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Wireless Unlimited the region's go-to place for cell phone repair

NET News Service • Jul 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Don Cardwell knows all about the jobs of tomorrow.

That’s because tomorrow comes very frequently in the fiercely competitive universe of cell phone handsets, and when customers need one of those mini-computers repaired, they usually need it now.

“There are no know-it-alls in this business,” said Cardwell, who has owned and operated Wireless Unlimited in Jonesborough for nine years.

“The second you say, ‘I know it all, and gosh, I’m gettin’ good and everything’s great,’ you’ll regret it. They’re manufacturing phones right now that we don’t know nothing about. You have to be open-minded enough to take on this new technology and the new equipment and be able to handle the changes.”

That could have something to do with why, by his reckoning, Cardwell is the only game in town — and in fact in the entire metro area.

With technician Chris Havens, the David Crockett High School graduate repairs not just cell phones, but laptop computers, digital cameras, video game systems and MP3 players.

A business model emerges

Focusing on repair wasn’t even the business model when Cardwell opened the shop, but changing times and his electronics background moved things in that direction pretty quickly.

“I was a typical indirect store, selling phones and service plans for the major carriers,” Cardwell said.

Then one of his first customers came in — still under contract, but needing a new phone. The sign advertising “free phones” had lured him in, but that was only for someone signing a new agreement.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong with your phone?’ I looked at it, said, ‘Oh, I can fix that,’ and sent him out — $25.”

A self-professed electronics geek, Cardwell had taken extra electronics courses at Crockett, where he’d gotten a lot of experience fixing various household electronics for faculty and staff. He’d also gained experience working on car audio systems. So when that first customer walked in, Cardwell said, he was confident he could deliver the goods.

“It wasn’t something where I was nervous and ‘Oh, maybe I can do it.’ It was ‘Have a seat and I’ll have it done.’” (The phone was a Nokia 5190, by the way, something Cardwell remembers as easily as he remembers his sole “fatality,” a Panasonic Allure whose innards he accidentally gored with the slip of a screwdriver.)

From that point forward, a kind of internal conflict began to develop between the marketing of cell phone plans (which almost always come with discounted or free phones) and repairs. This was particularly true as corporate stores — Verizon, AT&T and others — began realizing they had a potential resource for customers who experienced phone damage mid-contract and whose only option for a new phone was to pay retail price.

“They knew I also sold services, so that made them a little hesitant to refer people for repair.”

Cardwell opted to get out of the retail end when his service contracts ended, and by the end of 2005 the business was focusing solely on repair. That decision, combined with some simple personal marketing, unleashed a much greater flow of referrals by other retailers.

“By phone conversations, and walking into the stores saying, ‘Thank you, we appreciate the referrals and we just want you to know we are no longer selling,’ the referrals shot up. They don’t even second-guess that we’re going to steal the customers.”

Growth and diversification

As phones have become more complex, Cardwell and Havens have ventured further into laptop work. With “smart phones” syncing with e-mail and the rise of Web-hosted calling platforms, customers’ phones and computers have become more integrated.

Cameras, iPods and gaming consoles have sort of naturally followed, especially as Cardwell has invested in better tools and workspaces.

Still, the bread and butter is cell phones. The business comes from two main sources: directly from stores that send customers’ phones in to Wireless Unlimited, and from owners themselves who have learned — whether from their retailer or some other way — that “there’s a cell phone repair shop in Jonesborough.”

Velma Conner manages the Radio Shack in Richlands, Va., and says she probably sends phones to Jonesborough several times a week. Conner has never even met Cardwell or Havens, but she says they have provided many happy returns up in her corner of Southwest Virginia.

“The way they spearhead this is phenomenal because there’s so many things that can happen to a cell phone,” Conner says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of these little phones taken apart, but you really have to know our stuff in order to be able to target the problem with it.”

She says having a reliable repair option available helps her retain customers.

“If you want to make a customer angry, tell them the phone they got wet isn’t covered under warranty,” Conner said. “They go ballistic, so it’s good to have this. It makes the customer happy, it makes us happy, and I just think they’re awesome.”

Conner is among a number of retailers who send phones their way, Cardwell says. And with consumers watching their wallets, they’re much less prone to hop from plan to plan and pay early termination fees just to get a new phone — a trend he says began before the recession even hit.

“People’s whole paradigm is starting to shift, and it doesn’t happen overnight. One of the hardest things for the public to realize was phones aren’t a penny; phones aren’t free.

“People have accepted the fact that phones are expensive. You can find something better to do with that $500, and a phone isn’t necessarily going to secure anything for you right now. People are trying to save, and they’re putting their money and attention somewhere else, not into bells and whistles — that’s very good for us.”

Even as a less expensive option, though, Cardwell has had to work hard to make repairs more affordable recently as he’s seen more situations where “5 or 10 bucks is deal or no deal.”

A week is an eternity

Asking Cardwell and Havens whether staying current with the technology is an issue elicits a hearty laugh from both.

“I took a vacation of less than two weeks a couple years ago, got back, and there were three or four new phones,” Cardwell said.

“There’s a fine line between having a really great day and your eyes being blurry and your head kind of hurting,” Havens adds.

It all goes back to the love for problem solving that Cardwell says his father instilled in him.

“We have to find our own solution, and that can be challenging. Try Googling something and it comes back, ‘no response.’”

A good example of the constant change is what’s happened to cell phone microphones. Cardwell brings out a small box and displays the evolution of the cell phone mic, which though it doesn’t look much different, has gone from being able to pop in and out of the phone’s housing to being surface-soldered onto the motherboard, or “brain” of the phone.

Avoiding temptation

Cardwell admits he essentially has a monopoly in the metro area, though he thinks the Tri-Cities probably could support a competitor. He says he knows better than to use that advantage unfairly.

“I’ve run enough stores to know that people are the ones that keep you in business,” he says. “If you don’t do good business, you won’t be around very long, monopoly or no monopoly — you’ve got to treat people the way that you’d like to be treated, and that’s with respect.”

That’s why he tells the machine shop employee whose ringer stopped working that it’s the metal shavings in his work area that demagnetized it instead of just handing him the phone and knowing he’ll probably be back for another fix a few months down the road. The same goes for the wealthy customer desperate to retrieve data off a broken phone.

“If they’ve got a $10 fix, that same fix is still 10 bucks for the guy with the money hanging out of his pockets.”

Conner, the Radio Shack manager from Richlands, doesn’t doubt that claim a bit.

“They are the most delightful people,” she said. “Their prices on repair are great, and we stay in very close contact. Chris probably e-mailed me five times yesterday. Even if there were five more options, it would still be Don and Chris I’d send my phones to.”

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