The Bellsouth Broadband Challenge

by | Mar 16, 2001

The other day, I talked about the tremendous broadband opportunity that Bellsouth has in the Atlanta area — the opportunity to use its strengths in reliability and technical support to crush Charter Communications’ cable modem business with its Fast Access DSL. But first, Bellsouth has to learn how to sell DSL. I’ve already described the […]

The other day, I talked about the tremendous broadband opportunity that Bellsouth has in the Atlanta area — the opportunity to use its strengths in reliability and technical support to crush Charter Communications’ cable modem business with its Fast Access DSL.

But first, Bellsouth has to learn how to sell DSL. I’ve already described the problem that I had finding a salesperson more intelligent than the vegetables on my dinner plate. But unfortunately, that’s not Bellsouth’s biggest challenge.

Bellsouth’s biggest challenge is…….drum roll…….its inability to develop relationships with its customers. Specifically, Bellsouth has fundamental, fatal flaws in their internal telephone systems that make it impossible for a Bellsouth salesperson to own a customer.

Not exactly what you want to hear about a telecommunications company, is it? But as Madeline Kahn said to Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles, “Oh, it’s twue, it’s twue, it’s twue, it’s twue!”

Once again, allow me to elucidate.

The other day, when I was trying to place my order for DSL, I finally made contact with someone of reasonable intelligence at Bellsouth, a young lady named Brenda Selph. I spent the better part of an hour discussing my business requirements with her and having her design a solution to fit my needs. I explained to Brenda that it was very important that I be able to contact her again, as I did not want to have to work with somebody else who was not familiar with my business requirements. I told her in direct terms that I wanted somebody at Bellsouth to own me as a customer. She gave me her full name and extension, and told me that I could reach her again by dialing the toll free number for DSL services and then entering her extension.


Let me tell you something friends. There is absolutely no way to ever speak with the same person twice at Bellsouth. It can’t be done. It doesn’t matter if you have their name and extension. It doesn’t even matter if you know their physical location. It just cannot be done. You see, Bellsouth’s internal phone systems have no call transfer capabilities, and Bellsouth’s sales employees have no direct dial capabilities.

Here is how I know that to be true (or “twue”). Later that evening, I wanted to follow up with Brenda on something (she had told me that she worked until 8:00 P.M. each night.) That’s when I discovered that getting in contact with her was impossible. In point of fact, you cannot dial an extension from the toll free number, so here extension number was useless. Over a period of two hours, I went level by level through seven — count ’em — seven levels of Bellsouth supervisors before I reached somebody who did whatever was necessary to track Brenda down. And even he had no way to contact Brenda directly — the best he could do was send her manager an e-mail asking Brenda to contact me. Let me tell you: when seven levels of supervisors tell you that there is no way to contact anybody at Bellsouth directly, you are well on your way to believing them, no matter how impossible that sound.

So knowing how to sell DSL isn’t Bellsouth’s biggest problem. Bellsouth’s biggest challenge is their inability to own a customer, .because you can’t own a customer if you can’t develop a relationship with a customer, and you can’t develop a relationship with the customer unless the customer can contact you. DUH!

At this point I was so very, very angry that I started digging through Bellsouth’s web site until I found the name of the Ralph de la Vega, President of Broadband Access Services for Bellsouth. Finding Ralph’s name on Bellsouth’s website was in and of itself an accomplishment — Bellsouth does a great job of keeping the names of their management team well buried several layers deep on their website..

I called Bellsouth’s corporate offices the next day and asked to be connected to Mr. de la Vega’s office. I spoke with his secretary and described my nightmarish experience trying to become a Bellsouth DSL customer. She suggested that I compose an e-mail message, send it to her, and that she would personally see to it that he received and read it.

And therein lies the story what may well be the beginning of Bellsouth’s redemption — one secretary, Kathleen Hawthorne, who decided that this customer had a serious complaint. One secretary who decided to own me as a customer.

Within half an hour of sending my e-mail, I received a telephone call from a member of Ralph’s team, who spent an hour with me taking down additional details of my experiences.

Then last weekend, Ralph de la Vega called me at home and we talked for over an hour.

