My mobile phone is showing signs of age. Sometimes it has trouble going to sleep or waking up, sometimes it’s just slow, sometimes it suffers from embarrassing premature discharge. So I headed over to the local T-Mobile store this weekend to have it checked out.

It turns out that they don’t have people who troubleshoot phones in the store. So they picked up a phone (a landline!) and dialed up the troubleshooter number and handed the receiver to me. I could have done that at home and perhaps I should have. The troubleshooter was quite nice although clearly reading from a script at times. After a few questions, one of which was “how many bars of battery power does the phone have right now?”, he suggested that I get a new battery. Great, I thought, that’s why I came to the store. But no, they don’t carry batteries at their stores anymore. I was later told by the guy in the store that batteries tended to go missing when they had them in the store.

I really was prepared to buy a battery, in person or on the phone. But I figured I’d press my luck and asked if the phone was still under warranty, as I had replaced it sometime last winter after it decided it wouldn’t charge anymore. After all, I signed a two-year contract to get the phone at a deep discount, shouldn’t it be covered for those two years? After a great deal of checking on things, the troubleshooter declared that my battery was less than a year old (but more than 90 days old) and therefore eligible for free replacement. Then he told me I had to call HTC (the phone’s manufacturer) to get it. He gave me the phone number. I called (still standing in the cell phone store using their landline) and found that they were closed for the weekend.

I thought about this for a while, and when I got home, on a lark, I searched ebay for the battery I needed. Hundreds of results. Average price, around $10 including shipping. I don’t know what TMobile or HTC would have charged for it, but given the choice between a quick ebay purchase of $10 and half an hour on the phone getting the runaround for a possibly free battery from two different giant companies, I knew I was making the right choice.

So what does this all mean? There are probably millions of blog posts about lousy customer service from cell phone companies. Michael Mace of Rubicon Consulting covers the industry rather well at his blog, Mobile Opportunity. I’m sympathetic as a businessperson, really. It’s a tough business with lots of competition and near-zero customer loyalty. They get it coming and going from the hot handset manufacturers and the customers. They have to offer sweet deals to lure customers in, and then keep offering them perks to keep them. TMobile recently sent me a (probably useless) offer for a free companion ticket because I am among their “top 5% of customers.” I saw the same offer advertised on a huge poster in the store. For everybody.

So here’s my modest proposal: sell batteries at the stores again. Keep them locked up behind the counter if you have to. If they really cost just $10, maybe consider giving them away to loyal customers once in a while. It’s probably cheaper than all the phone banking and shipping and exchanging that goes on now, and it seems to me it would build some good will. When your cell phone battery actually dies (unlike mine, which is merely intransigent) you really want one right away. I saw that first-hand when I listed a thinkpad AC adapter on ebay and got two pleas for immediate sale and local pickup. When you need juice for your devices, you need juice now.

Another possible solution – via bookofjoe – would be to switch to this cell phone flask, which is easily refillable with the included funnel, anytime, with any liquid…