U.S. Cellular Apologizes to Customers Following Billing Snafus

By B.A. Morelli, Reporter

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By Ellen Kurt

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - U.S. Cellular customers in Iowa who have endured billing errors and other problems since the launch of a new billing system received an apology Wednesday from a company executive.

Eastern Iowans, and U.S. Cellular customers around the country, have reported issues ranging from extra fees, lump sum bills, phone activation problems, and multiple bills in a short period of time.

Dave Kimbell, U.S. Cellular chief marketing officer, said the new billing system installed in July was designed to improve service, but he acknowledged the transition has caused problems for some customers.

"For those in Iowa and Eastern Iowa, we are sorry for the experience some of them have had," Kimbell said. "It's not what we want. It's not up to our standards. It's not the experience we have historically provided. And, we are on track to where we were before and better."

Kimbell said most of the issues have been resolved and customers with billing errors are being reimbursed. He said remaining fixes to the system are on track to be completed by the end of the month.

Iowa is a big market for the 30-year-old Chicago-based company, which has 5.2 million customers including a million in Iowa. Iowa also accounts for 1,200 of the company's 7,000 employees, and Cedar Rapids is home to one of the U.S. Cellular's four customer care centers.

Martin Bunge, 55, of Williamsburg, was among the frustrated customers.

Bunge purchased a new phone as a birthday present for his daughter, but it took two weeks to activate the phone even though he was paying for service. Then, the billing problems began.

September's bill arrived late and 10 days later he received October's bill with a past due notice for September. The fees were ultimately reversed.

"I'm still a little upset with how all this went down and the hassles," Bunge said. "I just got a new phone and I'm tied in with a contract. If I wasn't tied in now, I'd probably more seriously look at switching and seeing what the options are."

Kimbell acknowledged the company provided $10 million in customer credits due to the billing issues in the last fiscal quarter. The company also lost 71,000 customers in that period, although Kimbell attributes those losses to the competitive market rather than the new system.

Michael Dellomo, associate director of the masters of telecommunications program at the University of Maryland, said billing likely was a factor.

"When it comes to screwing up, billing is the one thing you really don’t want to screw up," Dellomo said. "Customers get vindictive. They will go to a new company."

But, U.S. Cellular has a good reputation, Dellomo said. If the technical problems are truly fixed, and with the addition of iPhone, which U.S. Cellular began offering this month, the company is in a strong position to recover.

Dellomo said U.S. Cellular's priorities should be fixing the problems, and rolling out new products and services to keep interest and standing in the competitive wireless market. The company also could look for small benefits to compensate disrupted customers, and make a big marketing push this holiday season, he said.

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