Hello shoppers...


If you have smashed, bashed, flushed, crushed, swallowed or heave-ho'd your cell phone within the past six months, then here's the bad news - it's already gotten even with you by giving you right-ear Cancer.  (Left-ear Cancer for lefties, both ears for the ambi-ear-trious.)

The good news is that there is an ear fairy, and she pays handsomely.

What's not terribly handsome is how our brains must look in the section roped off as  "stress-related tumors - cell-phone use." (You'll see signs for this area on an MRI - which you can do yourself with your phone, using an MRI app!)

We increasingly depend on our cell phones - for entertainment, information, to stay connected to friends, minor medical procedures - in the same way we depend on dogs, for companionship, loyalty and unconditional love.

Yet you don't see a dog pulling the kind of stuff a cell phone does - that's called a "cat."

You can't get the phone to work properly. The phone works fine but the service drops. The service is fine but you're paying too much. You're paying the right amount but can't get out of your 1,235 year contract. You can get out of your contract but can't reach a tech on the phone without being on hold til your battery dies. You're not on hold long but you get a tech with a hard-to-understand accent that bears no resemblance to those heard on The Dukes of Hazard or The Sopranos.

Whether it's frustration with the hardware of the phone, the software of the service or the service peeps who are neither, we have a relationship with our cell phones that is the ultimate in "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em."  

But that's okay, because we hardly have any of those in our lives.

What else is okay - and not so much - is stuff uncovered while visiting Verizon Wireless stores throughout Des Moines - the target of this week's Secret Shopper review.


1. In a report released last Thursday by com Score, a digital usage rating service, Verizon ranked #1 in total cell phone service users - 92 million - with 31% of the market  (AT&T was 2nd, with 25%)

2. In Des Moines, there are locally owned Verizon stores - Spring Valley - and corporate owned Verizon - Verizon Verizon - all of which work for and with the same main Verizon company in New York, yet all offer wildly different levels of customer service.

3. When you call the number listed in the 2010 Des Moines Dex phone book for Verizon Wireless Spring Valley  in the Valley West Mall, you get this message: "This is Virginia. I can not get to the phone. At the beep please leave a message. Have a nice day."

4. If you don't know how to type, or use a computer, or read directions, and plan on visiting a Verizon Corporate Store, lay down until the feeling passes.

5. From the six Verizon locations visited, three different numbers were given for tech support. Only one of them is.

6. When you call The Verizon Wireless Spring Valley store downtown in the Kaleidoscope after store hours, you will hear 10 rings, followed immediately by this message: "Hello. Please enter your party's extension. If you do not know your party's extension, please press zero-zero." After you press zero-zero, there is silence - and then it hangs up.

7. If you get waited on by someone on the showroom floor at the Corporate-owned Verizon locations, you will be, for the most part, treated well. If you get waited on by someone behind a counter, you will be, for the most part, punched in the face.

8. Don't plan on getting to know anyone at any Verizon location by name.

9. There are customer service heros working for Verizon Wireless in Des Moines, corporate or local.

10. Don't let your Blackberry with Verizon or any service, fall out of your pocket and into a toilet at Hilton Coliseum during halftime of an ISU game with the Clones getting spanked by Colorado.

Thus begins this Secret Shopper review of six Verizon locations - three locally owned (as part of a group of nine) by John, Judy and Jerry Marckres of Perry and three Corporately owned by Lowell McAdam, President and CEO of Verizon Wireless.

One from each category was eliminated - the Corporate Verizon store at Merle May Mall, because it's a kiosk, and the Spring Valley Store on NW 86th Street, because I needed background info and got it there from Brian Selby, Wireless Specialist/Sales Consultant/Assistant Manager - who I fibbed to and told I'd be Secret Shopping Verizon Corporate locations only.

Sorry, Bri. I hope me telling you the funny story about the inebriated manager at the Sprint store, makes up for me blowing smoke up your receiver. I just couldn't have you running to the phone after I left, dialing all your stores and blowing my cover. Look for the fat one who sweats a lot...

