How To Spot The Best Investments - Mobile Edition

| About: T-Mobile US, (TMUS)

[Originally published 6/20/2014]

You may recall a few months back I ripped into Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) for their role in the net neutrality debacle.

And more recently, I let Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) have it, upset about its bullying business tactics, eroding customer service and corporate censorship.

It's not that I like to beat up on abusive companies.

Well, ok, I do enjoy that a little. Nothing gets the juices flowing better than a frustrating conversation with robotic telephone trees and outsourced email exchanges.

No - the main reason I talk about companies behaving badly is that it's a significant leading indicator of trouble.

There are plenty of technical indicators I pay attention to, and plenty of financial signposts I heed. But nothing is quite as visceral - or as immediate - as on-the-ground experience, good and bad.

It always takes several quarters for bad behavior to start showing up on spreadsheets. But - absent a change of course - you know it's coming, especially when you aren't talking about singular anecdotes, but widespread consumer discontent.

That's why I love to expose corporate malpractice. Some analysts think that such things don't matter much, as long as the money keeps flowing. They're wrong. Customer experience is one of the better indicators of future growth.

Still, as much as I enjoy nailing bad actors, I'd hate to get a reputation. So today, I'm going to do the opposite - let's talk about a company that's doing everything right. And it's one that will reap the benefits soon enough.

In fact, it's already started.

The Uncarrier

I'm talking today about T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS). While most talking heads think of the fourth-largest mobile carrier as an also-ran, they're missing the boat.

In fact, being in fourth place is part of why T-Mobile is changing the game. They've been losing the carrier wars for awhile now. So they looked for the biggest weakness to exploit.

And they found it pretty easily. Just like cable customers, mobile users had a single, large complaint: customer service.

So what does T-Mobile do? It strikes at the belly of the beast. It has gone so far as to call itself the "uncarrier" - since mobile carriers have such a toxic reputation.

But it's not just talk. First, T-Mobile eliminated the two-year contract. Then it detached phones from service - you could buy a phone outright, get it at a contract rate and pay it off over time, or bring a phone over and use it at a discounted rate.

Or just pay that discounted rate once you'd paid off your phone. Or get a new phone every month - whatever you wanted.

Verizon and AT&T (NYSE:T) quickly answered with similar services, but with more gimmick and less substance.

And they still didn't match T-Mobile's offers. For instance, T-Mobile will pay any early termination fee for new sign-ups who want out of a lousy contract.

Instead of charging insanely expensive penalties for data overages, T-Mobile just slows the Internet down if you've used up all your data. The list goes on.

And on Wednesday, another offering was added. Now, on T-Mobile most streaming music services are free.

That's not to say it will buy you a Spotify subscription. But any music service you use won't count against your data cap - and will remain high-speed, no matter how much data you've used.

To some, that sounds like a fancy way of installing a biased internet. But CEO John Legere says T-Mobile isn't charging a dime to any of the streaming services, and the company will be quick to add any new music services that may pop up.

That's some powerful stuff. T-Mobile is now, hands-down, the most customer-friendly carrier out there.

And it's working. The past year, T-Mobile has added a minimum million net subscribers each quarter, with the first three months of this year seeing a record 2.4 million new customers.

Now, there is a cost. These friendly services do cost money and eat into margins. But when you're fourth, you need to worry about getting those customers in the first place. And T-Mobile is doing a brilliant job.

Still, the future is a little cloudy. The big dogs may decide to offer similar plans, in order to stay competitive. And T-Mobile's rumored $32 billion merger with Sprint (NYSE:S) means everything might change again in the near-future.

But Legere swears these programs will continue through any merger. And if we see this sort of customer-centric service from a new behemoth - Sprint and T-Mobile combined would be about as big as the other huge carriers - then look out world.

I love beating up on companies that abuse their customers - knowing that the day of reckoning will come.

But I also love giving love to companies that treat customers right.

Those companies get a day of reckoning too. Only that day winds up with a lot of very happy, wealthy investors.

Just ask the top company in virtually all customer surveys - Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL).

Will T-Mobile have a similar turnaround? Time will tell. But right now, it is making all the right steps. There are worse places to park your money.

Disclosure: None