Who is the face of your company?
A ‘lite’ Whitepaper - By Alan Johnson, President of Pine River Innovations LLC
(Lite reading - No heavy technical jargon - And only three acronyms!)
Are you interested in an ‘outsider’s’ impression of the telecommunications industry?
I have rather recently become acquainted with your industry. Filing a patent for a new DSL testing device drew me in. In the course of helping to design, test and market this device, I have had the opportunity to work with regional managers, local managers, consultants, a Central Field Service department, and most importantly, the technicians in the field.
First impression - boy, do you guys have a challenging job! The times they are a-changin’, to quote Bob Dylan. Technology is changing so fast. The old service area boundaries are getting blurred. Competition is coming from all directions - 5G, Fiber, Cable, Fixed Wireless, DSL Copper, G.fast, Starlink, and who knows what’s next. Company A is overbuilding Company B in one area and B is overbuilding A in another area. I’m sure managing a telecommunications company has always been a challenge, but never more so than today. But you know all that.
I have read customer reviews for a number of telecom companies. Generally not so good. In fact, almost universally bad. If my observations are correct, the industry does have a customer relations problem….which means nobody is to blame. It is an industry reality fueled by rapid change. As we all know, a happy customer may tell a few people. A disgruntled customer will broadcast their discontent far and wide, thereby ‘blocking’ who knows how many future sales,
From what I have observed, there are three critical departments in a utility service company that are the ‘face’ of the company and are critical to good customer relations. These are the departments with which the customer is most likely to have personal interaction: Customer Service, Billing, and the Field Service Units. Actually, the customer service and billing department are the ‘voice’ of the company. The field technicians are the only ‘face’ most customers will see. They are local - not based in some distant call center. If trained and supported properly, they can present a very positive image for your company. The technician can prevent many future problems and call backs if given the proper training, equipment, and positive reinforcement. (More about this later.)
And before you draw any conclusions about my opinion of the field technicians, let me say this: I am very impressed with the dedication, attitude, and overall performance which I have observed.
In my experience as a customer, I have observed that the employees in the customer service department and the billing department have been extensively trained in good customer relations - especially conflict resolution and conflict avoidance. In fact, it seems like they all went to the same workshops. They are all calling the customer by name, thanking them for every piece of information requested, never disagreeing, always sympathetic to the customer, and always asking, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” These employees are working in a well regulated environment - heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer. (If they are based stateside, that is.) They probably have a supervisor close at hand for the tough questions. Almost without exception, they are closely monitored. (“This call may be recorded for training and quality control purposes.”)
Now, let's consider the work environment of the field technicians, who are the third leg of the customer relations ‘tripod’. When they are working with copper pairs, fiber, or cable, they are in the elements much of the time: rain, snow, cold, heat, mosquitoes, wood ticks, flys, goldenrod, stinging nettles, angry dogs and hornets. They may have to enter a crawl space full of dust and spiders. They may be in a millionaire’s mansion on their first assignment of the day and in a hoarder's clutter on the next assignment. If they are on a trouble call, they may encounter a customer that is already upset.
If the new customer is being served by a DSL line, the tech must ‘bond’ the cable by running a series of tests - toning to the near end and then running Distance Measurement, Resistive Balance, and Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) at a bare minimum. This will require ‘back and forth’ trips from the far end to the near end, unless a Far End Device (FED) is available. (More about this later) Frequently they have to run a temporary line before the permanent data line is installed, resulting in more trips through nature's wonderland - i.e. brush, noxious plants, and insects, or perhaps deep snow, etc.
Now it is time for the install. Your technician is now the ‘face’ of your company. Lets dust off the grime from the bonding job, slip on those boot covers and meet the customer. Don’t forget the smile and the cheerful greeting. Now tell me sir, what internet equipment do you have? Where would you like the modem? That will require a trip through your crawl space but that’s no problem at all. OK, that will work, but I will have to drill through that brick veneer and fish the cable through an insulated wall. Almost done. That went pretty well. Now the wife arrives on scene and she vetoes that location. (Probably for good reason.) No problem, we can get that changed in about 20 minutes (or more). Now the technician is behind schedule and the scheduler is on the line. Tough decision for the tech. Does he/she take time to give this customer thorough instructions on how to run their new remote, make sure their printers are working properly, and demonstrate how and when to reboot this and that, if necessary? Does he/she take time to demonstrate a speed test so the customer knows the advertised speeds have been achieved? (If the bonding job has been done properly, it will!) Or does he cut this visit short and keep the next customer happy?
The point of all this - technicians are in a critical public relations position. Perhaps more so than customer service or billing. Perhaps more influential than the slick ads and social media blurbs cranked out by the marketing department. (This isn’t meant to be derogatory to these departments - If you are still in business, they are doing their jobs)
Your field techs are working under the most difficult conditions. They are usually working solo with no direct supervision, and with no immediate backup. Oh sure, corporate tracks their performance on metrics of some kind - maybe fair, maybe accurate - maybe not. Can your performance metrics account for all the variables in a technician's job? Maybe they are. It's possible, but I’m doubtful. And the people designing and monitoring the metrics should not be offended by this - all I'm saying is that a flawless metrics system is mission impossible, given all the variables that come into play.
Technicians are out of sight of corporate officers. When corporate officers do a departmental ‘walk-about’, does it include a field visit? That would be nice - a big morale booster, but not too practical on a frequent basis.
So what can be done to support the field tech? What can corporate do to assure that the technician makes a positive impression on their customers? How can the probability of a call-back be reduced to near zero? (Seems to be an industry-wide agreement that a call-back costs $400 minimum.)
In simplest terms, give the tech the training, equipment, and moral support they need. Simple to say, hard to implement, but the managers I have met are doing an outstanding job of this. Your mid-level supervisors probably have some good suggestions. Ask your field technicians - they may have some suggestions of mutual benefit. I have done informal surveys with technicians. In fact, a far end device (FED) was engineered based on suggestions from a field technician, which led to the patent on Bonding Buddy™. Bonding Buddy is a FED with some unique features. And a suggestion from a field technician has recently prompted me to start design work on two other tools for telecom installation work, which, if designed properly, will make their job easier, will reduce liability, and save time and money for the company. (You may hear more about this later if the prototypes and field testing are successful!)
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have one suggestion. If your techs are servicing DSL copper, make sure they have a far end device (FED).
Here’s the sales pitch. Bonding Buddy™ is a far end device that will work with any brand of test equipment, including legacy. It is so easy to operate that they will actually use it! It will save the tech time and frustration. It will reduce their exposure to the elements. It will save the company bonding time and mileage. In field testing done in Central Minnesota, Bonding Buddy saved an average of one hour and three miles of travel per job. It will also reduce the variability of time required on troubleshooting copper cable and DSL bonding, making your scheduler's job easier. The technicians that have tested Bonding Buddy in the field did not want to send them back when the test period was over - honest. It’s just one way you can make their job a little easier.