While it urges disgruntled customers to let it off the hook, Telus finds its feel-good signal jammed by the union representing most of its 11,000 employees.
With a strike vote looming, the Telecommunications Workers Union has countered Telus's expensive public relations campaign with a satiric ad blitz of its own. And the union continues to accuse Canada's second largest telephone company of fudging its customer satisfaction figures.
Whose numbers to believe?
Following one of the worst consumer backlashes in BC history—a public relations disaster that saw more than 4,000 customer complaints to the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission—Telus' latest round of TV ads featured a procession of cuddly quadripeds pushing the company's service.
Last month, in a letter to Telus customers, Telus president and CEO Darren Entwistle cited the company slogan ("The future is friendly") while claiming "extremely positive trends" in quality of customer service indicators since October. Without giving specifics, he said that Telus was "on track to meet and exceed industry standards in all areas in December".
But when December results were released on January 15, the numbers weren't as encouraging as Entwistle might have hoped. Telus could only boast of progress in two of the four major problem areas cited by the CRTC. Here's how the company's own stats broke down:
• Getting through to the business office (residential and business): the company claimed to have answered 86 per cent of incoming customer calls within 20 seconds, above the CRTC standard of 80 per cent (in September, Telus answered only 60 per cent of calls within 20 seconds);
• Getting through to the 611 repair bureau: Telus reported answering 93 per cent of repair calls within 20 seconds, again above the required 80 per cent (after achieving only 68 per cent in September);
• Repair appointments met: Telus reported meeting 86 per cent of urban and 77 per cent of rural repair appointments. These results, it conceded, were below the standard of 90 per cent "due to efforts to retire orders backlogged through the autumn owing to the high repair volumes driven in part by climatic events in B.C" (meaning summer forest fires and autumn floods throughout the province, a severe cable cut in Vancouver, computer virus attacks, power outages and "problems with the introduction of a new trouble management system");
• Out of service troubles cleared within 24 hours: Telus said the results were "predictably" below the standard of 80 per cent as the company "retired the backlog of trouble reports accumulated through the fall. December results were 76 per cent for urban areas and 69 per cent for rural areas."
Much of this is smoke and mirrors according to the TWU. Last week, the union launched a series of television spots lampooning the Telus animal ads. In one, a lone pig takes a microphone and—like an Orwellian protagonist from Animal Farm—begins warning customers not to believe everything the company tells them. Then a Telus executive tries to grab the mike.
Timed for a strike vote
The union's counter-attack advertising runs as its members ready themselves for announcement of a strike vote on Thursday.
Telus workers have been without a contract since late 2000, shortly after the company was formed in a merger of Alberta's Telus and BC Tel. The company wants a contract similar to the pre-merger labor agreements covering the Alberta workers, who were then not part of TWU. The union wants the pact to be based on the contracts it negotiated with BC Tel.
As for wages, the TWU wants retroactive increases of 3 per cent for 2001 and 2002 and 5 per cent for 2003, plus a 5-per-cent hike for 2004 and 6 per cent for 2005. Telus says its wage package proposal will compensate for missed salary increases, and increase base wages in future years.
In the battle for public opinion, union leaders are eager to draw a connection between the customer complaints disaster and staffing cutbacks at Telus. After the merger last year, Telus eliminated 6,500 jobs and reduced the number of call centres from 66 in 19 communities to 20 in five communities and combined eight different trouble-ticket systems into one new system.
The horror stories from last fall have become legend, including the ultimate public relations blunder, just before Christmas—the charity that ran out of gifts for disadvantaged children because Telus phone glitches hurt its annual donor drive.
Problems led to incidents of anti-Telus rage (repair technicians confronted in their vehicles, Telus phone booths vandalized in sleepy Victoria) and consumer protests including a "Telus Sucks" website.
