Verwaayen defends BT's service

Broadband is the 'next thing in telecoms, says the BT chief executive, and customer satisfaction is the telco's goal

BT chief executive Ben Verwaayen today defended his company's customer service record and its role in the broadband market -- but admitted there is still work to be done before he'll be entirely satisfied.

In a wide-ranging interview, Verwaayen stressed that customer service and broadband are the two most important issues for BT -- and that it's difficult to keep everyone happy all of the time.

"We have 22 million customers," he said. "On average, we get five customer contacts from them per month. Even if something goes wrong for the slightest percentage of a percentage, you'll hear about it. There is no excuse, but we are dealing with thousands of complaints every day." Broadband has been a particularly thorny issue for the company, and he admitted that not everyone was happy with the service they were getting. "I'd say 80 per cent are happy, 10 per cent are so-so, 10 per cent are unhappy. And those 10 per cent are very vocal, and they're right. We have to step up and understand what (the problem) is."

As for those who are unable to get broadband at all, he was sympathetic -- but stressed that two thirds of the country now have access to ADSL-enabled exchanges, and robustly asserted that it was not BT's job to provide unprofitable services.

"Our obligation is to shareholders," he said. "We are not some kind of national institution that has an obligation to bring technology to the UK. We are a for-profit organisation. We have two million shareholders in the country. Our first obligation is to make sure that what we do is financially responsible."

He refused to look back on the past and apportion blame for what some see as the painfully slow rollout of broadband in this country. "I am amazed at how much energy is spent on looking at who is to blame. It is dull and boring to look back. It is much more fascinating to look forward. I'd rather look at what we can do."

And what he expects it to do is revolutionise the way companies do business.

"High speed Net access is not enough. It's about a different way of communicating. The killer app is never a pre-cooked meal made by someone else. If you look at the mobile market, SMS is the number one data application. With the PC it is email and instant messaging."

No one thought of those things when the technology underlying them was invented, he said. "Broadband is the same. If you just want today's world faster, you won't get innovation. Communities create their own applications, which will be communications driven. The first driver of the data world has always been communication."

When asked whether broadband is at the heart of BT, he said: "The most important thing for BT is customer satisfaction. Broadband is important because it's the next thing in telecoms, not just another product. It's the next thing that will allow companies to provide services to customers in a totally different way to before... Individuals will be able to decide what services they get on an individual basis."

He is certainly optimistic about the future. "Broadband will provide the two most important engines for change: productivity and lifestyle," he said. "Businesses will realise it can make staff more productive. Consumers will see it can improve their lifestyle. If you have the two together, then it's unstoppable."


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