KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Eugene Hoskins had heard getting his cell phone fixed could take a few days.
So when he stopped at a Sprint Corp. store in Kansas City last week, he left pleasantly surprised after an onsite technician took just 10 minutes to replace his broken antenna.
``I thought I would just get the part, but they said they could do it,'' said Hoskins, 55, a school district employee.
Sprint, based in Overland Park, Kan., plans to have repair shops in more than half of its 800 retail locations across the country by mid-March.
Cingular Wireless, on the other hand, is phasing out its in-store repair shops in favor of letting customers with malfunctioning phones call a toll-free number and get a replacement phone sent to them overnight. Several other carriers say they have similar programs.
Phone repair is just the latest battleground for a wireless industry trying to attract _ and retain _ as many customers as possible. Industry observers say customer service has never been a strong suit for cellular companies, but it's a habit the carriers had best cultivate.
``To be fair, there has been a concerted effort to focus on customer service and improve the experience of their customer base,'' said Charles Golvin, a principal analyst for technology consultant Forrester Research. ``We're moving closer and closer to a world where growth is topping out and we're moving to saturation. It's tougher to get new customers. It's more important to keep those customers happy.''
That happiness will require better ways to keep customers' phones ringing, says Jamie Briesemeister, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.
Briesemeister said she hasn't done extensive research into how well phone companies deal with customer complaints about their phones. But through the organization's Web site, escapecellhell.org, she says she's seen more complaints from consumers over unhelpful carriers and phones that continue to break.
Sprint officials said customer use was a driving factor in the decision to provide in-store repair. According to technology research firm The Yankee Group, Sprint customers lead the industry for average usage at between 16 and 17 hours a month.
``You can imagine someone who relies on their phone for communication, either personal or for their business, and how they would have to wait,'' said Jim Mickey, vice president of Sprint store management. ``They didn't want a replacement phone. The main goal was if we could keep them in their phone, they'll be happier.''
The repair shops can handle everything up to problems on the phone's circuitry or repairs requiring soldering, Mickey said. In those cases, if still covered under warranty, the customer receives a new phone.
Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communications Corp. say they can do light repairs in their stores, such as Hoskins' broken antenna. More serious problems would require the customer exchanging the phone for a replacement.
Cingular Wireless LLC and T-Mobile USA Inc. say they don't do repairs in their stores, instead asking customers to call a toll-free number and have a new phone shipped to them. Both companies' phones save the customers' phone book and other preferences on a chip, which the customer can then slip into the new phone.