FairPoint: Customer service getting better

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 8:05am
John Curran, The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Under fire for its poor performance, telephone provider FairPoint Communications Inc. told Vermont regulators it has reduced wait times for consumers who contact call centers and has sharply cut the number who give up before they ever speak to an operator.

In a filing with the Vermont Public Service Board, the company that bought out Verizon Communications' landline and Internet business in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont said the average wait time for callers to its Consumer Call Center was now 9 seconds, and 89 percent of calls were answered within 20 seconds. The company said those times were faster than at any point since the company began service in February. The filing also said:

  • The average wait time for calls to a Business Call Center was now 16 seconds.
  • The average wait time for calls to FairPoint's repair center was 19 seconds, which is better than at any point since the "cutover" from Verizon.
  • The average rate for abandoned calls – when callers hang up before a customer service representative answers – was down to 1 percent for consumers and 2 percent for business calls and repair calls. In March, 59 percent of consumer center callers were hanging up early, according to FairPoint.
  • 1 percent of customer bills now are known to have errors, compared with about 5 percent in April and May.

"In short, FairPoint believes that it has made, and continues to make, substantial progress to improve its systems and processes that will result in continued customer service improvements to levels which will exceed those prior to cutover," said company President Peter Nixon in testimony submitted to the board.

But he said FairPoint was still having trouble with new order installations and wasn't filling them as efficiently as Verizon did.

FairPoint, which is based in Charlotte, N.C., bought Verizon's northern New England business in 2008 and formally began service last February. It has been plagued with problems, including erroneous bills, poor call response and delayed completion of new order installations. Customers, in turn, have deluged regulators with complaints, wanting action.

On Sept. 10, FairPoint executives met with regulators from the states in Derry, N.H., to press for answers and were told it would be another two months before the company has a clear plan to resolve its customer service, billing and other problems.

The pressure is perhaps highest in Vermont, where the state Department of Public Service – which represents Vermont customers – questioned the company's fitness to operate in a July 14 filing with the Public Service Board.

"We felt it necessary to ask the board to conduct an investigation to see if [FairPoint] could demonstrate that they are capable of meeting their obligations," said department spokesman Stephen Wark.

The board, in turn, gave FairPoint until Sept. 10 to respond but then granted a one-week extension when FairPoint asked for it.

In Thursday's filing, FairPoint said some of its problems stemmed from an overwhelming volume of calls – 80,000 a week immediately following the cutover, twice as many as normal.

Wark said late Thursday it was too soon to comment on FairPoint's 39-page response, which was filed late in the day.

"We want more time to review it and digest it with our staff. But our concerns remain: How is this company, going forward, going to be able to meet their requirements and get back on track? We're going to take our time to review it closely and decide based on where the evidence leads us," he said.

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