The Connection Challenge

Higher than expected demand, complex installs and plenty of cooks in the kitchen have created some well-publicised issues for consumers wanting fibre. But Vocus is doing its best to improve the experience by launching a new division called Fibre First.

Okay, so it sounds like a bit of a first world problem, but a rapidly-growing industry can have challenges. As companies across the UFB rollout are finding, when you are flat out and struggling to meet demand, basic business stuff like finding and training staff, maintaining high standards, meeting customer expectations, and keeping track of cashflow, can all become more difficult.

Fibre connections are growing at well over 100% a year across the country. In early 2015, 5,000 people were being connected a month. In early 2016 it was 11,000 a month. Now it’s closer to 16,000, according to Government figures. But with exponential growth comes the negative stories – long waits for connection, shoddy workmanship, customer frustration.

Vocus, the country’s third-largest internet service provider (ISP) has a plan to tackle the problem. On June 27, Vocus, which sells fibre broadband through its Slingshot, Orcon and CallPlus brands, launched Fibre First, a division focused on streamlining sign-up and installation processes and improving the customer experience around connecting up to UFB.

The 12-person team has moved into a separate part of Vocus’ Auckland offices, where sales and customer service people sit alongside developers and business analysts. The theory is that having a multi-disciplinary team in close proximity means they will listen in to each other’s phone calls, discuss thorny installation issues when they bump into each other at the coffee machine, have joint meetings, and generally spend time discussing how to make signing up for UFB as easy and pleasant an experience as possible. “We’ve identified we aren’t doing the install process as well as we could, and we want it to be better,” says Vocus consumer GM Taryn Hamilton. “What we’ve done as an industry is told people getting fibre is easier and quicker than it is. Actually, it can be a mission, and sometimes the customer experience can be awful. There can be failings on the ISPs’ side or on the part of the local fibre companies, or with subcontractors ... This is an experiment to see if putting key developers in with front-line staff can improve processes.”

One of the problems facing Vocus and the other ISPs is that a single install involves several separate stages and at least two different companies – so there’s a far longer lead time than, say, signing up for copper broadband. And there are far more possibilities for things to go wrong. Customers do the deal with their ISP, but the actual on-the-ground install work (bringing fibre from the street, through someone’s section and into the modem in their house) is done by a local fibre company and normally requires two visits – one to look at the property and check what’s going to be needed for the install, and the other to carry it out. Only after that’s happened can the ISP switch on the broadband. Each company has its own teams – installers, billing people, customer service staff etc – and is probably also using contractors.

“As an industry we haven’t been as open as we could be with regard to delays. The risk is that people who have had a bad experience will tell their friends and family not to get fibre. When actually everyone who can get fibre should get fibre.”

Taryn Hamilton

If successful, Vocus hopes Fibre First will also bring costs down for the company. Hamilton estimates it costs around $10 each time a call centre person talks to a customer, so there are obvious inefficiencies if a customer has multiple discussions with Vocus over installation of a $69.99-a-month fibre plan.

Already the team have come up with some areas where processes can be improved, Hamilton says. “For example, sometimes the Chorus guy will turn up to check the install and he’ll realise that it’s a straightforward install and he can do the connection on the spot. That’s great for the customer, who doesn’t have to take another half day off work. However, because we’ve got the install date scheduled for the day Chorus was originally going to be doing it, the customer still has to wait until after the original install date before they get UFB. That’s unnecessary delay.

“So now we’re realising we need to make sure that before that first visit the modem is already on site, and number portability and data authentication processes are already set up. Then if Chorus can connect the customer straight away, we are ready to go too.”

Another thing that really annoys customers is when there have been delays with the install process, or something isn’t working properly, but they still get a bill for the first month, Hamilton says. “Our system is smart enough to be able to see automatically whether everything’s up and running. We need to be saying ‘The phone’s not working, so we won’t bill them yet.”

Improving communication with customers around timing for fibre installations is another priority. “The industry hasn’t been good at setting expectations. Using averages is meaningless, but it’s not easy to be accurate, because every install is different and with a multi-dwelling unit, for example, there are a lot of unknown factors."

Hamilton says good customer satisfaction ratings are critical for his company, because as a challenger brand Vocus hasn’t got a huge marketing budget. Although the vast majority of existing Vocus customers are on copper broadband, the majority of new sales for Orcon are for fibre connections. He hopes the Fibre First project will also give the company a competitive advantage as ADSL customers upgrade to fibre.

“Although fibre is getting a disproportionate share of our resources at the moment, we know that the vast majority of copper customers will become fibre customers. We want to make that easy for them and ensure we have the capability to manage that switch.”

This article originally appeared on The Download.