Here at the Consumerist we have the vague idea that we are helping people save money, but when a story comes along like Joe’s that really shows how someone can take the information from this site and use it to save hundreds of dollars, well, it makes us feel really good.
Joe read our “Confessions of a Cellphone Sales Rep” series and took the advice shopping with him. The result was an informed customer negotiating the best deal with a variety of providers. Joe says, “You’re not there to buy a cell phone, you’re there to sell a new two-line activation with a text plan. If you approach the sales conversation from that direction, it makes it easier to walk away from salespeople who aren’t willing to help you get the deal you want.”
What really stood out about Joe’s letter is that he sold the salespeople on his business. Sure, it takes more work than just buying whatever offer comes along, but as Joe found out, you can save a lot of money by making businesses compete for your cash. And that’s what we’re all about. Read Joe’s email inside.
I’ve been a Consumerist reader from the inception of the site, and I wanted to share with you a story of how your advice saved me hundreds of dollars when shopping for a new cell phone provider. My wife and I have had cell phones with Verizon Wireless for almost two years now, and our contract ends in May. Cell phone contracts are a hot topic on The Consumerist, so I decided to put the advice of fellow readers and the confessions of cell phone salesmen to the test. Two months before my Verizon contract ended, I set out to find the best deal on a new cell phone contract.
My current calling plan with Verizon is 500 minutes a month for $59.99, plus $10 for the second line. We get free in-network calling, and most of our family members use Verizon, so we burn a lot of free minutes. My goal is to find a comparable calling plan and a way to get free or cheap phones thrown in. Based on the advice of other Consumerist readers, I’d like to stay away from Sprint and Cingular unless I can get an incredible deal, as their customer service seems to be pretty poor. I’ve had my own horrendous experiences with Verizon DSL, so I’d also prefer to send my money to another company if possible. So my first choice is T-Mobile, followed by Verizon, then Sprint and Cingular.
On March 12th, I took a trip to the local mall. Like every other mall in America, ours has both kiosks and storefronts for several major cell providers (we don’t have a Sprint store). My first stop was the Verizon Wireless store, to see what their salesman would tell me. I browsed for a few minutes, then approached a salesman with the following pitch:
“I have a two-line family plan with Verizon, and my contract is coming up at the end of next month. I’ve never had any trouble with Verizon, and I’m shopping around to see what kind of deals I can get on some new phones if I renew my contract. What kind of offers are you running today?”
I could see the switch in the sales rep’s head turn off the moment I said I was already with Verizon. That simple fact transitioned our encounter from a “potential new activation” to “existing customer buying hardware.” After I was finished asking my question, his eyes fell to his computer screen, he tapped a few keys on the keyboard, and without looking at me he said “You can get the discount price on the phones.” When I asked what that meant, he continued typing and said “You can get the price on the phones advertised on the stickers. And your primary line also gets a $100 credit toward your next phone.” So essentially, Verizon’s offer to renewing customers is the priviledge of buying new phones at the normal price, with a $100 credit toward one phone. I knew from reading the terms of my upgrade agreement that this would require another two-year contract as well. I thanked the salesman and left.
My next stop was the T-Mobile store. I browsed for a few minutes before approaching a salesperson named Jennifer. My pitch was similar, but I wanted to try to hook her with the idea that a new activation was literally walking up and saying hello. Here’s what I said:
“I have a two-line family plan with Verizon, and my contract is coming up at the end of next month. I’ve never had any trouble with Verizon, but I’m shopping around to see what kind of deals I can get from other providers. I’m interested in getting some new phones, a text package, and a two-line family plan with at least 500 minutes. What kind of offers are you running today?”
Jennifer picked up a sales pamphlet and proceeded to give me her standard sales pitch. Two lines at 700 minutes for $69.99 (with five free “My Faves” numbers), plus $10 for text, plus a $70 activation fee, plus sticker price for the two phones. The standard drill. When she was finished, I told her that my current plan with Verizon was not only cheaper, but that they were offering an upgrade bonus of $100. Without breaking eye contact, and without looking up any additional information, she simply said “I can’t match that. All of our promotions are in the pamphlet.” No dice. I thanked her and left with my pamphlet.
