In partnership with Lead Tennessee Radio, WordSouth has four telco managers discussing how COVID-19 has impacted their operations. This episode includes Jason Shelton, Bob Mouser, Johnny McClanahan, and Bill Franklin.
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.
This is part three of a three-part series that we’re doing here on StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns, with WordSouth. And I hope you’ve enjoyed parts one and two of this special series we’re doing. If this is the first one you’ve listened to, we are putting together some interviews here from Lead Tennessee Radio, which is a podcast produced by the Tennessee Broadband Association with help from WordSouth. We’ve got different managers from different telcos who are talking through how their companies are adapting to the unusual times we find ourselves in with isolation orders and concerns about the coronavirus.
This will be a little bit different. The interviewer that you hear at times during these sessions is Levoy Knowles. He is the executive director of the Tennessee Broadband Association and is a former general manager at Ben Lomand Connect. I think there’ll be some good insight for you here. I’ll be back on between the speakers to tell you who’s coming next. In this episode, we have four speakers who I hope you’re excited to hear from. First up will be Jason Shelton, who’s general manager at Loretto Telecom in Middle Tennessee. Next up will be Bob Mouser, who is V.P. and general manager of hometown services with Ritter Communications, based in Arkansas. Third on this episode will be Johnny McClanahan, CEO and general manager of NCTC in LaFayette, Tennessee. And then lastly will be Bill Franklin, who’s general manager at Scott County Telephone Cooperative in Scott County, Virginia. I hope that you enjoy these insights, and I will see you between the breaks.
Jason Shelton: Well, first off, we have done similar to what other telecom companies across the country, which is shutting our customer service area, of course. We were already undergoing an office renovation, and so some of our employees were kind of already spread out across different areas as it was. Our customer service area was actually already in a temporary location, so our customers were already somewhat used to going into a different area, or a different location to pay bills and those sorts of things. And we have a fairly high amount of walk-in traffic. Once the pandemic started, of course, we were able to take a look at some of our offices and figure out where we could put certain employees and essentially create as much social distancing within our workplace as much as possible without having to have too many people located in one particular location at a time. Everything that we did, like I said, was to try and create as much distance between others. And we avoided gatherings of any more than two people.
When it came to customary installs, we tried to do — in the early stages of the pandemic — we tried, frankly, to avoid going into a customer’s house as much as we could. We weren’t really sure — just as I’m sure a lot of people — how rapidly this was going to spread, especially in our area. So what we did is we did as much outside prep work as we possibly could. And that essentially enabled us to gain some time to figure out how this was going to impact our area and what were some of the best practices that were being done across the industry. And like I said, it enabled us to build some time so that we were able to go through and do a lot of preparatory work so that eventually we were able to go inside the homes. Or even in some scenarios, we did temporary installs by handing equipment to the customer, either through the window or through the door, that sort of thing. So we also had gone through a billing conversion earlier this year. And SmartHub, which is a product of NISC, was huge for us. We wanted customers to try and take advantage of online payments and even submitting trouble tickets online as much as possible. That actually helped us out quite a bit. And I’m looking forward to that continuously being a way for us to be able to take care of customers without actually having to deal with, you know, either a transition of paper or money or what have you. So there are several things, you know, obviously very similar to what other telcos have done. But again, with the remotes and stuff like that we have, I think that enabled us to be a little bit more unique in how we handled our day to day operations.
Andy Johns: That was Jason Shelton, who’s general manager at Loretto Telecom. We appreciate his insights there. Next up, we will have Bob Mouser, who is V.P. and general manager of hometown services with Ritter Communications.
Bob Mouser: Ok, I’ll talk about customers first. So we’ve done a multitude of things for our customers. Like a lot of people, we have suspended our disconnects for non-pay, although I have really been pleased with our customers. In the wake of all the information about unemployment and everything else, our customers have really continued to pay their bills, which has been very, very encouraging. We are crediting any data overage charges that would have been a result of more and more people at home trying to school from home, work from home. We are giving credit on all those overage charges. We went ahead and just increased the bandwidth on our most popular broadband speed here. We just doubled that at no charge to the customer, again, thinking that we’re going to have more people at home than normal. And that would also cut down on those data overage charges as well. We’ve been doing free installations on any kind of new service or upgrade to service. And we actually have expanded our program for low-income students called School Student Connect. It’s a discount program for low-income, and we’ve expanded that program a little bit. We’ve worked with several schools and even put some of these on our buildings that create some Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots for those kids, especially early on in the process to be able to continue to school from home.
