In partnership with Lead Tennessee Radio, WordSouth has four telco managers discussing how COVID-19 has impacted their operations. This episode includes Mark Patterson, William Bradford, Bruce Mottern and Jonathan West.
Lead Tennessee Radio: https://www.tennesseebroadband.com/category/lead-tennessee-radio/
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: How are other telcos adapting during this Covid-19 pandemic? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns, with WordSouth. And we’ve got something a little different for you in these next three episodes. We’re doing a special three-part series talking to telco managers about how their companies have adjusted to doing business in these unusual times. These interviews were part of episodes from the Lead Tennessee Radio podcast, which is a podcast produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association with help from WordSouth. You can find that podcast on your podcast platform of choice and learn more about the association at tennesseebroadband.com. If you go there, you’ll be able to hear the full-length episodes of the entire discussion. But we’ve pulled out just the sections about how each company is adapting to the pandemic, then we put those together for you here. Hopefully, you’ll appreciate the insights. The voice that you will hear that may be unfamiliar to you during the podcast asking some of the questions will be Levoy Knowles. He is the host of Lead Tennessee Radio and the executive director at the Tennessee Broadband Association. If you’ve been in the industry awhile, you probably know him from his long tenure at Ben Lomand Connect in Middle Tennessee.
Andy Johns: I think you’ll enjoy these. Between speakers, I’ll hop back on and introduce the next speaker. In this first episode, the first of three, you’ll hear from Mark Patterson, who is the general manager and CEO at Highland Telephone on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, serving parts of both states. You’ll hear from William Bradford, who’s CEO of United in Middle Tennessee. You will hear from Bruce Mottern, who is the manager of state government affairs with TDS. And lastly, you’ll hear from Jonathan West, who is CEO and general manager at Twin Lakes, also in Tennessee. So I think they’ll offer good insight on how their companies are adapting. And I will catch back up between each speaker.
Mark Patterson: We’re like all the other companies. It came on us very quickly. States put out rules or regulations, and we had to respond to them almost overnight. We ended up closing our lobbies to the public. We dispersed our workforce. We have most of our CSRs from our customer service personnel working from home. Our service techs are no longer reporting to central locations. They are being dispatched remotely. So they take their vehicle home with them at night. When they start work at 8:00 in the morning, they use an iPad to pick up their orders. And they’re dispatched through the day over their iPads, giving them additional orders and things to do. Construction crews, we have dispersed them in [inaudible] locations. We have two separate crews so that they’re not around each other, in case we did have an outbreak and had to quarantine one crew, so we would have another crew left available. So we’ve done that.
Mark Patterson: The customers seem to have adapted very, very well. We have several different ways to pay your bill. We have kept our drive-thrus open. We’ve kept two people in each location with the drive-thrus. We’ve provided them with masks and gloves. We’ve had a good turnout of customers paying that way. We’ve seen tremendous increases of people pay using online bill pay or pay-by-phone. So we’ve actually seen people adapt to different ways to pay their bills and do stuff. And, you know, we’ve really not seen a drop in productivity. We have seen some interesting things. We saw about a year’s worth of bandwidth usage growth in three weeks. Luckily, we had been planning. Right after the first year and had already started and increased our bandwidth to the cloud, so we had the capability of handling it. But we have seen tremendous increases. And we’ve seen quite a bit of demand for orders. We’ve seen probably somewhere between 150 and 200 new installs a month of people wanting broadband. So it’s been a challenging time, but it’s been a rewarding time.
Andy Johns: Again, that was Mark Patterson. He is the CEO of HTC, Highland Telephone, up at the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Our next speaker from the Lead Tennessee Radio podcast, we will have William Bradford, who is CEO of United Communications.