Next up, Cingular. I found the Cingular kiosk and gave the salesman the same line I gave to T-Mobile. Joe the Cingular guy seemed a lot more interested in talking to me, and the first thing he did was was help me pick out two phones that would meet my needs (good move, by the way, getting me excited about the gadgets before talking about plans and pricing). We started going over plans, but his offer was pretty bad… $69.99 for 700 minutes, $10 for the second line, $10 for text, plus activation and full price for the phones. Cingular also didn’t offer a free-outgoing plan like T-Mobile’s “My Faves,” and I don’t know anyone else who has Cingular so free in-network calling does me no good. At face value, there is no way I would ever sign up under this plan. However, I wanted to see how low we could go, for the sake of the game. And so the sales pitch continued.
We “settled” on this plan, and I moved the conversation back to the phones. My wife wanted a basic RAZR model, and I was interested in something that could play mp3s. Joe told me that the RAZR would run me $50 and the cheapest mp3-capable phone he had was $120 (both after mail-in rebate, of course). I asked if I could get the rebates in-store, rather than mailing them in. I also asked if there were any additional offers or discounts available if I signed up on the spot. Joe went to talk to his manager, and came back with a firm “no.” We looked at each other in silence for a minute, and I sensed that our conversation was more or less at an end. I was looking at a fairly expensive calling plan, with no free destination numbers, and no discounts off the sticker price of the phones. Taking a tip I read on The Consumerist, I hemmed and hawed, and gave Joe my name and cell phone number. I told him to call me “if any additional discounts or promotions become available before the end of the month.”
So it seems that shopping for cell phone deals on the 12th of the month is a bad idea. My trip to the mall was entirely fruitless. After visiting three major providers, I failed to get even one penny off the basic printed promotions from any of them.
The next day, I called Verizon Wireless’s call center, to see if I could wrangle a better deal out of their customer support people. The call was actually fairly pleasant, with only two IVR options and a couple seconds of hold time. I expected to be transferred to a Retention Specialist when I fired off the trigger phrase “When does my contract end?” but the front-line rep kept me on the line himself. After I gave him the same pitch I gave the Verizon store, and he offered me the exact same deal, phones at standard price with one $100 credit. However, he also told me to visit the website, because I would also qualify for any “buy one get one free” offers available (of course, the “get one free” was only good for the cheapest $20 phone on the site). So, four sales contacts later, I was still banging at the gate trying to get past the printed promotions. I decided to try again at the end of the month, when salesmen would be more desperate to meet quotas.
On March 31st, I headed back to the mall. Joe never called me back, and Cingular’s promotion was so terrible that I just assumed they were a lost cause. The Verizon Wireless store gave me the exact same offer I’d heard twice already, so no help there. I found a different salesman at the T-Mobile store to talk to, and he gave me my first break, albeit a small one. After explaining my current plan and what I was looking for, he offered to do the mail-in rebates in-store, but wouldn’t go any further (for those who don’t know why this is a big deal, if you get the rebates redeemed in-store, you can usually mail them in anyway. In essence, a retailer who gives you the rebates in-store gives you the rebate twice). My last stop for the day was Simply Wireless.
I approached a salesman named Nick at Simply Wireless. I hit Nick with the same pitch I’d delivered to T-Mobile and Cingular. He asked which provider I preferred, and I gave him my list in order. We looked at some T-Mobile phones, and I picked out a RAZR v3 ($100) and an mp3-compatible Samsung t629 ($150), both with $50 mail-in rebates. He offered me the same plan I’d seen at the T-Mobile store… 700 minutes for $69.99, $10 for text, $70 activation. I explained Verizon’s offer, and their “buy one get one” promotion. That didn’t faze Nick.
“No problem, I’ll knock $50 off the price of the RAZR, so you’ll end up getting it for free after the rebate.”
Jackpot. Finally, after almost three weeks and seven sales contacts, I finally found someone willing to work with me for a sale. I told Nick that I would definitely be interested in activating with T-Mobile through him, but only if we could work out an activation deal that would be comparable in price to Verizon’s offer. And there was still the matter of the $100 upgrade credit. Nick didn’t waste any time addressing that, however.
“Well, how about I knock another $50 off the price of each phone, would you be interested then?”
