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This is my Qwest

Company making strides toward better customer service

Brent Denham was in Utah only a short time when he received an "introduction" to US WEST.

Denham moved to the state about three years ago and now oversees 25 stores as operating partner with Papa John's Pizza. When he arrived, he discovered that Papa John's had ongoing and lingering problems with US WEST in setting up phones for stores — despite long lead times — causing some to delay their openings. One was issued a phone number for a different territory.

And he was "blown away" when he was told getting phone service for his apartment would take two to three weeks.

"This is the 11th state I've lived in, and I had never seen it take more than two or three days," he said. "It was unbelievable. I think they thought they were the only kid on the block and could get away with it. It was no big deal to them."

Denham wasn't alone. Complaint-ridden US WEST often was referred to as "US WORST."

And while the company's advertising slogan was "Life is better here," many customers may find life better now under US WEST's successor, Qwest Communications International. Statistics from the company and the Utah Public Service Commission indicate that Qwest has made significant inroads in boosting customer service since obtaining US WEST in mid-2000.

"People's perceptions about service are derived from their own individual experiences," said Ted Smith, vice president for Utah for the company. "On average, people's perceptions about Qwest are getting better with time. It doesn't happen overnight, but I believe the perceptions are changing."

Qwest chairman and chief executive officer Joseph P. Nacchio said statistics show "dramatic progress" in customer service, which he tabbed as the company's top priority at the time of the US WEST acquisition.

"We have made significant and sustainable progress improving service in key areas for all customers in every state — the best results in six years," Nacchio told a recent gathering of the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners.

"Last summer, following the acquisition of US WEST, we made a commitment to improve service and open our markets to competition. We're keeping that commitment, our customers are receiving better service, and we know there is more work ahead of us."

The service boosts can be attributed to two major factors. "These improvements haven't come because the stars have been aligned correctly. It required hard work and money," Nacchio said.

While the company's work force total is down, the number of people in service-related positions is up by more than 1,100 since the acquisition.

"By adding more than 750 local network personnel throughout the region since last July, we have taken a strong first step toward making service improvements for all of our customers," said Afshin Mohebbi, Qwest president of worldwide operations.

"As we continue to invest in the network within our capital spending budget, leverage our relationships with our suppliers and implement cutting-edge technology, customers will continue to see improvements in their service and new broadband Internet communications services."

Also helping significantly is company spending: $9 billion in 2000 for capital improvements and $9.5 billion for this year to improve service, double the number of customers for DSL and wireless services, double Web hosting capacity and expand data and Internet services.

One example is that field technicians can be found driving brand-spankin'-new trucks and working with state-of-the-art testing equipment.

"By our own estimates, we will spend an average of about $2 billion a year more than US WEST spent in the region from '96 through '98. We're spending that money on network, tools, trucks, training, systems — everything that affects service right down the line," Nacchio said.

In Utah between 1995 and 1999, US WEST spent an average of $214 million annually on capital improvements. While it was ramping it up by spending $247 million in 1999, Qwest spent $322 million in 2000.

"We knew that service problems in our region for local phone service had been developing over six years. We also knew that we couldn't reverse six years in six months. It's a step-by-step process," Nacchio said.

Smith said competition for local service also has kept the company on its toes. "Certainly, competition does a lot of things to you. When customers have a choice, you'd better be meeting their needs. It also raises the bar on services. What was perhaps acceptable 10 years ago is not acceptable now," he said.

Customers and others found much of US WEST's performance unacceptable in recent years. In late 1998, a five-state consumer group consortium called the US West Territory Consumer Watch released a survey saying the company provided "generally poor, and at times terrible, local phone service." None of the consumer groups in the survey was from Utah.

From 1997 to 1998, the number of complaints Utahns made about the company to the Utah regulators rose 261 percent — from 3,943 to 14,249 — although some of that increase was attributed to improved reporting methods.

And in mid-1999, a survey about local telephone companies by J.D. Power and Associates found that 51 percent of US WEST customers polled said they would possibly switch service if offered a better deal.

Smith noted that US WEST already was making headway on improvements last year. "In Utah, we were definitely on the right track, and the merger enhanced that. And in the first two months of this year, we've continued to improve. Regarding the number of complaints, we're on a trend line continuing to head downward," he said.

"The numbers represent a snapshot, but in every fundamental services measure, we're continuing to improve. I think that, especially on the held-order side, the customer feels like we're meeting their needs."

That's the case with Denham, who acknowledges that a lot of the improvement has come through meeting Larry White, a Qwest representative. Papa John's is finding that other reps also are helpful in fixing troubles and that repairs or line installations take only days and not weeks — often earlier than original projections.

"From a business standpoint, I've seen a big difference. A great part of it was Larry, but he has nothing to do with service and repair. I've dealt with guys coming out to hook up our stores, and they've been nice," Denham said.

"It seems like things changed when it was switched over to Qwest, that they're dealing with service and repair issues better than before."


E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com