William Bradford: I’m really proud of the team here. You know, fortunately, we were sort of on the back end of a multi-year process to really change the way all our internal systems work. And it enabled us very quickly in early March to really mobilize the majority of our employees and move them to work from home. So we found pretty quickly and pretty easily our employees were able to take laptops and monitors home. Get up and running and serve our customers from day one. I mean, literally overnight, I think we had about 75 percent of our employees migrate to working from home. And over the following week or two — as we were able to get more laptops and supplies in — we’ve pretty much gone to 100 percent mobile workforce. You’ve [inaudible] our field staff. We’ve kept our field operations running at 100 percent because we’ve seen just a huge increase in demand for broadband. But even our field staff, we’ve changed all their shifts, so no field staff has to be at the warehouse at the exact same time. Everybody’s got a 30-minute window. They can be on the lot each week. So pretty amazing how our team adapted. I feel like they really stepped up to the challenge. The most challenging part is, at the same time we were changing the way we work, we saw a huge increase in the demand for our product. I think from February to March, we saw over 30 percent increase in Internet traffic in one month alone. We saw a record number of requests for new services in the month of March. So at the same time, we’re asking everybody to change what they were doing, we saw a massive increase in demand. Now obviously, we’re asking everybody to take care of themselves, take care of their families, and our customers are asking us to take care of them, too. So really seeing it from all fronts, and the team did amazing. It really, you know, as the CEO and as a leader, it’s really amazing to see how well the community stepped up, how well the United employees stepped up. It was a challenging — very, very challenging — month, but they made it through it.
Levoy Knowles: Wow. That’s amazing that you’ve been that versatile, particularly with the increased request for your services. That shows that I think the community and the world in general is seeing the importance of broadband as a required utility.
William Bradford: Oh, no doubt. I can’t tell you how many customers have emailed saying “I’ve got to work from home starting a Wednesday, what can you do to get me installed in two days? My kids are trying to get fired up and study from home. We need better Internet.” Telemedicine is also sort of the third leg of that. So between telemedicine, work from home, and study from home, and really just unwinding at home. Streaming at home has become more important, having a little entertainment. We’ve seen increases across all those lines, and so we’re glad to step up and do our part to meet that need.
Andy Johns: I hope you appreciate the insights there from William Bradford. He is the CEO of United Communications. The next speaker will be Bruce Mottern. He is the manager of state government affairs with TDS.
Bruce Mottern: Well, TDS has made a series of measures reflecting consideration for, not only the safety of our employees, staff, and techs, but also the customers. One of the things that we did right away was we established a response team made by our leadership team that meets daily to react to new information and trends. They focus on current and anticipated safety measures, supply chain issues, and marketing sales. We also put together personal hygiene kits for our techs that include disinfecting wipes, gloves, sanitizers, and disposable cleaning cloths. We pass those out to our direct sales team and our field service team, who regularly interact with customers. We also suspended non-essential business travel and implemented work-at-home. Many of our staff are working from home. We implemented a video software tool called TechSee. The technology allows our technicians to connect with customers to share videos and images to get real-time technical support and help folks without having to be there in person. Basically, the tech will send a message to the customer. They hit the link, accept the terms, and they are connected. The feedback so far has been extremely positive.
Bruce Mottern: One thing, I’d say the impetus for this is the coronavirus, but I think this is something that will continue long after the virus is over. Our network is built to maintain anticipated future demands. We’ve anticipated the increased usage demands. We’ve maximized our available broadband width. We’re fully staffed. It’s monitored. Again, our network is a robust, fully redundant network. So we’re doing a good job managing it. But we’ve not seen or experienced any issues from a customer standpoint. [Inaudible} are aware of the FCC pledge early on. TDS signed on to that pledge, and recently there’s some activity and that pledge will be continued through June.
Levoy Knowles: Actually our industry has had to kind of reinvent ourselves, and TDS has been very instrumental in getting it done in a very timely, efficient manner. And I know you serve several states, but you’ve got a very significant portion in Tennessee of the consumers. And everyone appreciates TDS’s help and making sure that these customers stay connected. Even though the first thing we may think about is power, but the next thing is robust broadband. And even though with the increased demand, your network has been able to sustain this increased demand. And it’s very commendable, TDS and your work that your folks have done to make sure that people can stay connected.
