Busy Signal

Want some service for that nice, cheap Sprint phone? Take a number.

It's Saturday afternoon in Plano, and for once, the weather is nice. So nice that a young man leans against the outside wall of the Sprint PCS Store at 1913 Preston Road, smoking a cigarette. This twenty-something Sprint employee, dressed in slouchy khakis and a red polo shirt, is taking a short break from his job as a "greeter" in the wireless telecommunications company's store.

While the young man enjoys a leisurely smoke in the great outdoors, watching weekend shoppers dipping in and out of Wal-Mart, Borders, and Chick-Fil-A, a far less pleasant scene unfolds inside the shop.

Here, more than 40 Sprint customers clutch paper numbers and await service for their wireless phones. Many have been here for more than an hour; exasperated looks abound. Young children are flopped on the floor, since Sprint has provided no chairs for waiting customers. Two people peek in the door of the shop, assess the situation, then turn and jump into their cars.

Meanwhile, back outside, the greeter flips his long blond bangs from his eyes, takes another drag on his cigarette, and casually offers his opinion on why he's already encountered dozens of irate customers during his two weeks as a Sprint employee. "It just happens that way with rich people, who don't like to wait. They think they are better than waiting," says the employee, who won't give his name.

Obviously, this isn't the guy Sprint would prefer as its spokesman. But the young employee's attitude reflects the problems that Sprint's patrons, in particular, and other local wireless customers face.

The wireless telecommunications industry has grown by leaps and bounds. Sprint signed 883,000 new customers in the second quarter of this year, bringing its nationwide customer base to 7.8 million. Southwestern Bell Wireless reported a 31 percent increase in revenues for the same quarter, with $1.6 billion for the year.

But the companies' reputations for providing service to existing customers are taking a beating. Sprint has the dubious distinction of ranking as the company with the most complaints lodged against it--1,400 in the past three years--at the Better Business Bureau of Fort Worth. Nationwide complaints against the company are channeled to the Fort Worth office, because Sprint PCS has located its main service call center in that region.

Other wireless service providers aren't doing much better. Records in the Texas Office of the Attorney General show that in the past two years, the wireless industry received one of the highest tallies of complaints of all sectors. A spokeswoman for the AG's office said that, in the past two years, the state has received 598 complaints against wireless providers, including 103 against Southwestern Bell and 74 against Sprint.

Sprint executives know they have a problem.

"We are aware that we do have some issues in our stores, and we are listening to customers and doing something about it," says Leisa Woods, director of retail sales for the Oklahoma and North Texas regions of Sprint PCS.

For many of the weary, overheated people waiting at the Sprint store in Plano last Saturday, such promises seem empty.

"I am just trying to get my bill paid," says Michael Herndon, a 23-year-old wireless user who signed up with Sprint three months ago. Stepping outside to have a smoke while he waits for his number to appear on the screen at the center of the store, Herndon explains that he has never received a bill at home for his wireless phone. That would be perfectly acceptable, he says, if Sprint wouldn't keep disconnecting his service for lack of payment. Each time, he has to trek to the store to pay the bill in cash and provide his address.

"I came to Sprint because they had these great rates," he says. "But they are swamped. If they are going to do anything, they should expand their staff."

Herndon and others trying to get service on Saturday couldn't help but notice that new customers who came to buy a phone or "hook up" didn't have to take a number or wait at all.

"I saw four people just walk up to the counter and get help right away," says a woman who had driven from Sherman to pay her husband's wireless bill. She waits 55 minutes for the privilege.

Pete Vaidya, a Sprint customer for three years, decided to give up on the company on Saturday. "We are not too happy about Sprint," said Vaidya, who waited with his daughter for an hour only to be told that Sprint can no longer fix the phone he bought in 1997. According to Vaidya, the Sprint employees told him that he will have to invest about $200 in a new phone and, even then, the company will not allow him to get the low-rate plans it is offering other customers who are signing for the first time.

Customers complain that at both Sprint and Southwestern Bell Wireless stores, managers are a rare commodity. One soon-to-be former Southwestern Bell customer, believing she had exhausted the knowledge of the clerk behind the counter, recently asked to speak to a manager. The manager was on vacation for a week, she was told. Within a minute, however, the customer recalls, the clerk had asked a uniformed off-duty Dallas police officer to intervene. He told the customer to leave the store. "You raised your voice at me," the clerk explained.

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