Australia’s Telecommunications Ombudsman, Deidre O’Donnell, and the industry have worked for the last six months on a program called Connect Resolve, aimed at improving standards.

Unfortunately for Telstra, it stood out in terms of the rapid increase in complaints on a range of issues from billing to customer service in general. However, the increase was not totally unexpected, given the company has gone through major revamps in several areas, most notably billing.  As The Australian newspaper pointed out, “billing always gets people angry”.

The industry’s reputation for poor service seems to be a leftover from pre-deregulation days when most telcos were state-owned monopolies. Incumbents, like Telstra, still seem to bear the brunt of consumer angst even after 20 years of open competition. Either consumers have good memories or there really is an underlying problem.

David Thodey, Telstra’s new CEO, came to the job earlier this year speaking about not much else but customer service, which marked a change from his predecessor. The way Thodey sees the issue is basically around improving profits, because given Telstra controls about 60 per cent of the industry, if it can actually satisfy customers, then they are less likely to look elsewhere.

This is a refreshing change from the norm where CEO’s spend most of their effort pandering to the cries from disgruntled shareholders who only seem to get excited when mass firings are announced.

In what could be a stroke of genius, Thodey has instituted a raft of changes that he believes will make staff proud to be part of Telstra, which he hopes will be passed on to customers. The first addresses the issue that staff were nervous confiding to others they met at parties and events that they worked for Telstra, as they often ended up having to defend themselves.

Thodey has introduced a staff hotline, so staff can call a central number to get customer problems solved. This means that any staff member can refer the complaints they receive to someone who knows how to resolve them. Better still, Thodey is hoping staff will be willing to hear the complaint and act on it. He believes that customers will be happy that all Telstra staff are willing to help and that staff will feel proud to be part of an organisation that supports them directly.

Thodey has formed a customer satisfaction council, comprising his direct reports, which meets monthly to work through the issues. While different divisions have their own issues, he is trying to unify the response across the entire company so everyone works to help the program, even if the issues lie outside their area.

The telco is using all its technology to keep staff informed about new service improvements and how they can help, and Thodey has set standards such as five working days to fix faults. It is, he stresses, early days in a long journey, but his success on this path will have a marked impact on customer retention, future profits and subsequent shareholder satisfaction. Other service providers may wish to keep an eye on how Telstra’s plan unfolds.