It would be reasonable to believe that, from a customer service standpoint, the locally owned stores will beat the corporate locations faster than a dropped Sprint cell call from a car on I-35 in Southern Iowa.

Any belief in this regard, wll be both veri(zon)fied and nullified.

However, there is no equivocating the fact that each side offers a distinct and different approach to how they serve their in-store customers. Both philosophies have some nice spiffs; each one needs some tweaking - from a highly trained-in-tweaking Unsecret Shopper. (Please have your people call my people, Vee Dub.)

Here's the Unsecret Shopper's rating system, for you peeplez:


   Horrific - a customer service nuclear bomb that's every owner's worst nightmare. The kind of service you call your friends to complain about.      

   Weak - a lot of work to be done, but there's hope.      

   Forgettable - not great, not bad. This is where most businesses end up.      

   Strong - some very good things are going on. Just needs some tweaking.      

   Stellar - first-rate, exceptional, off the hizzle. The kind of exemplary service you call your friends to brag about.   


This time though, instead of masks, I went with little rotary phones - aren't they darling!   

Sprint's attorneys on 3? Uh...tell 'em I'm out.

One of the first things you'll notice in comparing the corporate vs. local store set-ups is that you must sign in to a computer at Verizon Corporate locations in order to have your name called and be helped, vs. being greeted by an employee at the Spring Valley stores.

So the normal "store greeting" category you're used to seeing in these reviews, isn't there - Corporate loses by default.

I think it also loses an opportunity to bond with customers, for no particularly good reason.

I get the idea of registering. The stores, all of them, can get very busy, which makes it easy for employees to lose track of customers.

But by forcing consumers to log on, input their name, phone number and reason for being there, it has a "Take a number and get in line" vibe, normally associated with that mecca of impersonality, the DOT - yet even they have a human greeter. (Read hilarious Secret Shopper review of DOT by clicking here.)

Both the corporate and locally owned set-ups, have their pluses and not so plus-ey.

The Corporate style depends on the customer knowing they're supposed to enter their name and info, and then actually doing it right, so the system records their presence in the store.

Assuming they do - and that can be a big assuming, particularly with customers who can't read, or can't read English, or just don't notice the sign - then at least patrons won't wander around unattended.

That gets challenged on one of the Secret Shopping visits.

The locally owned old school method of greeting customers with a human being, also makes a huge assumption - that the staff they've entrusted to do it, will do it right.

That also gets challenged.

The challenge presented by this Secret Shopper, to each store, was to solve my tethering problem.

Before you say, "Buy a smaller belt, dummy," know that "tethering" describes a feature on my Blackberry Storm that allows me to connect it to my PC at home, and then get on the internet. But something came untethered over a month ago and the internet service no longer works - for real.

How would each of the six stores handle it?

You make the call.

(Stores are listed in random order, not the order in which they were Secret Shopped.)

Verizon Wireless Spring Valley, in The Valley West Mall    


Entering the first floor store, which was free of patrons, I saw Joey sitting at the counter, looking into a computer monitor.

It took him just a click or two longer than it should have to look up and say something to me - creating just a whiff of a feeling that I was interrupting whatever he was looking at on the screen.

"Can I help you?" he unfortunately said.

A closed - ended question is not the strongest way to greet a customer - a friendly "hi" first, then perhaps a "How are you?" to create a bond, then into a nice, thoughtful "What can I help you with today?" is better. Throw in a smile and Joey's rockin the house.

Again, these are small things, easily trainable things but all important things in the retail process.

He also should have stood up right away as soon as he saw me, out of respect.

I told him my cell phone had a tethering problem - and didn't tell him I wanted to smash it.

"I can't really do anything here about it," he said. I don't have any diagnostics or know what your software issue might be."

None of that was really true.

I knew this then and know it now because by this point I had been to enough Verizon stores and watched enough staff to know that there are several things that could and should be done, to try to trouble-shoot this issue.

I'm picking on Joey now, but that's okay because I'll be picking on everybody eventually. For now, Joey's up to bat. 

