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Qwest customers pleased, CEO says

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DENVER — Qwest Communications International is turning around its image with careful attention to customers and a top-to-bottom change in company culture, CEO Dick Notebaert said.

Despite an ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission investigation and the trial of four former Qwest executives on federal fraud charges, the Denver-based telecom is making headway with its customers, Notebaert said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.

"You'd like to have it behind you. It affects the stock. But at the end of the day, the thing that holds it together is the customers," he said.

Qwest erased $2.5 billion of revenue in 2000 and 2001, survived a brush with bankruptcy and remains under investigation by the SEC and the Justice Department.

But Notebaert, named to the top job in June 2002 to help right the company, doesn't believe those events are major influences on customers now.

"People read about these things," he acknowledged. "Is it affecting your buying decision? I think not."

Notebaert said service is a key factor in consumers' decisions, and in late 2002, the company adopted "Spirit of Service" as its slogan, stitching it on employees' shirts and building an advertising campaign around it.

"It's not just a campaign, it's a culture," Notebaert said.

Customer satisfaction ratings are up while complaints and customer turnover are down, he said.

Qwest, which provides phone service in 14 mostly Western states, including Utah, announced in December it would begin offering residential Internet telephone service. "Customers are taking us there," Notebaert said.

The service, called voice over Internet protocol, is less expensive to set up and operate than traditional telephone service. It also helps Qwest compete with wireless telephone companies and cable companies that offer telephone service.

The move also helped land Notebaert on the cover of the April 26 edition of Forbes Magazine.

Qwest was the first of the Baby Bells to offer the service to residential customers.

"When you look at the world, everybody thinks it's OK for a small startup company to be innovative," Notebaert said. "If they see a large company doing it, everybody's surprised."