The Basics: Understanding Cell Phone Employees

We here at PhoneCan talk a lot about phones and wireless devices.  We talk a lot about policies.  We cover several angles about the wireless business that other sites don’t bother - or can’t - cover.  Our efforts are designed to empower and educate the customer with good sense and an understanding of why things are the way they are.

One thing we’ve neglected to spend much time on, however, are the people who work for cell phone companies within the stores and call centers where real people work with real customers.

Follow with us as we help bring some insight into the life of a wireless industry employee.

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Whatever You Thought You Knew…

Many people have misconceptions about the employees working inside wireless stores, in the field, and over the phone.  Consumers don’t really understand what it’s like to be an employee in the wireless business unless they, themselves, have been in the business.  And even then, having been in the business five or ten years ago has little bearing on today’s wireless employees.  On top of that, having worked in generic retail before means little until you’ve been in our shoes.

Myth: Employees are uneducated, untrained, low-wage workers.

While I worry about the future of the business, this myth is far from the truth.

Many of the people you see in the store or talk to on the phone actually have degrees, or in the least, a lot of experience instead.  Some work in the industry because it was the best job they could find, or perhaps they liked the work.  Of those without degrees, it’s harder to get into the business in 2011 unless you have a lot of experience.  Wireless carriers don’t hire right out of high school very often, though resellers might.  Besides, by most state laws, the people working in wireless need to be adults because they deal with contracts every day.  You don’t find young teens pushing cell phones over the summer - it just doesn’t happen.

It’s getting to the point where the service providers themselves won’t hire someone without a degree.

Every single person working in the business receives some degree of training.  Granted, the training is nothing compared to real world, on the job learning, but it creates the basis by which the employee understands their business.  Any company that drops wireless service virgins into the fire is asking for trouble.  There’s far too much to know, retain, and utilize each day.  Even those good at sales and lacking in technical understanding no longer get very far - it takes one part salesperson, one part geek, and one part patience to work in the business.  Most application processes weed out those who don’t fit the type of employee that’s needed, and the training process either converts the others over or causes them to reconsider their employement.  This is not a lighthearted business.

As for those who think they’re all low-wage workers, you’re far from the truth.  While those of us who have been in the business a very long time remember making more money in the past, for the most part, working in wireless is a well-paying job.  For some, the work is well worth the paycheck.  For others, the fluctuation in pay due to commissions might be problematic, but that would only be caused by the person’s lifesytle.  For the most part, wireless employees make good money and live a decent lifestyle.  Those that do not, or cannot, don’t stick around for very long.

Myth: Employees don’t care about customers

This is 100% false.

Customer service employees are rated and guaged by their customer satisfaction and performance.  Sales employees are paid, in full or in-part, by customer purchases.  If either didn’t care about the customer, they wouldn’t make any money, or wouldn’t be employed for much longer.

That’s not to say there aren’t people like that, nor that there are employees who are rude jerks.  But you can’t generalize all of them by the actions of one of them.

Employees get frustrated all the time.  Most people in retail do.  But there is a common expectation among some customers that their business is worth gold and they should be treated like kings.  And when the king doesn’t get what they want, they blame the person standing in front of them.

Most employees try to treat customers with the same respect and honesty they would want in return.  The only problem is, some customers are never satisfied.  They’re treated equally, and it’s not good enough.  They’re given more than everyone else, and it’s not enough.  Someone bends over backwards to keep them happy, and it’s not enough.  Some customers I’ve seen never actually pay a dime for service, and they’re never satisfied.  This isn’t every customer, certainly, but in today’s economy where everyone is looking for someone to give them a “deal” for being a customer, employees can get quite frustrated.  At the same time, a customer should never know this, as they should be treated well no matter what.  But being human, we too fall prey to our emotions, and it’s hard to mask that.

And remember this - as a customer, you are probably one of hundreds of customer that are helped each day by a single person.  And you’re one of several millions of customers.  Don’t fall into the trap that assuming the company you’re dealing with can’t live without you.  And don’t ignore the fact that the person on the front-line, the person you work with when you call or go into a store, have more of a vested interest in keeping you happy than someone who never talks to a single customer.  They’re doing their best in most situations, and you can’t fault them when you’re not given everything for free.

Myth: Reps only help you to make money.

While this might be true of some resellers (unfortunately), this is a short-sighted statement because not everyone you interact with makes money off of your sales.  Most people you talk to don’t make a dime off of you.  Some of them make a buck or two when you get something, but make most of their money on wages.  Others work on straight commission (as it is often with resellers).

Not everyone who helps you is in this situation.

Myth: Cell companies make a killing off of you and reps know it.

The truth is, most reps have no clue what the company makes.  Most aren’t just in the business of solely providing service for human customers.  There are so many other programs, spectrum leasings, roaming agreements, and other business going on that there’s no way that an employee you work with would know the true nature of what they sell.

There are some mysteries and myths we can dispell right here.

First, phones actually do cost close to what the “full retail” price indicates.  Those who work with inventory have seen the costs, and anyone who’s ever worked in inventory knows that if you lie on your costs, you’re lying on your taxes and account receivables, and that’s a big no-no.  Phone aren’t cheap.  If you have a problem with their cost, talk to the manufacturer who bilks the carriers and resellers of money knowing they don’t deal directly with the consumer and have a captive customer who is only going to take a loss on the product (the carrier).

Second, accessories do make a ton of money.  For most accessories, the costs are so minimal that the shelf price of the product yields a good amount of profit.  The problem is, this is how any business operates.  Wal-Mart may sell something similar for less than a wireless store, but do you think they’re also not raking in the cash on that accessory?  They just happen to get them a bit cheaper, seeing as how they buy them in the billions from China.  For carriers, accessories are almost always discounted (few people buy accessories at full price, but it happens).  And at the end of the day, the profit from those accessories help pay for the lights and the paychecks, just like it would for any other retail business.  The only problem is, most retailers don’t sell their product at a loss at the point of sale, as what happens with subsidized phones.  This is uniquely wireless.

Third, you may think you know what a phone call costs, but you don’t, and neither will the person on the phone or behind the counter.  They’re as likely to know that as you are.  They might have an educated guess, based on something they heard from some higher-up five years ago, but that’s no convincing argument for knowing exact costs.

Myth: Employees know when new phones are coming and can’t say anything

This is true, depending on the context.

There are times when the employee is trained on a new device or product before said item is launched.  For the most part, this could be anywhere from a week to mere hours from launch.  Most often, though, employees find out about something just as customers do - by official announcement.

This of it this way.  Remember how employees want to keep customers happy?  And part of that is letting them know when something cool is coming out?  That makes them the loose lips of the company.  And because of that, they’re also the LAST ones to be told about anything.

The only chance they have of knowing anything beyond what’s official is by Internet rumor.  And that’s the same drivel anyone can dig up online.  And to those who track Internet rumor, a majority of the time the rumors are off or wrong entirely.

So, in the few days or hours when employees know something consumers don’t, yes, they can’t say anything.  That’s standard.  But two weeks, two months out?  Your guess is as good as ours.  We don’t know anything more than you do.  We just know when information is wrong, when you might not.

As such, the number-one question we get right now, at least as a Verizon Wireless or AT&T employee, is when is the iPhone 5 coming?  The answer to that is, we’ll find out the same day you do.

We hope this has helped you discover a few things you may not have known about wireless employees.  Ultimately, though, if you want to know something, just ask us.  At the same time, don’t be surprised when the answer seems different than what you think you know.