The performance and service offered by telecoms companies has been much in the headlines recently, and for all the wrong reasons. Telcos are, it seems, impossible for customers to contact, and habitually guilty of ignoring justified grievances. Such are the recently expressed views of David Edmonds, director of telecoms watchdog Oftel.
One might expect Edmonds to be demanding a lot from telcos, since that is his job and the watchdog does on occasion have to bare its teeth. But when even harsher criticism was voiced in June by the former chief executive of global carrier Cable & Wireless (C&W), notice was taken at a high level. It is unusual for the telecoms industry to be so self-critical.
The industry is failing its customers, says Richard Brown, now chief executive at services company EDS. Telcos have lost sight of their customers, widening the gap between what users want and what carriers can provide, he believes.
"The telecoms industry didn't give birth to as many leaders as it should have done and many left for other industries. We lost focus, and lost sight of our customers. We didn't collaborate," he said. "If you think you can do it all by yourselves you'll soon be out of business."
Brown laid into past and present governments for "acting as regulators rather than participants", and called on the industry to use the emerging mobile communications market as an opportunity for the industry to start afresh and learn from its mistakes.
Losing the plot
So how has this extremely wealthy cabal of powerful multinational telcos managed to lose the customer services plot so badly?
Steve Thorpe, the Telecoms User Association's member services manager, has a theory. "The telecoms industry as we know it is relatively new. As is the way with new industries, it provided a wonderful service to start with, but has started to get blase. Customers, especially business customers, seem to have been forgotten and now feel let down. There is certainly a gap opening up between what's expected and what they are getting. That's worrying," he said.
Thorpe cites tariff rates as a good example of how business customers are being short changed. "Business tariff rates are not being updated quickly enough. There seem to be misunderstandings in many cases about what businesses should be paying. Customers need to get the best price possible as soon as possible, and this is not happening."
He believes that Quality of Service (QoS) is also an area where telcos are failing their customers. "There are moves afoot to improve QoS, and not before time," he said.
Back to basics
Thorpe conceded that not all telcos deserve to be tarred with the same brush, and that there are some areas where customer demands cannot yet be satisfied for practical reasons. But he sees huge room for improvement. "The industry does need to get back to basics, and take a good look at itself," he said.
So who are the worst offenders? Oftel has published statistics of complaints made to it by 49,500 business and residential consumers over the six months to March 2000. This shows that Local Tel had the highest level of customer complaints, followed by NextCall, Cellular Operations (including 1st Line), and, interestingly, C&W Communications.
Oftel found that customers want more information on telcos' level of performance. It says that details of its research provide useful information on how well companies handle complaints, and the sorts of problems customers face.
Although not at the top of the list of offenders, it's been a poor month for BT's public image. The former state monopoly, and still by far the biggest operator in the UK, has announced more delays to the launch of its ADSL (automatic digital subscriber line) service, and recently said it wants more time to test its high-speed internet services - a move that will delay launch of these services by providers including Freeserve and BT Openworld.
BT is concerned that mass rollout of ADSL could result in interference between lines, reducing service quality for users. The company said trials have so far been too small to identify potential levels of this so-called crosstalk, and that more tests are needed.
It is also under fire for dithering over unmetered web access while competitors launched competing services right under its nose. BT is seeking a definition of what constitutes such a service, and is trying not to lose revenue in the meantime.
Just when one might have thought it could do without any more scrutiny, BT raised eyebrows again in June by declaring that it owns the patent on internet hyperlinks, and plans to charge US internet service providers for their customers' use of the technology. A hailstorm of mockery and threatened litigation is all that it has got for its pains so far.
"Sometimes telcos get criticised when they don't deserve to be criticised," said Thorpe. But there are far more times when they do deserve it.
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