Has Suddenlink been providing the highest standard of customer service for West Virginians? The answer, according to the company’s Executive Vice-President of Operations Pragash Pillai is no—at least for some customers. But they are working on it.
Pillai spoke before the West Virginia Public Service Commission (PSC) on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at an evidentiary hearing held to show cause as to why the PSC should not impose statutory penalties on the company, or revoke or suspend its cable franchise in West Virginia.
This evidentiary hearing came after members of the PSC held public comment hearings in Beckley, Princeton and Charleston, where customers had the chance to air their grievances against the company.
At the Beckley public hearing, held in August, PSC Chair Charlotte Lane said that they have received more than 2,000 customer complaints since 2019 on everything from poor service to not being able to understand call-center representatives, to slow internet speeds and outages. Following the public comment hearings, staff put together recommendations for the company on ways they believe the company should address the complaints.
Included in the recommendations are:
– Creating a process to track customer service outages lasting more than 24 hours;
– Schedule customer appointment within three days of service request;
– Adequately staff call centers to remove call-back policy and long hold times;
– Use full-time employees, rather than contractors for service and installation work;
– Provide reason to the PSC on varying rate changes; and,
– Open a West Virginia call center.
Staff asked the PSC to impose maximum penalties against Suddenlink for their “failure to provide adequate service quality.”
Pillai, along with Gregory Thomas, senior vice president of customer experience, and Robert Legg, former vice-president of operations, provided testimony during day one of the hearing, which lasted more than nine hours, to address these recommendations in detail.
Pillai spoke first.
During his testimony, Pillai stated that his main goal is to make sure customers “receive the service they expect” by getting ahead of issues before the customer becomes aware of them. He added that when he took over as vice-president of operations in 2020, he noticed a lack of engineering in outside plant maintenance and field service.
One example he provided as to how the company plans to fix the issue is by managing field service operations and outside plant maintenance from the tap to the node. This will ensure the company meets FCC regulations for Cumulative Leakage Index (CLI) compliance. He also stated that he plans to have technicians perform routine drop maintenance or replacement, which will address cable line issues from the customers home to the tap on the pole.
In addressing the recommendation that Suddenlink use in-house employees, rather than contractors, for field service work, Pillai stated that it is “impossible” for 100% of staff to be in-house full-time employees. He continued that technicians are hourly employees while contractors are per-diem. With the use of contractors, he said that the company doesn’t need to hire employees, only to let them go when workload is reduced.
“It’s a constant battle and it’s a constant, I guess, balancing act on what we can hire and what we can retain,” Pillai said. He added that it is a “very costly proposition” to hire someone, give them work and have them quit.
He said that work completed by contractors must meet the same quality as the work completed by full-time Suddenlink employees and that each technician must meet the same metrics for success and be subject to quality compliance checks at the job site. The company that employs the contractor is responsible for making sure that its employees are meeting Suddenlink’s standards.
“You require a lot of hand-holding to make sure we get the quality that we want,” Pillai stated.
“It seems there is a notion that contractor is performing worse than in-house technician,” he continued. “I can show data that in-house technician performing worse than contractor technician. So, I don’t know where the mindset is if it’s contractor, it’s bad. It is not the case.”
He added that some technicians perform better work than contractors, but the main goal is to manage the collective workforce by empowering local management.
Additionally, he said the company looks to hire more full-time employees for the Charleston market but did not provide a date as to when he hopes this will happen.
“In the current environment, I am working towards a 70/30 mix,” Pillai said. “Seventy contractor, thirty in-house.” He said he continues to reassess these needs.
Currently, Suddenlink’s Charleston location has one full-time employee and 25 contractors while Beckley has 33 full-time employees and two contractors, Pillai stated.
When answering a question posed by Lane as to why the company laid-off most of their employees in 2017, Pillai responded that he was unaware of a mass technician lay-off, but did address the call center staff layoffs. “It’s just not sustainable to have call center address the issue when we have fundamental plant issues, which is what I am focusing on to address.”
Regarding customer complaints on service outages, Pillai said that the company does have outages due to storms, accidents, plant issues and more. He explained that outages occur, but the goal is to make sure that the company addresses each outage in a timely manner. When asked why the number of outages has increased in the past two years, Pillai said that he couldn’t give an answer until he sees the year-to-year trend data.
“I can’t tell you if this is excessive or not,” Pillai said. The PSC asked to have outage information provided in post-hearing documentation. At this time, outage data remains confidential at Suddenlink’s request.
Pillai said that Suddenlink is working on completing a company assessment, down to technicians, on providing better customer service, but it will take time to implement changes, especially in plant maintenance. He said by next second quarter, the company should be back to the standards that they were at in 2017.
Gregory Thomas spoke next.
“I am here to figure out what is not working,” said Thomas, who started his position in November 2020.
During his testimony, he stated that call center employees need to better meet the company’s customer service standards.
He said that the company is re-evaluating English language proficiency metrics to meet customer needs. When asked if the company is considering moving call centers back into the United States, Thomas answered that location isn’t a “determining factor for success.” He did note that the company is looking into moving some call center services back to United States vendors, but there are no plans to open a call center in West Virginia to replace the shuttered Parkersburg facility. Call center locations are currently in Tyler, TX, Jamaica, Egypt, Dominican Republic, South Africa and Colombia.
He noted that the company does plan to open three additional retail stores in the state by 2022, but did not say where they would be located.
He also said the company is implementing a new policy of embedding surcharges into customer cable packages to avoid billing confusion. This means that the basic cable package, currently $34.99 plus $15 in surcharges, will now just be $49.99.
When asked why customer bills “jump around,” Thomas responded it is because of anomalies like late fees or the end of a promotional offer, among others. He noted that these bill fluctuations should always be explained to the customer and that Suddenlink will work to ensure there are no surprises on bills. As for active outage situations lasting more than 24-hours, customers may call the company to request a bill credit for service loss.
Ultimately, he said that customer satisfaction is now his focus and he has goals to ensure that it happens.
Legg, who spoke last, answered questions on the conditions of Suddenlink before his position was terminated in 2016. He received a subpoena for the evidentiary hearing.
Legg stated that at the time of his departure, the plant was in good condition. There were about 250 full-time employees throughout the region and they were all adequately trained, most often in the town of Shrewsbury, WV.
He admitted that he believes the current field services operations team is “pretty light,” but noted that came after the Altice acquisition when employees were offloaded after being migrated to Altice Technical Services. Once this occurred, Legg said that every contractor in the local market was called and told to be prepared to immediately take on former employees. He added that the company was even willing to sell contractors surplus trucks to make the transition.
However, he added that while “contractors are a necessary evil” there is a lot of turnover in the field leading to the possibility of poorly trained technicians.
Also, he added that the contracting A-team, consisting of former company-trained employees, quickly found other well-paying, stable job opportunities, leaving less qualified technicians to fill the gap.
He said that although he hasn’t been employed at the company for six years if he had to guess what is happening with them from the field service aspect, he believes they are suffering from a “lack of communication,” or maintenance team employees not being routed correctly to address plant concerns.
He said if the company plans to execute their improvement ideas, they might be successful, at least on the technical side, but he noted that “it’s safe to say” this company has had “some maintenance issues,” which might be a reason for the increase in customer complaints.
Day two of the evidentiary hearing was scheduled to take place on Thursday, Oct. 7, beginning at 1 p.m.