For the second time in as many years, T-Mobile ranked highest among the six largest wireless service providers in creating a positive experience among customers who contact their providers for service or assistance.

The J.D. Power and Associates 2005 Wireless Customer Care Performance Study says that with an index score of 108, T-Mobile performs particularly well across all factors, especially hold-time duration and problem resolution efficiency.

In addition, T-Mobile customers' average hold times before waiting to speak with a service representative are 34 percent shorter than the industry average (2.27 minutes versus 3.44 minutes). Verizon Wireless, Nextel and ALLTEL also perform at or above the industry average.

The study also found that customer service issues that are handled by a service representative, either over the phone or at a retail store, generate significantly higher customer care ratings than non-human, computer-generated interaction.

Overall, customers who speak with a service representative over the phone average an index score of 109, well above the industry average score of 100. At the retail store level, the index score decreases to 102.

However, those customers contacting their carrier with a problem or inquiring through an automated response system (ARS) rate their experiences significantly lower, with an index score of 85. The index score drops even further (75) for those contacts made over the Internet.

The study shows that one of the main factors contributing to this performance disparity is the quality of response given. A service representative-either over the phone or in person-can answer customer questions and clarify answers given. This kind of flexibility is very limited in both ARS and Internet contact methods.

"As more companies encourage customers to contact Internet and computer-based customer service programs to save operating costs, they run the risk of increasing churn [when a customer switches carriers] as the number of contacts needed to resolve a customer complaint or issue rises," said Kirk Parsons, senior director of wireless services at J.D. Power and Associates.

"Since future churn levels are four times as high among those who rate their wireless carrier below average in customer care, the challenge for wireless providers is to offer an easy and efficient customer care transaction experience."

The study, in its third year, provides a detailed report card of wireless customer care provider performance based on customer experiences in three point-of-contact methods: telephone with a service representative and/or ARS; walk-in at a retail store; and online Internet connection. Within each contact method, processing issues such as problem resolution efficiency and hold-time duration are also measured.

The study also finds several key wireless customer care patterns:

• More than one-half (54%) of wireless users have contacted the customer service department for assistance within the past year, a slight increase from 2004 (52%).
• Among those who contact their carriers, 71 percent do so via telephone and 26 percent through the carriers' retail stores. E-mail/Internet contacts account for only 3 percent.
• The average initial reported hold time on calls to the customer service department is 3.44 minutes, compared to just over 9 minutes before speaking to a representative at a retail store.

The 2005 Wireless Customer Care Performance Study is based on responses from more than 8,600 wireless users who contacted customer care within the past year.