Sprint Puts Ad Account in Review: Corporate Fundamental Attribution Error?

by Marianne Richmond on January 4, 2007

Sprint announced that they were putting their $1.2 to $1.5 billion dollar advertising budget in review and according to Sprint spokeswoman Mary Nell Westbrook {Sprint is} "looking for a fresh approaches and new thinking." Great strategy, poor execution. …or great strategy, wrong department, wrong channel, wrong blame attribution.

Let’s look at another Sprint announcement about advertising, this one from May 2004: This is a new day at Sprint," said Tim Kelly, senior vice president of marketing, Sprint Consumer Solutions. "Sprint is the industry leader with innovative devices and applications, and now we are putting that same innovation into every customer interaction – from network quality to customer service to retail expansion – to change wireless for the better. The new advertising will demonstrate Sprint’s promise to treat both new and existing customers with the respect and fairness they deserve."

Or this one from September 2006: "At Sprint we are giving our customers the power to get work done faster and in more places," said Mike Goff, Vice President of national advertising for Sprint. The Ad Agency? Publicis & Hal Riney; who along with TBWA Chiat Day are the current Sprint agencies and may or may not be invited to participate in the review. The Sprint spokeswoman said that both agencies were "world class." I would agree…but here’s where our opinions diverge.

Sprint’s need for fresh thinking transcends their advertising: advertising can "demonstrate a brand’s promise to treat both new and existing customer’s with respect and fairness" but when the demonstration isn’t supported by actual experience, the advertising doesn’t matter. In fact, it’s a waste of $1.2-$1.5 billion dollars.

Fundamental attribution error is of course the human tendency to excuse our own shortcomings or blame our mistakes on external situations that we couldn’t control while looking at the shortcomings or mistakes of others as their own fault ….due to their own incompetence or laziness. If for instance, my kids or I had a problem with our computes, my ex-husband would call the computer guy and say "they broke the computer;" when he had a problem with his computer he would describe it as, "there is something wrong with this computer."

In Sprint’s case, you have customers who don’t want to be your customers who express their displeasure online, see Sprint Rants and offline. The issue with Sprint is not advertising. It is customer relationships not customer acquisition; a new advertising agency won’t fix that…the problem is internal, not external.

Sprint does have a blog or two…and a developer blog makes three. They have a Sprint Ambassador’s program but as Jeff Jarvis’ post indicates, even their Ambassador’s can’t survive their customer service. Their advertising can demonstrate Sprint’s promise to treat their customer’s well….but the reality is quite different.

The mobile industry standard for customer acquisition involves a free or cheap phone, contingent upon a long term contract with usurious termination penalties that in Sprint’s case hold customers’ hostage to poor customer service, endless billing errors and unauthorized plan changes, misleading if not fraudulent contract "extensions," excessive dropped calls, and off shore tech support.

I have been a Sprint customer for a number of years and believe it or not was until recently a reasonably satisfied Sprint customer…not a raving evangelist, but well into the no complaints axis which is probably good enough given there just don’t seem to be any raving fans.

That was before the mother ship landed and left what is now customer service, SprintPCS…PCS, poor customer service. I am not quite sure exactly when this was or what internal corporate decision/decisions produced this outcome but I am pretty sure it didn’t happen at the ad agency.

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