iPhone repair business lures walk-in, Internet customers

10/13/2011 12:00 AM

10/13/2011 5:52 AM

For years, it was usually cheaper to replace a cellphone than repair it.

The introduction of the Apple iPhone changed that, convincing Sean Hennessy there was money to be made fixing them.

"Apple has a cult following," Hennessy said. "It's something we've never seen before."

Hennessy owns Repair Labs at Fix-iPhones.com, a Web-based iPhone repair business in Wichita. About 25 percent of its business comes from walk-in customers at its shop on Mount Vernon. The bulk arrives from around the country thanks to the Internet.

Hennessy got into the cellphone business by opening Cricket stores; today he has 20 of them. Repairing cellphones was part of the business, but not a lucrative aspect.

The potential for that to change came with the introduction of smartphones with their higher price tags and vastly expanded capabilities.

Hennessy started the business as Fix-iPhones three years ago, adding Repair Labs to the name as the company added work on other devices to its services.

The company didn't really take off until its website launched about two years ago. It had been repairing about 20 phones a month; now that number is closer to 400 a month.

Broken screens and water damage are the most common problems. Most repairs run about $40 to $50, though work on new devices can cost three or four times that. The company says it's able to fix about 95 percent of the phones it receives.

Taylor Huddleston heads a team of three technicians, while Kathryn Hill is in charge of customer service.

Hill said she hears some interesting stories about how phones get damaged. One customer ran over his iPhone — with a plane. Another said he forgot his phone was in his pocket when he dived into water to save somebody's life.

A third left his phone on top of his car and drove off on Webb Road, returning to find it eight hours later. Though it was considerably banged up, Hill said, "We were able to fix it, get it back up and running."

With smartphones storing photographs, videos and so much more information, the ability to make and receive phone calls is only part of the reason owners want them repaired, Hill said.

"If you drop it in the water and can't turn it on, it's worth it to drop $50 to $60 to get that info, especially if it's priceless stuff," she said.

The keys to the company's growth have been good customer service and high visibility on the Internet, Hennessy said.

Hennessy credits a friend with experience in e-commerce for helping him develop a website that gets maximum results from Internet search engines.

"It takes a lot of different strategies," he said. "It was also a slow progress. Our site had to build strength."

During that time, Hennessy said, the company's technicians learned a lot about repairing devices "through trial and error — and experience."

In addition to iPhones, Repair Labs specializes in repairing iPad tablets. It plans to expand into repairing gaming devices, camcorders and cameras soon.

Consumer reviews are an important part of e-commerce, Hennessy notes, and one of employee Marisa VanSkiver's job titles is "reputation manager." If a consumer posts a negative review, VanSkiver quickly answers it with a detailed explanation of the company's position.

VanSkiver, who also handles the company's social media, said the vast majority of customer reviews are positive.

"It's a different animal when you have an online business," Hennessy said. "We simply don't have dissatisfied customers unless the customer can't be satisfied, and there are some of those."

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