In the tech press, it's easy for us to regurgitate the advertising material that all of the major carriers and companies want potential customers to hear. It's more challenging to hear the voices of the people who find themselves taken advantage of by corporate practices. This work generally falls to unions and advocacy groups that do the research and speak out on their behalf.
Change to Win, a federation of unions that claims to represent over 5.5 million workers, has recently issued a 27-page report called Unmasking the Un-Carrier along with a general summary that takes aim at T-Mobile. Why? Because the company has marketed itself as a pro-consumer carrier, Un-carrier rather, since 2013. The organization, working with other consumer and labor advocacy groups, asserts that the company calling itself the Un-carrier misleads people by referring to its plans as "no contract," going after customers with unfair debt collectors, and sometimes failing to pay consumers' early termination fees as promised.
T-Mobile allegedly goes after debt aggressively because it takes on sub-prime customers. Then, by apparently providing debt collectors with inaccurate information and failing to provide customers with what they need to clarify the situation, the carrier leaves some customers with the burden of paying off a situation they didn't create.
Of the 1,293 debt collection complaints against T-Mobile that Change to Win analyzed, 71 percent asserted that T-Mobile provided incorrect information to collection agencies. One example involved a customer who returned two iPhones and settled the account only to receive collections calls later on. One out of seven customers with complaints about collections said T-Mobile denied them access to the information necessary to clear up the misunderstanding about the debt.
Claims about deceptive marketing are less black and white. For example, take T-Mobile's "no contract" plans. Most of us in the tech community have largely heralded this as a much needed change. Instead of paying a discounted price for a phone and signing a two-year contract, customers pay a monthly fee for service and either bring their own device or pay a fixed monthly rate to pay off their device over, that's right, those same two years. The vast majority of T-Mobile customers choose payment plans over buying a phone outright.
Here's the thing. A 24-month equipment installment plan still qualifies as a contract. It's just one for the phone rather than service. Again, most people reading an Android blog understand this, and things are pretty transparent on the website, but it's easy to see how someone walking into a carrier store to get a no contract plan is confused when they walk out with a contract, especially when carrier representatives are hardly incentivized to provide customers with a clear understanding (as in, don't buy your phone directly from us, check out Android Police and hit up one of the deal alerts to save a metric buttload of money).
Ending a 24-month commitment early requires paying off the full remainder of the phone's cost. This, to an informed customer, makes perfect sense. But in practice, the remainder of a phone's cost, especially for the first year of service, is usually more expensive than paying a traditional early termination fee. "No contract" customers find themselves hit with contracts and paying higher fees. If you carefully read T-Mobile's website, you can find all of this information in black and white (okay, magenta and white), but the claim isn't that T-Mobile is lying—it's that the marketing is deceptive.
Another example, which exacerbates the first one, is the way T-Mobile presents its coverage map to customers as an accurate portrayal of the service they can expect. According to the report, some customers found that this wasn't the case and were then left having to pay off the remainder of their device.
All carriers have issues with coverage maps, but while we're discussing customer complaints, I also find T-Mobile's map of my local area to be particularly disingenuous. Even when you take into account which bands are in your region and which phones support those bands, you're still not going to get an accurate representation, and seriously only a particular subset of nerd understands this stuff anyway. Coverage maps definitely make no effort, and again, sales representatives are not incentivized to bother.
Change to Win's report doesn't get into complaints about misleading deals, such as the current offer for three months of unlimited LTE that only takes effect after you empty out your data stash. Any guesses why you have to search the fine print for that detail?
— John Legere (@JohnLegere) November 23, 2015
Customer service representatives are the employees most affected by deceptive marketing, as they form the front-line when customers call in outraged. Call center workers are rewarded for marking complaints as resolved, selling additional services, and keeping calls short. Good luck doing all three.
The tl;dr is that T-Mobile is a corporation, and it does shady corporation things. This may not come as a surprise. We all know carriers across the board aren't particularly customer friendly. T-Mobile, though, claims to be different. It calls itself the Un-carrier, and with every other breath, CEO John Legere smears the other guys with the maturity and tactfulness of a middle school bully.
A holiday-themed T-Mobile ad from December 2014.
If the company is going to talk the talk, and get all the good press that comes with doing so, then it especially needs to walk the walk.