding the iPhone to the carrier's lineup hasn't increased customer satisfaction, according to the ACSI, but the increased strain on its network hasn't hurt much either.

On the cell phone end, Apple again captured the No. 1 position with the iPhone.

With a score of 83 out of 100, the iPhone is a "game changer" in terms of customer satisfaction, according to the ACSI. No other mobile phone maker has achieved a score higher than 80.

Trailing Apple each with scores of 75 were Nokia (up 3 percent from 2011) and LG and HTC, both new to the ACSI rankings. Samsung was further down the list with a score of 71 despite the demand and positive reviews for Galaxy smartphones.

But RIM really took it on the chin, ending up in last place with a score of 69, a factor that could tie in with the BlackBerry maker's slumping stock price.

"Companies with weak customer satisfaction often have weak stock performance," Fornell said. "RIM's sales are slumping amid a bevy of problems, from hardware and software issues to server lapses that have caused e-mail and messaging outages. Over the past year, share price for RIM has virtually collapsed."

To compile its report, the ACSI interviews around 70,000 customers each year to measure customer satisfaction among more than 225 companies across 47 industries.