Telstra's weakest link

The telco might be busy touting its 4G network, selling iPhones and pocketing a few billion a year in NBN-related windfalls, but there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to customer service.

Telstra’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) yesterday had a triumphant ring to it and the message from chief executive David Thodey was clear – a new era is at hand for the telco.

This enthusiasm isn’t entirely misplaced. Telstra’s share price has rebounded over 30 per cent since the formal commitment to the Special Access Undertaking (SAU) and the Structural Separation Undertaking (SSU). The telco’s management has confirmed that they are “spectacularly agnostic” to the NBN promises from Canberra because it's going to pocket a hefty sum for its copper, no matter what the outcome of the federal elections. 

The NBN war has been fought and won but now Telstra has to survive peace; a task that’s not as easy as one would think. The telco under Thodey is revitalised and playing a very different game. But can he turn the company into what it could've been? Can he unlock revenues and new markets and realise the potential of the business?

Despite the progress made so far there is one weakness that could potentially hinder Telstra’s aspirations. When it comes to unlocking the potential of the business the telco might be looking in the wrong place.

This isn't hubris from a Monday morning quarterback, but an analysis based on solid technical and business principles:

  1. 'Customer Service' comes first.
  2. You can't cut your way to new lines of business.
  3. If you focus primarily on costs, they tend to rise over time while quality decreases. If you focus primarily on quality, it tends to increase over time and costs decrease.

Here’s a recent case study that illustrates the challenge Telstra still faces when it comes to keeping its customers happy.

A BigPond cable fault for one customer, who had a on their account multiple individuals, multiple service addresses, and multiple services for each individual and service address (mobiles, landlines, ADSL, Cable TV), took six weeks to resolve. While these are all domestic services, Telstra regularly deals with this sort of complexity for SMEs. The fault was identified as a known ‘problem’ affecting many people, but with no known resolution or work-around policy and nobody allocated to fixing the underlying issue. It was finally resolved within two days but only after an accidental interaction with a customer service representative.

There were at least 18 avoidable and correctable, at zero-cost, systems and management errors and failures and the failed process cost Telstra anywhere between $5000 to $10,000 and the whole process left the client, with many services, underwhelmed and actively considering anything but Telstra.

So what went wrong? Not only were the multiple systems failure not rectified promptly, but more importantly, there was no policy to actively pursue a high-value client and converting the "fail" into winning back the client

The need of multiple levels of customer service is achingly apparent yet often ignored. People who are time poor will pay a premium for better, more predictable service. Having to wait around four hours for a technician to go to the wrong address is a customer relations disaster and support nightmare.

The fault was not a connection, customer-action, line, equipment or configuration fault. Some automatic provisioning software went wrong and its actions could not be undone normally: this was a known, preventable systems fault that was allowed to continue and grow unabated and uncorrected. It took a systems engineer an hour to find and remove the offending database record. The fault should never have happened and, in an efficient organisation, would have been fixed on the first day.

So Telstra might be busy rolling out 4G networks, selling iPhones hand-over-fist and pocketing a few billion a year in NBN-related windfalls, but there is obviously room for improvement in other fronts.

The case study illustrates a deficiency in strategy when it comes to dealing with pressing operational problems. Makes you wonder if Thodey and each of his division and state managers have a "Top Ten" list of quality, process and customer service problems they monitor and address each and every day? Now that’s an item I'd like to hear about at the next AGM.

This is an edited version of a blog post originally published on October 4. Steve Jenkin has spent 40 years in ICT in wide variety roles including large and small software projects, 7 years writing real-time Exchange software in a Telco and Admin, Software and Database work on PC's Unix/Open Source software and mainframes.

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