Bucking the Wind To Rebuild Sprint

(Photo: Barry Sweet/Bloomberg News)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Five months ago, Dan Hesse took a job many people didn't want.

He was charged with rebuilding Sprint Nextel, the nation's third-largest wireless carrier, which lost 1.2 million subscribers last year. Its stock lost more than half its value in that time, and Sprint was saddled with more than $30 billion in losses because of its merger with Nextel Communications -- a deal studied by MBA students as one of the worst mergers ever.

Hesse, a former chief executive of AT&T's wireless unit, took the top job at Sprint knowing the wind was in front of him. A gale-force wind.

To prepare his employees for the fight ahead, he passed out 800 copies of a documentary about Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey to the South Pole and compared it with Sprint's road to recovery. Hesse particularly liked Shackleton's advertisement for recruits: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness . . . Honour and recognition in case of success."

Though that is a dramatic comparison, Hesse has made bold changes. He cleared the executive decks of old management and moved the company's headquarters from Reston to Sprint's former home in Overland Park, Kan. He restructured the notoriously poor customer service operations and pieced together a $12 billion deal with Silicon Valley giants Google and Intel and cable service operators to build a broadband wireless network based on WiMax technology.

The jury is still out on those moves. Sprint lost 1.1 million subscribers in the first quarter and yesterday ranked last among the biggest wireless companies in a customer satisfaction survey.

In an interview, Hesse talked about the company's overhaul and Sprint's place in the future of wireless technology.

Q How far along are you on the checklist of things that need to be done to revive Sprint?

AI feel good about what we've done and what we've accomplished in five months, but if you were to use the baseball game analogy, I'd say we are in the third inning. We've focused on improving the customer experience and we're seeing improvement in churn, which should come down in the second quarter.

What changes are you making to customer service?

More people are held accountable. If someone calls care because they've been dropping calls, Kathy Walker, who runs the network organization, owns that number. If someone calls because they either have found something on their bill that they didn't order or they did order something that's not on there, the sales organization owns that number and gets held accountable for that. If someone calls customer care and their problem is not taken care of and they call again and again, that is what I hold Bob Johnson, who is in charge of customer care, accountable for.

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