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The Wider Picture

Extreme angry man shouting at the phone

Editor Ian Hunter takes a micro look at a recent event that reminded him of a dystopian past rather than a brave new world of innovation, enterprise and customer service excellence.

We are about to find out what Ofcom has in mind for Openreach pretty soon. It will be a significant decision for the channel and despite what all the pundits are forecasting the outcome is likely to have quite a few twists and turns that only come out in the wash much later. Comms Business will of course be reporting on whatever happens as well as channel reaction to the report as and when it happens.

These last few weeks however I was reminded of the basics of the channel, how it was set up and what it had to offer business users in the UK as I had begun to feel that there were instances occurring where I could see some people completely missing the point.

In the mid 1980’s BT was dragged kicking and screaming in to a liberalised market environment. I know this because that is where I was working and as a business sales manager at that time I know BT pulled all sort of fully sanctioned stunts to keep these upstart competitors at bay. If we lost one sale the drains would be lifted to find out why.

The market was liberalised in order to encourage innovation and provide customer choice. The objective for anyone competing with BT was to offer better products, better customer service and cost effective pricing for solutions.

At that point there was no channel. Firms entering this new open market were selling directly to end-users. The channel came later and it has subsequently flourished.

What we can’t afford to do however is kid ourselves that the channel is as important or significant in the overall scheme of things as some think it is.

Whilst we regularly encounter ‘life and death’ business issues in the channel you have to say, in all honesty, that the amount of business the channel conducts in the UK is still very small compared to the level of direct sales being made by all the network services firms. It’s a fact.

As I mention elsewhere in this issue, just take a look at the August 2015 Ofcom UK Communications Market Review for the year. Channel? What channel!

I would say that very few people, if any, at Ofcom could name more than five channel players. So the ‘back to basics’ message I was reminded of this week was this; it is very hard to win business from BT but very easy to lose it back to them.

What kicked this thought process off was being copied in on a spat between two channel players that ultimately left the end user without service for a number of days.

We had a talk about it in the editorial team when the emails, as many as five a day, started popping up in our in box. We decided, quite wisely we believe, not to get involved in what would inevitably turn in to the mother of all cans of worms and decided instead to ‘just observe and learn’.

What we learnt was that intransigence – following all the ‘rules’ – left the customer with no voice service whatsoever and so, on or about the third or fourth day, I ventured a comment and hit the reply all button.

In essence I enquired, ‘I don’t want to get involved other than to be advised when the end user customer has their service resumed and can get on with running their business and earning a living’. For me this was the key issue as I fully expected at any time a message from the very patient end user telling me he had called it a day and phoned BT.

What I got instead shocked me. It was a letter from a solicitor working for one of the two protagonists in the spat giving me chapter and verse on how they had been as pure as the driven snow and done everything by the book.

Oh dear. When I worked for BT in the early 1980’s doing things by the book (they called them T.I.’s which stood for telecoms instructions) was de-rigueur and actions or behaviour at variance to a T.I. was punishable by spending at least 24 hours in the cooler.

Not working by the book was what users wanted back then and what the nascent independent sector brought to the table following liberalisation of the market and here was a champion of today’s channel using the book as a reason why the customer had no service.