Bruce Mottern: Well, Levoy, we’ve been investing, really starting back heavily in 2017 to Connect America funds mixed-in with existing corporate capital. We’ve had hundreds of projects to expand and improve our broadband. And so we’re dealing with the coronavirus, the increase in usage in the stay-at-home, and students staying at home and taking online courses. Our network is ready. It’s capable. The bandwidth is there. So we’re in very good shape from a network perspective based on our building out broadband here in Tennessee.
Andy Johns: You’re listening to Bruce Mottern there. He is the manager of state government affairs with TDS. The next speaker, the last one for this episode, will be Jonathan West, who is CEO and general manager of Twin Lakes.
Levoy Knowles: What kind of adjustments have you had to make to continue serving your customers?
Johnathan West: Well, Levoy, I tell you, as this has gone on, the adjustments have been frequent and growing in severity as time progressed. We started out not really knowing what this thing looked like. So we laid it out in four phases. We established that early on that we felt like there would be stages. And we thought it would take quite a bit of time to get from stage one to our stage four. But the reality is we got stage four very quickly. For us, that meant full PPE gear for our service technicians, ops techs, that are out there in the field. As you know, and as I suspect most of the people listening know, we’re considered an essential service. Critical infrastructure from the Homeland Security’s perspective and from people that are just stuck in their homes and their businesses that are working remotely. They know that telecom is a very important part of what they do and the broadband services that are provided.
Johnathan West: So we have to stay out there. We have to continue to support, provide, and install the various services. So the first thing we think of is the health and safety of our employees. So how do we keep our customers connected and keep our employees safe while doing it? So a lot of those first things was just procuring the PPE. It’s been a discussion all across the country, but finding the masks, finding the hand sanitizer, finding the gloves, the boots, and the suits that are necessary for certain situations. And so just making sure that the first thing we thought of is, “how do we keep our people safe?” And we thought PPE right off the top of the hat. Then we kind of moved into other thoughts about closing the office to foot traffic. And we did that early. We actually closed our lobbies very soon. We closed our drive-thrus. And we did that primarily to conserve PPE and to keep our employees safe. So, you know, the amount of PPE we had, we wanted to dedicate it to those that were out there, that there’s really no other way to do their job except to go to the homes and businesses and do everything else we could. So we followed the pledge from the FCC, and we waived late fees. We didn’t disconnect anybody because they hadn’t paid because of the offices closed. We stayed on the phone. We chat. We email. We do phone conversations. So we’ve supported everyone remotely. We mailed out a lot of C.P.E. We’ve mailed things that we could. But we closed those offices, kept the techs, you know, fully geared up, making sure they were aware of how to be safe and what it takes to be safe. But again, we just tried to be as flexible with our customers as possible while maintaining and supporting them. We’ve got today about 48 employees that are working in the normal way. They report from home, but they go to offices, they go to businesses. About 90 of our employees are working from home. And so a vast majority of our people are at home.
Jonathan West: Now, as the pandemic starts to — I don’t want to say wind down; I don’t know that that’s the right word — but I know we’re going into a different phase across the country and trying to start businesses back up. We’re now in the process of evaluating bringing those people back in. How do we open the lobbies back up? The drive-thrus will open very shortly, and then other things. We’ve got basically a four-stage approach to coming back to work. And so lots of changes. Lots of things changed and lots of things stayed the same. Customers were number one. We are making sure they’re served, but making sure our employees were safe. We’re right there beside that. And we’ve just made a lot of adjustments for different payment types. We actually pay our customers if they’ll pay online. And so there are just things to encourage this new normal.
Andy Johns: Well, that should wrap up this episode. I hope that you enjoyed these insights. I hope that you will tune into part two and part three coming up. And until we talk again, I’m Andy Johns, your host. Keep telling your story.