He could have pulled the battery, to check for water damage (A strip underneath the battery will turn colors if you've dropped the stupid thing in the toilet...or whatever) He could have checked to see if the Blackberry had the latest software. He could have reset it. He could have (and should have) checked my account to see if my tethering (which I pay an extra $30 a month for) was activated. He could have connected the phone to a computer in the store (assuming it had the proper Verizon software to read the phone) to see if he could replicate the problem. He could have asked me what error message came up when I tried to connect to the 'net - not that I would have remembered, but still, he coulda asked.

Instead, less than a minute after I'd entered the store, Joey said, "Let me get you the number for tech support."

I could have done that from home, of course.

It's not that calling Corporate tech support is wrong. It makes perfectly good sense to call in the Calvary when you need reinforcements.

But customers who come all the way in to stores, in person, to have their problems solved, deserve a bit of glad-handling, before they're tossed into the pit of damnation, known as "Customer Care." That's all.

Joey handed me the number for customer care - which he'd written on a Post-it note.

I noted a plastic holder on the counter, full of business cards, but didn't say anything.

The number he'd written on the Post-it was not the direct number to technical support, but was instead the general 800 customer care number that every Verizoner calls, for voicemail password resets, plan upgrades, billing info, price plan changes and, oh yeah, technical support. Again, no biggie, it's just that he was giving me an extra step. Did he know the direct number for tech support? Probably not. But it should be available for every store employee, to give to every customer who has a technical issue.

As for the rest of the four pillars of customer service (smile, greet, engage, thank) Joey didn't smile, offer me his name or ask me for mine. He did thank me as I left.

I wanted to give him another chance so I turned and went back in.

"Can I get your business card?"


Joey walked around to the front of the counter, reached into the card holder, grabbed his card and handed it to me - what he should have done the first time, and where he should have written the Customer Care number, instead of on a Post-it.

It wouldn't be the last one I'd get.

As he handed me his business card, it would have been completely appropriate for him to introduce himself, and shake my hand.

Joey wasn't unfriendly. In fact I suspect he has great potential in the "uber-friendly" area. He simply needs to show more desire to help. When an employee offers that, it's easy to forgive them for not having all the answers.

One word on those business cards. The Spring Valley cards don't have the 800 number on them, while the cards from those working at the Corporate stores, do - thus the reason why Joey had to write it down for me.

Regardless of why that is, to me it sends a not so subtle message to consumers that, here at the local Spring Valley Verizon store, we're going to do everything we can to take care of your problem, instead of passing you off to someone else, a thousand miles away - unless and until we have to.

Just a thought.

Verizon Wireless, 3714 Merle Hay Road, just south of the Merle Hay Mall


This is a Corporate store, so I was required to register my name and cell phone number, which I did. 

The store wasn't terribly busy, so in less than five minutes, I was called forward to the counter, by Leann.

As I explained the tethering problem to her - which I refered to at the time as "not being able to get on the internet," since I'd not heard the word "tethering" up to that point - I sensed that Leann was not in a good place. She was brisk, seemed hurried, didn't smile and wasn't engaging.

I asked her a few questions about some things I'd seen on the phone, to which she replied, "Don't try to diagnose the problem."

"I'm not - I just think this setting seems strange."

"That has nothing to do with the tethering problem. Don't try to diagnose it, just let me talk."

At the point where a consumer's input is silenced by an employee - particularly when it's done without tact or compassion - the employee has lost the consumer.

In this instance, I had a role, that of a Secret Shopper - so I stayed in it.

I attempted again to tell her something I thought would be important and Leann, again, said, more tersely this time, "Don't diagnose it, let me talk." 

Nope. I'm a Scorpio Italian only child raised by three women - ya think I haven't heard that phrase uttered before, only with some minor word substitutions?

Leann finally let me talk, unencumbered. And sure enough, what I had to say, was important after all.

"That's a Blackberry problem, not a Verizon problem," she spit back.

Leann's bus - normally driven, I suspect, by a sweet, kind, thoughtful retail driver - had instead been hijacked by her angry one, who was bound and determined to take out a pedestrian.

I didn't ask if Leann had considered a job with Des Moines Mass Transit.

