It may not be the top wireless provider by numbers of customers, but users have boosted Consumer Cellular to the top spot in an annual satisfaction survey. Sprint, however, hits rock bottom.
The poll of 58,399 ConsumerReports.org subscribers who use cell phone service, taken in September 2013, gave good or excellent marks to the no-contract Consumer Cellular for value, voice calling, texting, and support. It fell short only on 4G, which is not available on its network. The overall score was 88, and it was the only carrier to receive a top rating for value.
Best 4G at AT&T
It's the fourth year in a row the Tigard, Ore.-based company, founded in 1995, won the top satisfaction rating. It has about one million customers. Its cheapest voice plan is $10 per month.
U.S. Cellular came in at No. 2, with a 75 rating, while Credo Wireless came in with a 73 rating.
The top four U.S. providers by volume earned less generous ratings. Verizon Wireless, with a rating of 71, earned excellent marks for data and support, but so-so ratings for everything else.
T-Mobile earned a 65 rating with no top rating in any category and the worst rating for voice calls. AT&T scored a 64 with the top rating of all carriers for 4G service, but mediocre ratings for everything else, and the worst available rating for value.
Scraping bottom was Sprint Nextel, with a 59 rating and also the lowest rating for value. Voice, text, data and 4G service also got the lowest ratings, while data and support also ranked poorly.
Differences between carriers in reader scores of less than five points are not meaningful, Consumer Reports noted in its results, because of the margin of error.
For prepaid service, TracFone won the highest rating, 80, while Verizon came in fourth with 75, T-Mobile fifth at 74, Virgin Mobile seventh at 72 and AT&T's GoPhone last at 69.
Customer Service Is Key
Gerry Purdy, chief mobility analyst for Compass Intelligence, said service is a key differentiator in a changing wireless market.
"Some of the second tier carriers have to figure out a way to compete with the top tier," said Purdy.
"It is much harder for any major carrier that has 80 or 90 million subscribers to keep them all happy than smaller carriers. The breadth of people is just higher. So, statistically the more people you have the more they either love you to death or hate you," Purdy added.
He said many carriers are working on ways to keep customers happier with automated services accessible directly on their phones or via the to reduce calling and wait times.
Purdy said future surveys may take into account automated services for problem resolution, rather than just calls to representatives, in the same way the Nielsen ratings system incorporated viewing of shows via DVR.