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Interview: Philip Stewart, customer service director, ntl:Telewest Business

14th Dec 2009
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In the wake of major criticism of the customer service provided by communication service providers, talks with Philip Stewart, customer service director at ntl:Telewest Business, about its efforts to ensure its relationship with customers is more than merely transactional.

Communication companies felt the sharp end of a study into customer service last month, when it was reported that service providers are spending millions to attract customer but doing a woeful job of keeping them. The Oracle report, entitled 'Fostering Customer Intimacy for Communications Service Providers in Europe and the Middle East', concluded that the customer churn that has traditionally characterised the sector was likely to remain high in the industry until providers up their game.
This should present ntl:Telewest Business with a sticky situation. After all, as a B2B service provider it is not only responsible for providing its customers with an customer service, but also contributes significantly to the experience of its customers’ customers. And when you bear in mind that the company is home to some 60,000 clients across the UK, each with their own customers to satisfy, the stakes are high, to say the least.
Philip Stewart, customer service director at ntl:Telewest Business makes no bones about the fact that the industry is characterised by high customer churn - "The industry is well known for churn, with customers moving from one provider to another… it’s the nature of the technology, it can be quite transactional with customers, which makes moving and changing supplier quite straightforward," he explains – but with the recession biting, the top brass at the provider decided to view this as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
"There was a point when the recession really kicked in and we were all watching the news every night to see which organisation had fallen off a cliff, and around this time we had a board meeting to say that this should actually be a big opportunity for us," says Stewart. "There is this issue about whether we are just transactional or whether we really provide service. Well, one of our key benefits is that we try to give our customers a competitive edge, so that when we talk to customers about solutions and technology we are pitching it as improving their business offering to make them stronger against competitors. And we’ve had one of our most successful years because of that. Customers want to talk to us about how we can help them become more efficient and capable in the market, and that has really worked for us."
Customer expectations
With a huge nationwide next generation network, valued at £13bn, ntl:Telewest Business provides a portfolio of advanced data, internet and voice services to customers ranging from private businesses, public sector organisations and service providers, across the UK. The challenge that really drives the organisation, according to Stewart, is working out how to make the customer feel as if it has a dedicated service. "All they really want from us is reliability, good value and a very close relationship," he says. "They want to feel that they are at the heart of everything, and that although we have 60,000 customers, they want to feel like the only one.
"For all of our larger customers for whom we run real mission-critical stuff, we give them a face-to-face relationship, so the customer service teams aren’t just in a contact centre somewhere, they are field-based, working with the customers hand-in-hand."
But of course, with tens of thousands of customers, not every organisation can qualify for this treatment. Nonetheless, the company has introduced new measures to ensure that this doesn’t mean it’s cattle-class for all but the privileged.
"For those customers that maybe aren’t large enough to qualify for a face-to-face relationship, we provide contact centre support, but this summer we gave our customers a unique PIN so that when they dial in and enter their PIN they are routed to somebody that they deal with regularly, so again it becomes very personal. It isn’t like dealing with a large organisation, it makes them feel like they are one of the only customers."
With one of the main criticisms levelled at communication service providers in the Oracle report being a lack of personalisation, this kind of one-to-one service provides a tidy riposte, particularly in conjunction with the £10 million investment it made in a new platform for its agents earlier this year, which tracks and measures customer interactions and provides a single view of the customer. "It is a seamless experience, and you deal with the same people in the same mode," Stewart emphasises.
Nonetheless, any social media strategy from ntl:Telewest Business remains in the starting blocks. With customer expectations of how they want to engage with businesses increasingly shaped by the tools that they use in their personal lives, development into Facebook and Twitter territory is something that could prove critical in the future, although for the time being Stewart believes that customer interaction via social tools is satisfactory.
"It is not something we have launched as a means of communication, although some of the service people have such good relationships with the customers that they are joined up on Facebook, which I think is fantastic," he says. "A lot of my agents also use LinkedIn to link with customers. So I would challenge you to find another organisation that gets that close to its customers."
And this is what Stewart ultimately believes sets ntl:Telewest Business apart from the competition – and keeps it on top of the customer churn that blights the sector.
"The better service you provide, the more loyal they stay and the more successful we become," he concludes. "I spend a good part of my week visiting a minimum of three customers around the country, just finding out how things are, and the feedback I get is the real fuel to drive us on. The best feedback you can get is direct from the customer. We really make a big effort with that. And by taking the time, customers really do feel at the heart of everything and feel valued. And that improves loyalty going forward."

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