What she really meant, at that point, was that it wasn't her problem and that I should take my phone elsewhere, and perhaps consider storing it in an area not intended for that purpose.

"You're being belligerent and rude to me and I don't deserve it. Let me talk to your manager."

After an uncomfortable delay, Casey Martin, the Assistant Retail Store Manager, appeared.

"This gentlemen thinks I've been rude to him and wants to talk to you," said Leann, whose angry driver had now been joined by her petulant one, each grabbing a part of the bus steering wheel as it careened down an embankment.

This is how businesses become overnight internet sensations.

Casey and I moved through a door and into a back area, where I described Leann's poor attitude.

The first words out of Casey's mouth should have been, "First of all, I'm so sorry this happened, and I'm going to make sure that before you leave this store, she's apologized to you and that you're satisfied."

Instead, Casey chose a different route.

"The customer service training at Verizon lasts six weeks. It covers many issues including sales, not to up sell..."


"Look," I interjected, "This is not a sales issue. This is a human being issue."

Casey wasn't gettin it - he again tried to engage me with more Customer Service Training Facts, right out of the Verizon manual.

I stopped him again, put my hand gently on his arm and, smiling, said, "Casey, if your wife was (slightly angered) at you, would you try to reason with her? 'Here's the process we're going to go through, honey...'? Not 'no' but 'I'd like to sleep in my own bed tonight' 'no.'"

Casey laughed. He knew I was right. He'd lived how (W)right I was.

When any of us is upset or hurt by something someone has done - in retail, in life, in anywhere - the person who has hurt us, can't try to left-brain reason with our right-brain pain. That's like trying to convince a headache that it has no business being inside your head.

Instead, the person should apologize, ask forgiveness and make sure we know, without any question in our heart, how sorry they are. Then you move forward - cautiously - with the left-brain process of "how do we resolve this."

"She was probably just having a bad day," he offered.

Yep - and she'd spread her angry spray all over me - and other customers within earshot.

Casey finally apologized - towards the end, after I pointed out that he hadn't apologized. I told him I thought this situation has been mishandled, by Leann and by him, and wanted the name and email address of the person who oversaw operations of that Verizon location - which he gave me.

This blog post will go to Mr. Thunhorst, as well as several others - I'll let you know what happens.

One other note about this location. Several days later, I called the same Merle Hay Store, to see how the service would be on the phone.

The Verizon Corporate stores all answer with the same automated voice, which prompts you to press certain keys for whatever you're looking for, including to speak to someone at the store - I did.

Two rings in, a male voice answered: "Thank you for calling Verizon Wireless."


No "Yo yo, it's your nickel, no "Whasssss uuuuuup," no "This is Leann, just let me talk."

Inside the sound void, I said, "I was wondering what your store hours are."

"It depends on the issue," he replied, curiously, then went on to explain what he meant, and asked me what mine was. Very nice, very helpful, just an odd beginning.

Verizon Wireless Spring Valley, in The Jordan Creek Mall


Weston greeted me within a few minutes, after he'd finished with another customer.

"Hey how are you?"


"What brought you in the store today?"

Two home runs and the kid was still in the batter's box. Nice!

I went on to explain the tethering problem.

Weston took the phone and examined it.

He didn't take out the battery, which he should have, but did check some settings while he asked me about the error prompt I was getting on my computer.

After a few more diagnostic questions, Weston said, "Let me get you tech support" and started writing down the number on, you guessed it, a Post-it.

I wasn't going to let him off that easy.

"Can you test it to see if it works here?"

Sure enough and with a smile, he came from behind the counter, took my phone and took it to a computer.

When he couldn't find a cord to plug it into the 'puter, Weston did what I always enjoy seeing retail people do - he walked out onto the showroom floor, took a new cord off the wall rack display, pulled it out of the box and used it.

Doesn't that always make you feel spoiled and special?

Weston tried hooking up to the 'net with my phone, but it didn't work. Nice try - but the (Un)Secret Shopper remained (un)tethered. That was okay - I appreciated the effort and recognized that he was not a tech, but was trying.  And that's really all any consumer can ask.

