Thursday, April 26, 2012

Phone Number Transfers

Phone number transfers, or port-ins, were one of the biggest sources of problems for customers I've worked with. Whether it's confusion about the process, or the information needed, I've had more problems crop up for customers with porting, than with any other part of the sales process. I decided it was time to write a bit about how it works, and why it might be confusing.

If you ever have the misfortune of switching carriers, and you want to bring your phone number(s) with you, you have more preparation to do before you visit your local cell phone retailer. At the time that you set up your account, you'll need, in addition to all the other information you'd need to set up your account, The name and billing address of your former account, the account number, and the account password.

The account number is generally written on your cell phone bill, which should also have the billing address. I recommend taking your most recent bill into the store with you for the port-in. Beyond this information, you'll need the password. This is information a surprising number of customers I've helped don't know. Either they never set one up, or it's been so long they just can't remember. The next step is to call their customer service, and reset their password.

From my point of view, I prefer, unless I'm very busy, to make calls to customer service on behalf of my customers. This is because with experience comes efficiency, and knowing how to talk to the people at customer service to get the answers I want for my customer. Sometimes this requires a bit of creative truthing or selective omission to sneak through the system a little faster, or come out with a better deal for my customer. Resetting a password is something I cannot do for a customer, and I must relinquish the role of intermediary.

A good customer service rep will take advantage of this moment where he has the customer's ear, often going beyond the verification steps to start troubleshooting with the customer. This is usually fine, and often makes things easier for me. Occasionally though, while resetting a password, or getting an account number, my customer will coolly comment to the customer service rep that they're planning to take their account elsewhere.

I don't know why this happens, but it always lengthens the process a bit, as the customer service rep tries to talk my customer out of switching, which very rarely works. In any event, we eventually get the information we need, occasionally by hanging up and calling again. Only once did I ever have a customer service rep refuse to give us information because we were trying to leave. Only option was to try again with a different rep. I don't know if myself or the customer were more surprised.

With the information in hand, punching it into the system is easy enough. The only rub comes with the fact that in most systems I've tried, they don't alert you to an incorrect password. If you happen to guess wrong, or the agent types it in wrong, the only alert you will get to the fact that it didn't work is that 48 hours later, it still won't work.

If it hasn't worked, you have to call customer service, and ask for the port-in center, and they can then tell you why, and help you to fix it. They are usually very helpful once you get them on the phone, but it's the same process all over again.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Eventually, things will sort themselves out.

I've always hated port-ins, but they're a necessary evil if you want to take your number with you. At least they are for most people. There are ways to get around that, but I'll come back to that later.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What Is Your Phone Number Tied To?

It might seem like a weird question, but what is your phone number tied to? There are a couple of ways to answer this question.

Wikipedia posits, in rather complicated language:
Telephone number mapping is the process of unifying the telephone number system of the public switched telephone network with the Internet addressing and identification name spaces. Telephone numbers are systematically organized in the E.164 standard, while the Internet uses the Domain Name System for linking domain names to IP addresses and other resource information. Telephone number mapping systems provide facilities to determine applicable Internet communications servers responsible for servicing a given telephone number by simple lookups in the Domain Name System.
 But that's not very helpful.

For most people, a phone number is tied to a phone. For some people, a phone number is tied to a house, or a business. More and more, though, we see phone numbers as being tied to a person. This is bound to happen, as our phones become seen as more and more an extension of ourselves.

While this tendency to associate phone numbers with people leads us towards powerful new communicative methods, it comes with dangerous risks. Anyone who has had to change to a new number can attest to the difficulty of  doing so. Everyone you talk to has to be updated, and god forbid you forget someone, the consequences could be dire. This danger stems from the distinction between how we think about our phone numbers, and how the technology handles it.

I said earlier that phone number are often seen to be tied to people. The technology dictates that despite the way we think about our phone numbers, they must be tied to your phone. This is also why transferring your number to a new carrier is such a hassle.