On the employee side, I guess like everybody else, we have closed our walk-in traffic to our offices. We have just about everybody that can, working from home. And yes, that’s been a challenge, but we’re getting better at that. We’re learning how to do that. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the techs on the field. Those guys are out there on the front lines. So our construction groups, our installation and repair groups, are working through this, trying to struggle with demand versus trying to stay safe and keep everybody safe as well. Early on, we had some issues with our personal protection equipment. We had ordered, I think, like 5000 of those N-95 masks really early on in the process. And we were guaranteed every day or so that those were on their way. And then finally at the end, we didn’t get those. So we’re hoping those went to some medical groups somewhere, and not just sent overseas or something. Now, most recently, we’re good with the masks, sanitizer, gloves, wipes, and that kind of thing. We’ve also initiated a little hero pay, a little bump in those field techs’ hourly wage. Just our appreciation for those guys being out there on the front lines and doing what they’re doing. You know, they’ve had to be really creative. We’ve stopped our inside-the-home visits a few weeks ago unless something’s an emergency, an all-out, or something like that. And those guys have been really creative in trying to keep on deploying services and install services. And, you know, walking through a customer, even though it’s at a distance — from a face-to-face kind of conversation or through the door — helping those customers, who are most likely are self-installing. So like I said, they’ve had to be creative in this process, and we really appreciate that group.
Andy Johns: That was Bob Mouser, who is vice president and general manager of hometown services with Ritter Communications. Our next speaker, next to the last speaker here being interviewed, is Johnny McClanahan, who is the general manager and CEO at NCTC in Lafayette, Tennessee.
Johnny McClanahan: So, Levoy, I’ve been at North Central for about 30 years, and this is something that we’ve never had to address before. So it was kind of has been and still is a learning curve for us to try to determine what to do and how to do it and the routines to go through. Some of the things that we did, we did close our lobbies to the public on March 18th, and that was for the safety of our customers and our employees. We have left our drive-thru windows open throughout the period to collect payments and deposits, et cetera. We do offer credit card payments and bank drafts, along with a night depository for our customers. We’ve started telecommuting. We’ve got several of our employees telecommuting. In fact, the business offices are just about deserted right now. We do have some engineering people and also marketing personnel, also telecommuting. And it’s worked really well for us. Once we got used to the telecommuting and the routines, and it’s worked well. The customers seem to really like it as well. Our marketing department has kept our Facebook, Twitter, and websites updated to keep our customers on any kind of changes or developments. Due to the large number of people that are working from home and needing service, we [continued to] install Internet and phone services during the pandemic. Our customers once again have expressed appreciation that we’re continuing to install the Internet and the broadband services. We provided PPE — personal protective equipment — to our employees that deal with the public, such as the masks, the gloves, boot coverings for installers, and any other customer-facing employees. We’ve got disinfectant wipes, encourage frequent hand washing, along with disinfecting work areas. One thing that we did do, Levoy, when we first started this was we gave thermometers to all our employees, so they’re supposed to take their temperatures every day before they come to work. And that’s worked out really well, too. And so far, knock-on-wood, we’ve not nad anybody that’s got the COVID-19 yet.
Andy Johns: And our last speaker of this series will be Bill Franklin. He is the general manager at Scott County Telephone Cooperative in Scott County, Virginia.