I'll take away a bit because I had to ask him to test it, instead of him offering to do so. But once Weston got the idea that I wasn't going to settle for calling an 800 number, he dialed right in and did his best.

Weston also should have introduced himself, and asked for my name, which he did not.

Be more eager to dig deeper, get the names out there early, and you'll be a superstar, young man.

Verizon Wireless, 9901 University Avenue in Clive


As I was about to enter the store, a woman and her daughter were coming out.

The woman turned to her daughter and exclaimed, "BOY that took a long time."

Gulp. It was like watching movie-goers file out of the Bo Derrick flick, Tarzan, The Ape Man, appearing to be on the verge of yaking up their popcorn. Do I really wanna go in there?

Within less than a minute of registering, Jason, an employee on the floor, was walking up to me.

"Can I help you?'

Quick service, but wrong question. I registered, which means I either need help with a phone issue or think I'm at the Clive Library and am logging on to see if they carry the Tarzan, The Ape Man DVD for check-out, which means I really need help.

Jason also didn't smile - at the beginning or the end.

He did ask my name at the beginning but only used it to verify that I was, indeed, the dude with the tethering problem - he never said it back to me at any point.

Jason did do nice diagnostics - he popped the battery out, checked for updated software and explained what he was doing as he did it, which was very strong.

Then the checking was over - Jason did the equivalent of Carol Burnett tugging on her ear, by handing me his card and directing me to call Customer Care.

"...comes the time we have to saaaaayyyy sooooo looooooong."  

Before he could say good night, I asked him if he could hook the phone up to a computer and check it - Jason replied that all their computers were Netbooks and had different software.

That would be a great opportunity for Verizon to set up a "testing" kiosk, right in the store, for problems like mine.

In three minutes I was out the door.

While Jason didn't make me feel rushed he also didn't take those few extra steps - check to see if my tethering was up to date, etc. He was quick, business-like and professional, yet I'd like to see him take a few extra minutes and slow down a bit - the store wasn't that busy - use my name after he'd asked for it, smile and thank me as I left.

Jason's a good Verizon sales guy who can be really good.

Verizon Wireless Spring Valley, in The Kaleidoscope, Downtown 


The best experience of the day was with James.

That's ironic - because in general, he seemed to have the least amount of technical knowledge -or at least projected the least amount of confidence, in being able to diagnose and fix the tethering problem.

But from the aspect of his friendly, engaging attitude, his willingness to take the extra step to problem-solve and his overall interpersonal skills, James blew everyone else away.

It started with his almost immediate greeting.

"What can I help you with?"

I explained the tethering problem.

"I'm not an expert on tethering - but I'll see what I can do."

Awesome! An employee admitting that he doesn't know it all i.e. that he's human, but still being willing to move forward, will immediately endear that employee to most customers, most of the time.

It turned out that James demonstrated as much trouble-shooting knowledge as anyone along the way.

He pulled the battery, then went into my account to see if the tethering was active - something no one else did. When James saw that it was, he asked if he could remove it, then reinstall it. I said yes, and he did.

He never made me feel like he was rushing through it all and always kept his focus on trying to help me.

James next attempted to hook up my phone to his computer, then remembered that he didn't have the correct software. He was about to go to Verizon's web site to download it when I told him that was okay, not to bother.


James then asked me what error code I was getting when I connected - again, he continued to ask questions, to dig deeper.

"If you can tell me what that error code is, I can call into technical support."

Grand slam. Game over. James wins! James wins!

It wasn't, let me throw you into the abyss of holding on the phone forever. It was, I'm going to dive in myself - you just relax while I take care of it.


He encouraged me to call him with any questions, handed me his card - without a Post-it attached - thanked me for coming and wished me a good day.

Just an awesome job.

The only minor misstep was when James asked me for my phone number, last four digits of my social security number and my four-digit phone account code, in order to access my account.