There are several emerging services available to bridge this gap. They are all effectively call forwarding services, with a few extra features specific to recent technologies. I run my business on Google Voice, which allows my business number to be tied to me, whether I'm in my office, at home, or on the road. It's been very useful, and allowed me access to some neat tricks with my Android and iOS devices, which I'll get into another time.

While GV is what works for me, there are other call forwarding services out there. PhoneboothLine2, and RingCentral all offer similar services, though generally with some variance to features or costs. I recommend taking a look at the various telephony services, and seeing if any of them could fit into your life.

Tying your phone number to you, instead of to your phone allows much more freedom from your phone carrier. Perhaps, with the right combination of apps and luck, a cell phone carrier could be made unnecessary.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Voicemail Is Not a Backup Solution

So, this is going to be a sad story. I'm sorry in advance, but it's one I need to tell, in the hopes that this post saves at least one person from the same heartbreak as I saw one of my customers experience.

First, some important information, for people who have never used a prepaid phone. Prepaids have two tanks, both of which need to be filled for the phone to work. One tank is full of minutes of talk time, and the other is full of days of service. Any time you refill one, you also refill the other. If you talk a lot, you'll often have service dates well off into the foreseeable future. Alternatively, if you rarely use your phone, you may find you have thousands of minutes to spare, but still need to top up once a month, or once every three months, just to keep service on the device. Often if you run out of minutes, the service days remain, but depending on your provider, if the days elapse, you may run the risk of having your account closed, after some delay.

I was working one afternoon, when a customer came in to top up her prepaid phone. She had a phone, maybe 5 years old, still chugging away, and had a prepaid service she'd carried for at least as long. She told me that due to an unexpected illness, she had been unable to refill her phone before the days remaining on her account elapsed. Her account had been suspended, and she was looking to get it turned back on. She was a customer I had helped before, and she had always been friendly, if a bit less tech-savvy than some.

I asked her how long it had been shut off for, to which she told me she wasn't quite sure. She had been ill for a number of weeks, during which her phone was the least of her worries. She said that it had been off for at least a week, possibly as much as a month. When I commented that she may lose her phone number as a result, she seemed concerned.

She asked me if her voicemails would be accessible, once her phone was turned back on. I honestly told her that I wasn't sure, but dutifully got onto the phone with customer service to find out. After some amount of time with them, I managed to resecure her phone number, and get the phone topped up, but had no guarantee from the customer service rep (who was wonderful, if unsure about the rather obscure inquiry) as to the status of her voice mailbox.

When we turned her phone back on, she gave a call to her voicemail, finding it to be empty. She told me, as tears came to her eyes, that she'd lost the only recording she'd had of her father, whom she had lost earlier that year. She had kept this phone, which she no longer needed, topped up with the sole purpose of retaining her last living tie to her father, the voice on the other end that neither she, nor anyone else could replace.

She was crushed. I talked to everyone I could at the customer service center, trying my damnedest to find someone who would tell me that recovery might just be possible. Again and again I was told that there was no way they knew of to save her father's message. It was deleted when her account lapsed, through little fault of her own.

As she left my store, she could barely hold herself together. I knew she didn't blame me, and I knew it wasn't my fault, and yet every inch of me felt guilty as the bearer of that awful news. "I'm sorry, but you will never hear your father's voice again." were words I didn't say, I didn't need to. But it was the message I had to deliver her.

For the love of all the things that mean something special, things we can't replace, if you keep a voicemail as a memento, find another way to keep it. Whether you use a cable to the mic jack on your computer, potentially with an adaptor (2.5mm to 3.5mm, for most older phones, 6$ @ Radio Shack), or hire someone to do it for you (while not advertised, MRRU can offer this service), find a way to store your special voicemails elsewhere.