I described my initial sales experience with Ralph (Yes sir, I know what cable modem is. Do you have 14.4., 28.8, or a 56K connection?) and he was aghast.

I explained that I was a small business, that I wanted somebody at Bellsouth to own me, and that owning me and implementing DSL successfully in my business was the key to winning additional business in my neighborhood.

Ralph told me that somehow I had been routed incorrectly, and that Bellsouth has a sales force dedicated to small businesses from which somebody would be assigned to own me as a customer. I told Ralph that if this were true, there was no way to find out how to contact this organization from their web site. Ralph surfed the Bellsouth web site while we were on the phone and was genuinely surprised to discover that what I was saying was true.

I gave Ralph a lot of input on how to sell DSL, and he seemed to value that input. I told him that you can’t sell DSL using order takers a script. I told him that residential customers are becoming more and more sophisticated. Many, like myself, have home networks, and they have a lot of technical questions and concerns that must be addressed in the sales cycle. Many, like myself, have had extremely negative experiences with another broadband services provider and want to make sure they are not jumping from the fire into the volcano. I told Ralph that his sales people have to know how to compare DSL to their competition, cable modem, because anyone contemplating a change from cable modem to DSL would want such a comparison. He agreed with me that Bellsouth needs to learn how to sell against its competition.

I told Ralph that Bellsouth had an opportunity to crush Charter Communications using their competitive advantages of reliability and technical support, but only if they knew how to sell their product and how to own the customer.

I told Ralph that the biggest problem in broadband was not the last mile, but the last 500 feet — getting things set up and working inside the customer’s house, and that companies who abdicated their responsibility at the telephone jack would fail.

Ralph promised to assign a small business account manager to me, and also promised that this person would call me on Monday. (I am happy to report that Ralph followed through and that I did in fact hear from somebody on Monday.) He also said that if 50 people or more in my neighborhood were interested in converting from cable modem to DSL, he would set up a special phone number for them to order, and that he would assign a special team to do the conversion in one weekend.

Ralph also told me a lot about the reliability of Bellsouth networks, which was not a surprise to me given my previous positive experience using Bellsouth ISDN services and as my ISP. Ralph told me that Bellsouth’s diagnostic capabilities were so sophisticated that if a node on the network goes out and more than 50 users are affected, he automatically gets paged. “Bingo,” I said. I explained that Charter Communications’ biggest problem was that I was calling to tell them they had a problem, when they in fact should have already been aware of it and should be telling me what they are doing to fix it.

All in all, it was a very satisfying phone call, and I hope it was the start of something good, because quite frankly, after what I have been through the past three years, I would love to see Bellsouth succeed at the expense of Charter Communications. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to organize a trip to Charter’s offices in Roswell, Ga. and return a carload of cable modems at once.

But hey, there’s nothing magical here folks. In a former life, I worked for MSA, a now-defunct mainframe software company. MSA had a motto, “People buy from people,” the essence of which is that complex sales can only be made by establishing a business relationship with a customer, not by using order takers and scripts. And make no mistake about it, DSL or any broadband service is still a complex sale and installation.

I was sharing all of my experiences with my neighbor, a telecommunications expert who is well aware of Bellsouth’s strengths and weaknesses. He was clearly in awe of what I had accomplished. (He had told me that I would never hear directly from Ralph.) He laughed and told me that I should change the name of my business from ADL Consulting Inc. to Quixote Productions, Inc.

Well, that’s my strength, I guess. Born and bred in GE’s tough and tumble style of manufacturing management, I will beat the hell out of somebody until I get the proper behavior and results. Take me on, and I will wear you down until it is more painful for you to have me as a problem than it is to fix my problem. The sooner you learn that about me, the easier your life will be.

But I really would much prefer not having to beat the hell out of anybody. I would really prefer to spend my time using my broadband connection, rather than complaining about it. And I hope that when my DSL is installed in July, columns like these will become a thing of the past.

All I want is somebody to own me as a customer — somebody committed to solving my business problems. And now I have Ralph de la Vega’s phone number and e-mail address.

Postscript: Ralph’s secretary also tried to locate my initial sales contact, Brenda Selph. She couldn’t find a way to contact her either. Where are you, Brenda? Come in from the cold — there’s soup by the fire.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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