In a number of “hot” markets around the country, a tidal wave of demand for new personal communications services is swamping some companies’ customer service departments-forcing scores of would-be customers to spend as much as an hour on hold as they try to activate their new service.

When customers are placed on hold at PrimeCo Personal Communications L.P., a recorded message politely thanks them for their patience, adding: “Our success is based on your satisfaction.”

PrimeCo has been sending letters to less-than-satisfied customers apologizing for the delays in reaching their service centers, blaming the problem on faster-than-anticipated growth. The company, which is adding personnel at its four regional service centers, has gained 77,000 new customers in the first quarter of this year and now provides service to approximately 115,000 customers in 14 markets.

“Across the country, there have been some hot spots,” said Catarina Wylie, PrimeCo’s director of corporate communications, who likened the company’s recent customer service capacity problems to “growing pains. But in most cases, the problems have pretty much been solved. By July 1, we will have increased our customer care staff by more than 80 percent from late March when we first started experiencing the heavy volume of calls.”

In recent days, PrimeCo’s average customer waiting time, according to Wylie, “has dropped to under a minute.

“A great deal of our customers tend to be first-time wireless users,” Wylie added. “They usually want to spend more time on the phone with our representatives getting to know the various features of their new phones.”

PCS service provider Aerial Communications Inc., which recently launched in Kansas City, Mo., Pittsburgh, Columbus, Ohio, Houston and Minneapolis, also has added personnel in its Tampa, Fla., service center to handle new over-the-air activation orders.

“It’s been very challenging at times but we’ve been dealing with it pretty well,” said Dan Kubera, Aerial public relations director. “We were expecting a lot of activity from all of the recent rollouts and with the heavy volume of activation requests, it hasn’t been entirely smooth. On a scale of 10, one of our service managers rated our performance so far as a `seven.’ “

Kubera said that in addition to adding new personnel, Aerial also has the capability of activating an “overflow system”-outsourcing-if its Tampa center reaches capacity. In fact, a number of PCS service providers wrestling with customer service capacity problems are turning to outsourcing, contracting companies like Cincinnati-based Matrixx Marketing Inc., which specialize in offering immediate, seamless infrastructure and expertise to companies deluged with incoming calls to an 800 number. Outsourcing companies route calls through their own teleservice centers and handling activation requests while appearing to customers as representatives of the carrier.

“We understand this dilemma because we work with many carriers in the wireless market,” said Elizabeth Stites, Matrixx’s director of corporate marketing. “Customer care is a key way for carriers to differentiate themselves and grow their business. As an outsourced solution, Matrixx can provide the people, technology and the knowledge to help carriers reach their goals.”

Areas of the West Coast-especially northern California-also have been hot spots for PCS carriers launching new networks. During the first week of sales last month, more than 10,000 Bay Area customers bought PCS phones. Pacific Bell Mobile Services-soon to launch in Los Angeles and already serving the San Diego, Las Vegas, Sacramento and San Francisco areas-has been offering two months of free service to some customers who have called the company’s 800 number to activate service and found themselves placed on hold for up to an hour.

“Our customer care centers are operating seven days a weeks,” said Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen. “We open at 6 a.m. with customers already waiting in queue and close at midnight with other customers still waiting.

“In the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, cellular penetration rates have been low,” Bonniksen said. “A lot of people have put off buying the product for more than a decade because, frankly, in those areas, prices have been high and quality has been low. Then we came into the marketplace with an incredible value proposition-a product you could buy at your neighborhood department store, with simple calling plans and no contracts-and it truly started a stampede.”

To deal with the flood of callers, Pacific Bell continues to hire more personnel and has opened a second customer care center. “We have a great product and great capacity,” said Bonniksen. “We just have a lot of customers coming at us for activation through a funnel.

“Nobody likes spending time on hold,” Bonniksen added. “But this is truly a temporary situation.”

In mid-May, E.J. Pearcy, a San Rafael, Calif., psychotherapist, bought an Ericsson Inc. PCS flip-phone during a special sale at his local hardware store. Pearcy paid $149 for the phone and by activating service before May 31, was promised a $50 rebate.

“I started calling to have my service activated the Sunday I bought the phone,” Pearcy said. “I called over and over all day and kept getting a busy signal. I tried again Monday throughout the day and finally got through late in the afternoon. I was placed on hold, waited at least 45 minutes and then was disconnected. At that point, I was pretty hot.”

Pearcy contacted Pacific Bell’s administrative headquarters to complain and was put in touch with the company’s customer care department. “I was told their new PCS system was oversold and under served,” said Pearcy, whose service was finally activated five days after he purchased his phone.

“It was a painful, aggravating process that easily cost me at least four hours of my time,” said Pearcy, who is considering filing a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Bell and has not decided if he will keep his service when his two free months expire. “It’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “It just hasn’t been implemented in a wonderful way.”


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