How Sprint could save $30 million with a better user experience

Here’s the story

Last month I went to the Sprint store to get new phone. I was way past due for my upgrade and still using a 5S, so I was pretty excited. I arrived at the store and waited for a several minutes until an employee was free, then waited around some more while he checked for available phones. Eventually, I was informed that all of the surrounding stores had only the 7 plus in stock, which was about four square inches larger and $200 more expensive than what I was looking for.

Irritated but still excited, I followed the Sprint employee’s instructions and headed home to order a 6S online. The phone selection process was fairly straightforward, so I decided to check out some screen protectors and cases to keep my phone safe once it arrived. As soon as I started shopping for accessories, the experience became miserable: rather than the familiar product page with several lines of visible items, the accessories were introduced in a single list of 4 items, and additional items had to be viewed via horizontal scroll.

Clicking into an accessory category presented a vertical list of items, but filtering was complicated because the filters for phone, accessory type, and price were all on different parts of the page.

I narrowed the list down to cases in my budget, but to filter by phone type I had to enter the phone manufacturer and then select from a list of phones in a separate modal with several additional filters of its own:

After some hunting, I eventually found screen protectors for a 6S and added them to my cart. I submitted my order and headed off to the gym, confident that the frustrating part was over and my new phone was on its way.

All set… or not

On my way home from the gym I saw that I had several missed calls. My mother had called to let me know someone from Sprint was looking for me, and I had a message from Sprint letting me know my recent order had been cancelled. When I listened to the voicemail from Sprint, the order number and the phone number to return the call were rapidfire and mumbled, so I had to call the main customer service line and have them look up my order from my account information. The customer service agent could not tell me why my order was cancelled, but he did offer to place a new one over the phone.

Recreating the order was a time consuming process. It had to be broken up over two transactions, one for the phone and one for the screen protectors. This meant that I had to read my payment information out separately for each order, which led to issues correctly entering my card number. I ended up using two cards and reading out all of the information for each one twice before both orders were successfully placed.

After an hour on the phone, the process still wasn’t complete. Before Sprint would ship the phone, I had to look up my order online and e-sign a new contract, which hadn’t been mentioned in any part of the original order process. There was no way either online or over the phone to add another contact email to the order, so before I could complete the process I had to wait for the main account holder to forward me all the emails with the order confirmations and instructions for e-signing.

The key to looking up the order and signing the contract was the order number, which was provided as one long string of letters and numbers in the confirmation email…

…and requested as a several strings separated by dashes in the order lookup tool.

To actually look up an order, you need to determine where to add the dashes, and the letters need to be capitalized (although there’s no messaging to communicate that to the user). If you get it wrong, they show the same error message no matter what you did:

Bright spots

Although most of this experience was a struggle, there were some places where Sprint got it right:

  • Site navigation was straightforward and simple: it was clear how to access my plan details, where to shop for phones and accessories, and where to look up my order.
  • The plan components were clearly broken out, so I could easily calculate my share of the family plan and determine my new expenses.
  • The customer service agent was friendly and professional. He even provided expedited shipping for free so I could get my new phone and accessories faster.

Missed opportunities

Throughout the process, there were several touchpoints where things could have been turned around if they were handled differently:

  • If a larger variety of inventory was in stock at the store, I could have purchased the phone in person on my first try.
  • Alternatively, if the store employee had ordered the phone on my behalf issues could have been resolved before my order was cancelled and I had to call customer support.
  • If the online order had been put on hold instead of cancelled, I could have resolved whatever prompted them to cancel it without having to place the order a second time.
  • If there was a way to add another contact to the order, I would have received calls and emails from Sprint directly instead of having to go through the main account holder.
  • If the order identification process was simpler it would have been less frustrating to sign my new contract and (finally!) order my phone.

Improvements for users = savings for Sprint

Sprint doesn’t have a ton of incentive to change: they have three competitors and their customers are often locked into years-long contracts with high switching costs. However, just because investing in customer experience can be costly, it doesn’t mean their current experience is cheap. Attempting to place my order three separate times using three separate methods was expensive: Sprint paid rent and wages for the store I visited that was unable to help me complete my order; they paid engineers, designers, and product managers to build a website where I couldn’t successfully order and struggled to sign my contract; they paid for a customer service agent to spend an hour recreating my order with me over the phone.

As of August 2016, Sprint had 58.44 million subscribers. I did some digging on average cost per hour at phone centers, and I found estimates ranging from $30/hour to $7/hour. Considering Sprint’s call volume, they can probably negotiate a low hourly rate, but their agents seemed well trained and there are fixed costs for customer support, so let’s estimate that it cost Sprint $10 for the hour I spent on the phone with the customer support agent.

If we generously assume that only 5% of Sprint’s current subscribers will experience the same issues that I did, and that it will cost only $10 to resolve them, that would mean $30 million dollars in easily preventable expenses for Sprint. That’s a signal any company should receive loud and clear.