Bill Franklin: We’ve all been affected by this COVID-19 pandemic. And, you know, the first thing we had to do is to develop a policy. And, as you know, you guys helped us by having a lot of industry meetings. We had meetings with people in Virginia and North Carolina; we are in two or three different associations. And everybody was kind of working together to come up with a policy. Then once we did that, we kind of went by whatever state health officials were recommending for us to do, and basically act in that the policy. But somethings, we have done, about probably 15 to 20 of our employees are working from home today. And you know that basically is trying to protect our workforce. And, for our customer service, we closed the lobby. We still have the drive-thru open, but we’re encouraging our customers to use wireless or some kind of digital form of payment. We’ll still have people that mail payments in, but we still have a few that use the drive-thru. You know, being in a rural area, we have a lot of walk-in traffic. So we’re kind of using this as an opportunity to try to educate people on how they can pay, other than coming into the office. You know, we’ve got a phone system and stuff set up. So you know, when somebody calls in it works just like it always does. If they’re in the loop for customer service, [it will] rotate to the person that is not on the line and, you know, or the lady that’s running the. You know, the primary phone, she can tell who’s on the phone and who’s off the phone. So if she needs to pass a call, she can pass it to somebody that’s not serving a customer at the moment. So actually, that’s going pretty good. You know, it took a day or two to get used to it, but it’s gone really good.
We’ve got all the [inaudible] guys; they are working from home and basically doing the same thing. We’ve taken our line crew and divided them up into two groups. And we’ve taken our splicers and divided them up into two groups. And they’re working four, 10 hour days. And so basically, they report at different times. And we kind of rotate that so, you know, one day, one group comes in at 7:00, and then the next group comes in at 7:30, and then 8:00. Then the next week, we rotate that. But, you know, two groups work Monday through Thursday, and the other two groups work Tuesday through Friday. So with them reporting at different times, they just kind of pass. About the time one group gets outfitted for the day, they’re going out the door, and the other group is just coming in. But two days a week, they don’t even pass, because on Monday and Friday there’s only the one group there. So that’s kind of worked good. We’ve actually maybe been a little bit more efficient by going the 10 hour days, and we’re actually getting more production out of people. Now, I don’t know if it’s [because] they’re scared, and they don’t want to — they don’t kill any time talking or anything. They don’t socialize; we’re practicing social distancing. But actually we’ve been more productive the last two months. So that’s been a pleasant surprise. But then we’ve had a lot of demand. Our installers are garaging at home. They got their tablets, and they get their orders for their travels on their tablets, and they just come by the warehouse to pick up equipment to either do an install or an upgrade.So, you know, they’re communicating with their supervisor, but that they’re not coming to the office, you know. And everybody’s doing their time either on their tablets or their laptops at home. And so we’ve kind of eliminated that. [They’d] come in in the evening, and we had three or four places with the outside guys would enter their time. And so we’ve eliminated that congregating around those workstations, you know, to enter time.
But you know I was talking about, all of us co-ops provide essential services. And we really take that seriously. The schools turned out early. We’ve had a lot of people that’s got sent home. In other words, they’ve been given an option. I guess either get laid-off or work from home. So, you know, the school system contacted us and said, “what can you do?” Well, you know, they’re playing us a pretty big amount of money each month for bandwidth. And, you know, because they’ve got all these computer labs. And actually, they’ve got a 10 gig connection to each school. So, you know, they’ve not been using that connection. So what we told them we do any school-age kid, we would upgrade their broadband connection basically for free for ninety days. Because they sent all of them home with their Chrome books, and basically they are finishing out the year from home. And so we extended that offer to anybody that got sent home that they couldn’t get paid unless they had a broadband connection. So we made that same offer to them if they had a connection or we would even install them at a lower connection, and then we’d upgrade them for the 90 days. Hopefully, in 90 days, it’ll be over, but if it’s not, we’ll extend that. We’ll extend that service to them. So we’ve literally done about 400 installs since February and probably 400 or 500 upgrades.
Andy Johns: You’ve been listening to Bill Franklin, who is general manager at Scott County Telephone Cooperative in Scott County, Virginia. I hope that you have enjoyed insights from him as well as Johnny McClanahan, Bob Mouser, and Jason Shelton during this episode. I hope that this series of three episodes has been helpful to help you understand how your fellow telcos have been adjusting to these unusual times. And I hope that you will continue to tune in for the next episode that we have. My name’s Andy Johns. I’m your host with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.