This story is not about prepaid phones, or about my guilt in being the bearer of bad news, or even about voicemail, really. This is a story about a recording that meant the world to someone, until that recording was lost forever. If you have meaningful recordings, back them up, and if you have meaningful recordings in your voice mailbox, get them copied somewhere else. Please.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Only Thing To Fear...

I mentioned yesterday that the willingness to dive into unknown problems with enthusiasm could be a valuable asset to any cell phone owner, and that I thought that it was worth expounding on in another post. Rather than let this idea die on the vine, or languish in the annals of my "Drafts" pile, I thought I'd talk about it while still fresh in my mind.

I have helped many people become acquainted with their phones. I have seen hundreds of customers running the gamut from young teenagers with their first cell phones (side note, I was 14 when I got my first, flimsy little candybar phone, and years later, I sold a 9 year old girl a touchscreen blackberry... technological progress is weird), to businesspeople, to octogenarians.

The interesting thing about this wide range of people is that, contrary to what you might expect, younger people do not always grasp technology faster. While it is true that teens tend to desire the latest and greatest technologies, even this is not universally true. I have met many a teen who not only prefer simple flip or candybar style handsets, but even refuse to acknowledge any usefulness in even the most basic of smartphones. On the other hand, I've seen 70-something year-old couples bicker to each other how each has chosen the better smartphone. For the record, if you and your chosen mate disagree on the iPhone vs. Android debate, 46 years of marriage won't fix it.

The only common denominator that I can see in those who will be most successful with their new smartphones, is that they all lack the fear of failure. They dive, head first, into their new devices with reckless abandon, unafraid of the repercussions of a particular app install, changed setting, or customisation.

Contrast this with those who fear their phones from the start, unwilling to touch a single option, or change anything from the stock system they start with. It's no wonder that these people need to be walked, hand-in-hand, through every new feature before they will be willing to try it out on their own. It's no wonder, but it's also no easy feat.

The real secret to learning how to use your smartphone is to be the former, brave owner and commander of your new phone. Take control, explore it as if it were the new world, and you were Magellan. Just don't die along the way, the metaphor isn't perfect. In any event, the worst that can possibly happen is that your phone might start to get a bit slow. You might not like some of the changes you've made, or find that you can no longer easily find things you once could, But there is hope! Between people like me, here to help make sense of your misguided choices, and the cell phone's natural ability to, at the touch of a button, revert to it's original state, there is no mistake you could make that cannot be undone.

Everything you can do on your phone is reversible, usually without any loss of data. I recommend to every customer I train, "Take this phone. Try to break it. If you can, I'll fix it, and you'll know not to do quite what you did there again."

Just to clarify, "Try to break it." has nothing to do with physical damage, just the settings on the phone. People like me exist so that when your phone inexplicably stops ringing, and you can't figure out how you did it, I can set it right, and show you how it happened.

Everything is fixable, and if you're not afraid to break it, you will learn your phone better, and faster, and you'll have far more fun with it along the way. Don't fear your phone, it's only a tool, and it's your tool, not the other way around. Make it yours. You won't regret it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Helping Out

So, this is going to be a more personal post than much of what I've shared so far. I wanted to share how excited working in this field makes me. I've mentioned before that cell phones are not new territory to me, but having spent all my experience working on selling them, it's refreshing to be able to take some of my favourite parts of my old jobs, and continue on with them.

When someone walks into a cell phone store, it's because they need something. Whether it's a new phone or help with an existing phone, it always seems to be something that they dread attempting. Maybe there are salesmen out there pushing a hard-sell. Maybe they've become exasperated with the problems their expensive new toy has been having. Whatever the reason, walking in the door seems to be the hardest thing they've done all day.

That's why I find it so rewarding when they leave feeling like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. When I can help out someone, and it shows in their face that they feel more confident and excited about their device than they expected to that day. When I can teach someone something new about the phone they've had for the last year and a half, and were starting to tire of. When my help makes them smile, it also makes me smile.

