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Online customer experience proves to be an important brand-building tool for major wireless carriers and third-party resellers. Wireless Web storefronts are not just a convenient and efficient channel to sell phones and plans, but a critical brand-building venue as well. Visitors to the cellular service carriers' sites are not only seeing that provider's offerings, but are also getting a taste of what the online experience will be like if they sign on with that carrier. As subscriber growth plateaus, enhanced services delivered via cell phone hold the greatest potential for revenue growth. Whatever mobile services consumers are increasingly driven to buy, from basic service to data to digital downloads, they frequently do their shopping online.
The customer experience index factors more than 80 customer satisfaction metrics, as well as brand impact and conversion impact indices.
Overall, the independent sites consistently outperformed the five major carriers surveyed (Cingular, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel, and Qwest), which tended to cluster in the middle of customer rankings for most attributes. A positive online brand experience correlates closely to high conversion impact — the likelihood to make a purchase from the site or to recommend it. One area where two of the major carriers did break into the top three is the overall customer satisfaction index, a composite measure of the survey that factored a number of metrics including overall satisfaction, ease-of-use, organization, plans and service, and plan features. Beyond the nuts and bolts of navigation, ease-of-ordering, graphics, speed-to-load, and other practical Web site dynamics is the overall brand experience. Interestingly, Amazon's positive brand perception actually dropped 13 percentage points post-experience, perhaps indicating a higher bar set by consumers for the perceived leader in online retailing.
The bottom line is that wireless Web storefronts are not just a convenient and efficient channel to sell phones and plans, but a critical brand-building venue as well.
For both initial shopping and ongoing customer relationship management, Web sites are critical success drivers in the wireless industry. Drilling down to the specifics for plan shopping, while the same five sites stayed in the top spots, their order was shuffled. Whether comparing various carriers' plans or a single carrier's different plans, the key best practice appears to be the side-by-side comparison. The same five sites finished at the top in the phone shopping process, although in slightly different order. Visual appeal of wireless sites' home pages does not correlate closely to overall brand impact. While teenagers and style-conscious urbanites may consider the cell phone a fashion accessory, visual design has less impact on cell phone site scores and perceptions than it does on more image-sensitive industries, such as retail apparel and automotive. It's not surprising that Amazon and the independent resellers are well-received by prospective cell phone customers.

While the major carrier sites face the limitation of offering only their own plans and phones, they enjoy the competitive advantages of big-company credibility and overall market presence. The following quotes are a sampling of verbatim extracts from customer comments after interacting with web sites of various wireless vendors. Keynote helps your company deliver the most effective mobile applications and website experiences. But the most important driver for conversion is the ability to quickly and clearly compare phones and plans.
4"Suddenly, An Industry Is All Ears; A Saturated Cellphone Market Puts the Focus on Customers," The New York Times, March 4, 2006. Once signed up, of course, the subscriber is married to his or her provider's site for ongoing account maintenance, upgrades, and additional services. And what can cellular vendors of all types do to win more shoppers and buyers in an intensely competitive marketplace? In fact, the top five sites for positive brand index were also the top five for conversion impact. Does consumer interaction with the Web site enhance overall brand perception or undermine it?
Consumers apparently approach lesser-known, independent sites with lower expectations than the name-brand carriers; consequently, they have the opportunity to come away with a much more positive impression.
Cingular gained 25 percentage points and T-Mobile 30 percentage points in brand index after users interacted with their sites. Even though the site ranked first in seven of nine positive brand attributes, prospects still came away with a slightly diminished perception of the Amazon brand.
In fact, the top five sites for positive brand index were also the top five for conversion impact, and in the same order. Surveyed consumers pointed to a wide selection of phones, multiple photos, detailed descriptions, and the ability to make side-by-side comparisons as the most important features for the phone shopping process. For plan shopping on the home page, a unique "slider" tool shows the total minutes and pricing for various types of plans, and then allows the user to jump immediately to full details for a selected plan. Consumers value clear navigation, easy comparisons, and a streamlined purchase process more than visual appeal. On one site, prospects can sort through and compare a host of options at various prices from all the major carriers. Three-quarters of surveyed customers check their minutes online, and 70 percent pay their monthly bill online. So the carriers' sites are a selling tool not just for the initial phone and contract purchase, but for the user's full contract-term customer experience.
Customers value the ability to compare across carriers, and perhaps approach carrier sites with higher expectations.
First, Amazon and the independents offer users who are shopping for new service the convenience of comparing plans and phones from multiple providers all on one site.

Because this index included a number of measures of actual plans, phones, and features, it is possible that the rankings reflect prospects' impressions of the product offerings themselves as much as or more than the online presentation.
In pre-and post-experience studies, Let's Talk's "before" positive brand perception of just 4 percent leaped to 57 percent after prospects spent time on the site.
And the number one success driver for both brand impact and conversion impact is plan shopping. Interestingly, T-Mobile and Cingular moved up to number two and number three, respectively, even though consumers can shop these sites only for plans from each respective carrier. For phone shopping, another T-Mobile tool lets prospects select their most important features, and then delivers a filtered list of phones that satisfy those requirements. As evidence of how prospects welcome such all-in-one, independent sites, consider this: Of more than 2,000 prospects surveyed, more than 70 percent had never heard of Wirefly or Let's Talk.
And innovation creatively applied, as T-Mobile does with its plan slider tool and phone feature filter, can be a positive differentiator that shows prospects the kind of experience they can expect in the long-term relationship they will have with their chosen carrier's site. Growth in subscriber base will require solidifying existing customer relationships and luring new customers from competing carriers. Ensuring a positive Web site experience, then, is a vital component of the carriers' overall selling strategy.
Second, prospects barraged by the intensive advertising campaigns of the majors likely have higher expectations of their Web sites than they do for relatively unknown "all-in-one" sites such as Let's Talk and Wirefly. Similarly, Wirefly's positive perception jumped from a "before" of 10 percent to an "after" of 55 percent. Phone shopping was virtually tied with plan shopping for conversion, and was a close second for brand impact. For example, a 2006 makeover by Verizon earned some improvement in its visual design scores; conversely, Wirefly's redesign had a significant negative impact on its visual scores. Yet after interactions with these two sites, both were ranked in the top group for both brand perception and conversion impact. Both sites' post-experience brand index numbers edged out the five major carrier sites studied. But in neither case did the redesign move the needle significantly in customer experience, satisfaction, or likelihood to buy. In both cases, an effective and satisfying online experience, from initial shopping to ongoing account management and additional purchases, will be central to the success of cellular vendors. Usability and ease of comparing phone models and service plans appear to be the primary drivers regardless of the visual appeal of the site.

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