Of course he needed it, to go in there and make sure everything was right - that's understood. The only problem is that he asked for me to say it, with other patrons around. Now, is that being stupid paranoid? Was anyone going to memorize it? Yep and nope. But it might have been a little better if he'd asked me to write down the info and hand it to him - just a quick thought.

That itty bitty thing aside, James was a total rock star customer service stud.

Verizon Wireless 4932 S.E. 14th


I was back to registering for a place in line - and looking up to locate my name like I was searching for a flight in "arrivals" and "departures."

This time, though, I messed up, and not even intentionally.

After inputting name and cell number, there's a third prompt, which asks why you're there - or maybe that prompt is second, and entering your phone number comes up after you've established that you have service with Verizon. I can't remember now and I couldn't remember then to fill out the final question which is what puts you in the que to get your name called.

I was a man without tethering, or a place in line.

After a couple that had come in after me, got called ahead of me, I figured out that I'd screwed up - but instead of going back and re-registering, I decided to simply stand in the middle of the store and see how long it would take before someone figured out I was clueless.

My guess is that this probably happens with some frequency. 

My other guess is that it probably used to happen more, until the very smart managers at that South side location, put up a simple paper sign which reads "Registrate Aqui," below the main one that reads "Register Here."

Good thinking.

After about 10 minutes, Adam noticed me.

"Have you been helped?"

Nope. I saw that "Registrate Aqui" sign but didn't know what it meant.

"What can I help you with?" came his nice open-ended question.

I told him I had a tethering issue.

"Let me get you tech support," Adam said immediately.

Great! That was worth the trip all the way here!!

Adam didn't ask any questions, didn't check my phone, didn't pop it open, didn't try to diagnose it, didn't even touch it. It could have been filled with candy, or made out of paper and he wouldn't have known the diff. I could have carried in an empty quart of milk and he still would have shoved me off to the techs. 

""Verizon Technical Support, what seems to be the trouble?" 

"I can't seem to get my cell phone to work."

"What kind is it?"

"Anderson Erickson."


Because of the way Adam so abruptly handled me, without even putting the phone in his hands, I kinda felt like I was being punished for not registering as I came in. It ain't for the Selective Service, buddy, it's to get a place in the service line. Besides, I'm 4-F!

Don't get me wrong. Adam was very nice, very engaging - in the .32 seconds I got to know him.

Why he gets an extra 3/4 of a rotary phone is because of what he did next.

"The number I'm giving you," Adam said as he handed me his card with a phone number he'd just written at the top," is the direct number for technical support - so you can bypass all the prompts at the beginning. It'll get you right there."

That was flat-out classy. He was the only staff member to offer me that number. Great recovery.

Adam dropped the ball again, however, by not saying thank you, not telling me his name, not asking me for mine and not smiling.

I could tell by watching Adam engage others that he is likely a great sales rep for Verizon, and probably sells the dickens out of their cell phones and milk cartons.

But how he handled me, can't happen. If he reads this, I hope he can take it and learn something from it - as I wish for every Verizon employee that I Secret Shopped along the way.

There it is. Six Verizon stores, six customer service experiences. 

There is plenty of work to be done on both the local and corporate sides.

For Corporate Verizon I'd say, first and foremost, get rid of the registration, or at least have humans at that point to greet and guide. And train the people behind the counters to be kinder - start with Leann - as I've heard from multiple sources that they have consistenly better experiences with staff who are on the floor vs behind the counter. Make employees aware of this.

For locally owned Verizon Spring Valley, more consistency is needed. You can't go to three stores owned by the same people and have three experiences with such differing levels of customer service.

It all boils down to this - laying down guidelines for customer interaction, training on the four basic pillars of customer service - smile, greet, engage and thank - and holding employees accountable through weekly reviews and constant diligence, can elevate all of the under-performing stores, while giving that extra edge to those doing well.

And let James Rinkert, at the downtown Verizon Spring Valley location, lead the training, and help dial up the quality of customer service - by helping others, heed the call.



Jonnie Wright is a customer service trainer and evaluator, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of "The Unsecret Shopper," Saturday mornings 8-9am on 1350 KRNT. Email jonnie at jonnie@thebuyosphere.com.



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