Now we’re really getting somewhere. I asked for a copy of the contract to look over, so I could get the gears in motion and give the impression that I was ready to buy. We solidified the calling plan, and I asked Nick what my total out-of-pocket expense would be if I signed up on the spot. He told me I would be paying $100 for the Samsung phone plus a $70 activation fee, and I would walk out with $100 worth of mail-in rebates. I figured that was pretty good, but I had one more card I wanted to play. Because I was a returning customer, Verizon wouldn’t charge me an activation fee.
“No problem. We’ll strike the activation fee too, if you’ll sign the papers tonight.”
I took a minute to take stock of Nick’s offer. The calling plan was the same price as my plan with Verizon (because T-Mobile doesn’t charge a fee for the second line), but with 200 more minutes and no activation fee. The five free “My Faves” numbers would cover most of our minutes, meaning we’d probably never go over our plan. We were getting paid $50 to take a RAZR v3, and paying $50 for a Samsung t629 (after rebate), and the activation fee was waived. This offer seemed to meet my original goal – find a calling plan comparable to the one I had, and get some free phones.
The only hitch was my contract expiration date of May 11th. I told Nick I didn’t want to pay for overlapping service, and he said he could post-activate my account to come online on May 12th. I honestly wasn’t expecting to sign any papers that night, but I felt like this was a deal I couldn’t pass up. I started reading my copy of the contract, and Nick got on the phone with T-Mobile to push the paperwork.
The story isn’t quite over, though. It seems T-Mobile can only post-activate a maximum of 30 days in advance. That would put my activation date at April 28th, and I’d essentially be paying for two cell phone packages from 4/28-5/11. I told Nick this, and he put T-Mobile on hold to talk to his manager. He came back with more good news.
“How about if we knock another $20 off each phone, to compensate you for having to overlap services?”
Well ok, at that point I was willing to commit. I signed the contracts, paid a total of $78 for the two phones after tax, and left with two $50 mail-in rebate forms. What a difference from Cingular’s offer, which would have had me paying $10 more a month and at least $250 more up front for the phones!
As an epilogue, I recently called Verizon Wireless to cancel my service with them. To be honest, I wanted this call to happen before I signed a contract with another provider, because I wanted to see what Verizon would offer me when I put them up against the wall. But I’m happy with the contract I signed with T-Mobile, and I didn’t think Verizon would be able to beat it. The Verizon Wireless IVR was very painless, and I had Jessica on the phone within 60 seconds of connecting the call. She took my account information, but again I was not transferred to the Retention department (maybe they don’t have one?). I told Jessica I wanted to cancel. When she asked why, I told her it was because I got a better offer from another provider, and she asked me what the terms of my new agreement were. Normally, I wouldn’t disclose the details of T-Mobile’s offer, I would just ask her to give me Verizon’s best package so I could make my decision. But, since I already signed a contract, I went ahead and explained the deal. As I expected, we chatted for a few minutes (she was very friendly), and she came out and offered me the exact same deal I got with T-Mobile. I thanked her for the offer, and asked to proceed with the cancellation.
What has this taught me, and what advice can I give customers looking for a good deal on cell phones? From where you’re sitting right now, there are probably a dozen places to buy a cell phone within five or ten miles. That level of competition puts a tremendous amount of power in your hands. In fact, you are the real salesman here, not the person representing the cell phone retailer. You have a high-value commodity to sell (a new cell phone activation), and it should be your goal to sell your activation to the retailer who’s willing to give you the best deal for it. That’s why I refer to my opening line as my “pitch.” You’re not there to buy a cell phone, you’re there to sell a new two-line activation with a text plan. If you approach the sales conversation from that direction, it makes it easier to walk away from salespeople who aren’t willing to help you get the deal you want.
One thing we find interesting about Joe’s story is that he ended up with one of those “other” wireless dealers. The relationship between the phone companies and the “other” dealers is a strange and rocky one. The cellphone company reps write us, practically foaming at the mouth, saying that they’re all a bunch of shysters.
The shysters tell us the cellphone company reps are lazy fratboys (or fratpersons, whatever) who don’t care about you and won’t give you a good deal. He said, she said. We say: Talk to whomever will give you the best deal and use your best judgment. Yes, there are shady cellphone dealers out there. But there are good ones, too. You need to be savvy enough to tell the difference.
Learn what Joe learned by reading “Confessions of a Cellphone Sales Rep”! —MEGHANN MARCO