After years of touting their networks, mobile phone companies are trying a new tack to keep customers: being nice.
The nation's four biggest wireless providers are polishing their manners in the wake of customer satisfaction surveys that rank them below health maintenance organizations and some cable TV companies.
Rather than rely solely on efforts to widen coverage, improve reception and curtail dropped calls, cell phone companies also are explaining the fine print in contracts, offering generous return policies or adjusting calling plans to reduce exorbitant overage charges.
Building a better reputation is all the more important as viciously competitive companies face a saturated market that forces them to chase one another's customers.
"All the carriers will have cool cell phones and technology," said Michael Bennett, director of customer affairs at Cingular Wireless. "It's the consumer-friendly services that can be the differentiator. Competition will occur in this area."
Whether the efforts are paying off is unclear. Some private surveys suggest they aren't, but statistics compiled by the Federal Communications Commission indicate that they may.
The number of complaints to the federal agency dropped 16 percent in the first nine months this year from the same period last year. And the number of gripes about billing and rates - by far the biggest single category - fell 13 percent.
A recent study by marketing information firm J.D. Power & Associates found that overall satisfaction with wireless service providers dropped 10 percent over last year, the biggest year-over-year change since it began studying such performance in 1995.
Unlike the FCC statistics, J.D. Power's report surveys consumer attitudes nationwide, said Kirk Parsons, company analyst.
The nation's top carriers - Cingular, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA, which serve 86 percent of the cell phone subscribers - insist that they are gaining ground, even as the number of wireless users overtook the number of land-line customers this year.