BT: The quest to provide good service

And why ISPs will always be lousy...

And why ISPs will always be lousy...

BT and customer service - like chalk and cheese? Not so, says BT Consumer managing director Angus Porter, in the first part of an exclusive interview with Ben King. Last August, Angus Porter told journalists BT's customer exodus is over. It had stabilised its market share at 73 per cent for four consecutive quarters. Customers had stopped deserting it for rival telephone providers like NTL, Telewest and various resellers. Unkind souls will say this is largely because those rivals have run out of cash and are now focusing on staying alive, rather than beating BT. But the former state behemoth is trying to reinvent itself as a customer service champion. Improving customer satisfaction was one of the key planks of the blueprint for the new, customer-friendly BT that CEO Ben Verwaayen and BT Retail chief Pierre Danon announced earlier this year, and it's a large part of Porter's job to deliver on it. This has to sit alongside a savage cost-cutting programme. It's what BT folks, using the phrase John Major immortalised, call the 'double whammy' - revamping customer services to make them better as well as a great deal cheaper. BT is consolidating its customer support activities in a massive contact centre in Newcastle, built around a giant Siebel CRM system. The 2,200 job cuts announced in March were part of this drive to reorganise the company's customer service operations. The core thinking is that bad service costs money. If an engineer has to visit three times to fix a problem it costs a lot more than an engineer visiting once and doing it properly. So now, the theory goes, a call to BT is meant only to be dealt with by one person rather than passed from one operative to another who make callers give personal details time and again. They're also cutting down on outbound telemarketing, so the old days when they would phone customers once a month to try and sell them something they'd already said they didn't want are hopefully past. Says Porter: "We've got to first base. We have a very clear and detailed view of what the drivers for customer satisfaction are. And we are at least ahead of our rivals now, in terms of our objective monitoring of customer satisfaction." One of the areas it has struggled to deal with is fixing faults. Even though telephone line faults only happen once every seven years on average, it's something that gets customers extremely upset. "We have to deal with a complaint bloody well for someone to feel satisfied coming out the other side," said Porter. "One of the things we have been bad at doing is keeping customers up to date with the progress of the repair. There's no point fixing a line if the customer doesn't know it's fixed. So we've been doing things like sending text messages to let people know that their repair is complete." BT still has a long way to go but the rhetoric coming from the top of the company is encouraging, at least. Interestingly, France Telecom, which has a similar love-hate relationship with its customer base, has been visiting BT to see how they've achieved it. When BT Retail's broadband-without-an-ISP service goes live in June, though, the company will find itself selling customers a far more complicated service than simple voice telephony. But Porter reckons the BT retail broadband experience will still beat its rivals. "With the current ISP model [one company providing internet access over another's phone line], it is theoretically and practically impossible to give a decent level of customer service," he said. He quotes as an example "one of those customer complaints that rattles around the chairman's office" - the example of a man who went on holiday, forgot to pay his bill and got cut off. "He accepted that it was his fault. We reconnected his phone but we couldn't reconnect his ADSL line. Because we didn't know - we aren't allowed to know - he had one." Let the same company manage the line and the DSL service and, hey presto, the problems of communicating between the two are reduced. Not that Porter thinks BT Retail's broadband will be problem-free. "We are doing everything that we can but it is just massive in terms of the complexity of what we are trying to do," he warned. The well-publicised troubles of their rivals have taken the heat off BT for a while but the company's goal now is to start winning customers back. "For an incumbent telecoms company to stop its market share shrinking is hard enough. But driving it upwards? That is what we regard as a challenge." Can BT really become a customer service champion? We're not sure. Let us know your experiences, what you think. Next week: BT struggles to go 'beyond the modem'.