Today, one of my customers was looking for help rooting his phone. He wanted it to be faster, and more reliable, and altogether more exciting than he expected it to be, coming straight from the manufacturer. He wanted to know what it took to root his phone, and he wanted to understand the technology. While the willingness to dive into the unknown is an incredible tool for the cell phone owner (and deserving of its own blog post), it's not always the safest bet, without experience to lessen the risks. So he brought it to me, and I worked my magic. I explained for him what I did, and it seemed the time that I took to help him out was more than others in similar places had been willing, or able to offer.

His appreciation was extremely rewarding, and reminded me so much of why I got into this technology in the first place. I like to help people understand how phones work, how carriers work, how this industry that is built up to keep the consumer in the dark is run. I like to impart knowledge, and the look in my customer's eyes when he really understood what he was being handed reminded me of that.

Sometimes all people want is someone to take the time to work with them, at their pace. Cell phone salespeople, for all their skills, are not always able to offer this, being under pressure from the carriers to sell more phones, or more accessories with each extra phone. It always frustrated me to have limits put on my ability to work with individual customers.

Long story short, I'm really excited to be able to take the time now.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What's the Deal With Contracts?

So if there is one area of cell phones that I have found myself explaining most often, it's how cell phone contracts work. It's a confusing system, some would say intentionally so, to keep customers in the dark so carriers can make additional money. In order to explain how cell phone contracts work in the United States, I should first explain how they work in Europe.

Cell phones cost money. I know, I was surprised too. To clarify, cell phones cost a lot of money. So much that most people would be unwilling to ever spend so much on a device they expect to change every couple years. In order to make cell phones more affordable, carriers often offer huge discounts on handsets, under the understanding that you will sign a contract for two years during which they can make up the difference by increasing the cost of your service. This is called a subsidized phone plan.

Now, back to Europe. In Europe, while you're under contract on a subsidized phone plan, you will pay an extra 5-10$/month for the duration of your contract. Once you finish the terms of that contract, the additional subsidy charge falls off your bill, and you save 5-10$/month until you decide to upgrade your phone.

This differs from the U.S. carriers, in that around here, when you finish the terms of your contract, you continue paying a subsidy charge. This is because the cost of the subsidy is built into their normal service costs, so there is no "extra charge" to take away. The only benefit an American gets at the end of their contract is the privilege to purchase a new phone at a discounted price (with another two year contract). This is interesting, because it means that whether you choose to upgrade or not, you are paying for a new phone, as the subsidy is built into their normal operating costs.

Now, there is never any requirement to sign a contract, as you can always pay full price for your phone. Without a contract though, you will end up paying something like 200$ more for the simplest phone on the shelf, or up to 600$ more for a smartphone (the subsidy on smartphones is much higher, because they can make it up via the data plan, part of the reason why they require a data plan on any smartphone). And after you've paid immense amounts for your new phone, you'll end up paying for it again, due to the presumed subsidy built into your bill.

When I said the only benefit was getting a new phone, that wasn't quite true. You also then have the right to change carriers, a fact that is useful as a bargaining chip, but depending on where you live, this option may not be viable. Often, there is a particular carrier most people will prefer, due to the handsets they offer, or the level of service they provide in their area. Once you find the best carrier for your area, there are often few reasons to reconsider down the road.

All this comes together to a simple recommendation I used to offer all of my customers who were eligible for upgrade, use it. You're going to pay for a new phone either way, you might as well get one.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Website Updates

Today, we have taken several steps towards a website that is pretty, and easy to traverse. I have eradicated the annoying "alert" boxes I had placeholding the menu links for the Products and Services pages, and replaced them with dialog boxes that fit better into the site, including our pretty Contact Us form on each. Until we have a website that allows our customers to help themselves, we want it to be incredibly easy for our customers to get in touch with us, so we can help them one-on-one.

Looking forward to more updates in the future, as our website becomes more and more useful. Stay tuned for more!