Union: How company distorts stats
The company hired 500 fresh bodies a few months ago to plug some of the holes. But a veteran Telus technician who spoke with The Tyee, preferring not to be named, says the new hirings didn't begin to stop the bleeding in most service areas. For example, the cable records department used to employ 120 people for all of BC; now it employs 12. "Our members have taken breaks for stress leave that have lasted months," said the technician who has decades experience in customer service, construction and cable records systems.
Lately, customer complaints have faded from the headlines. After 2,000 logged for October alone, Telus logged only 200 this month up to January 20.
The TWU questions the accuracy of those figures. The union's November 24 submission to the CRTC, claims certain practices in the company's reporting and recording of information connected with quality of service indicators have allowed Telus to claim a better quality of service performance than it has, in fact, achieved.
Here's the union's take on three of the four key problem areas Telus says it addressed:
• Getting through to the business office (residential and business): "Telus does not begin to measure the customer's waiting time from the time the customer's call arrives at a Telus office. Rather, Telus begins to measure the customer's waiting time only after (i) the customer has made their final choice from an elaborate IVR menu, (ii) the customer has listened to the final service-related announcement, and (iii) after the customer's call has finally been placed in a holding queue, waiting to be picked up by a service representative…Telus has directed service representatives to clear a backlog by answering calls as quickly as possible, simply noting down the customers' names and telephone numbers, and calling those customers back only as and when time permitted…";
• Repair appointments met: "If Telus does not have the necessary cable or facilities in place at the time that a subscriber requests service, the subscriber's request may not be entered into the company's system on the date that the request is made. Instead, the creation of the record of the request may be delayed until the necessary cable or facilities have been put in place; in such instances, the request for service is recorded as having been made on that later date";
• Out of service troubles cleared within 24 hours: "Telus repair workers have been instructed to record an out-of-service problem as cleared within the prescribed 24-hour period, even if the repair work has not actually been completed within that period, by filing a 'Work In Progress' order with the Telus dispatch centre. When such an order is filed, the problem is recorded as cleared. When Telus repair workers realize that they cannot keep a repair appointment that has been booked, they are to refer the problem back to the dispatch centre. In such instances, it is Telus' practice to have its dispatch centre contact the subscriber to book another appointment. If the subscriber agrees to a new appointment time, this is recorded as a 'customer-requested' change rather than a missed appointment."
Trend toward automation, deregulation
The TWU's version of events reflects similar goings on elsewhere in North America's telecommunications industry.
Not long ago, an audit of quality standards measurement practices by a New York phone company revealed a pattern of practices similar to those the TWU charge Telus with employing. In a ruling last year, the Public Service Commission ordered the company to pay the Communication Workers of America US$1million to investigate how the company was fudging its figures. The TWU wants the CRTC to hold Telus similarly accountable.
"The bone-of-contention with Telus," says the battle-weary technician, "is the same you see with every corporation: do more with less, reduce costs, maximize profits." The real story that needs to be told, he adds—likening the issue to a sort of mad cow disease of telecommunications—is how deregulation in the industry is eroding public structures of accountability that assure citizens of democratic access and control.
Instead, customers more and more deal with unresponsive machines, he says.
"Computer records and retrieval systems are replacing human memory and thought processes that were key to the success of dial tone delivery to the subscriber," he explains.
Meanwhile, new technology and the Internet is allowing the industry to shift away from public oversight. Wireline—the land phone dial tone—was the regulated side of the industry. The growing telecom trend toward voice-over Internet protocol (VOIP) is much harder to regulate than wireline. "VOIP proposes to take the dial tone you currently know and put it on your ADSL type of circuit, so that your phone number will be delivered on your computer's IP system," says the technician.
He adds that "The regulated wireline will soon become unregulated VOIP—effectively serving to do through technology what public hearings would make more difficult: the deregulation of telecommunications."
By this analysis, a quality of service disaster Telus blamed on forces beyond its control might actually have been an early warning sign of what to expect in the future: an abundance of consumer options and pangs of nostalgia for the days when you could reach an actual human being on the customer service line.
If so, the future is already here—and it doesn't look very friendly.
Daniel Gawthrop is a Vancouver writer and editor.