Upgrading customers is always an important way to grow revenues, but many telcos have been flooded with upgrade requests with customers working from home and homeschooling. What do you need to do to be ready to keep up?
Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
Andy Johns: What are your fellow telcos doing to help upgrade subscribers? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns with WordSouth, and I am joined by a friend of the podcast and a friend of WordSouth Mcxie Hurst. Thanks for being on with me.
Mcxie Hurst: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
Andy Johns: So some of you will be hearing this just like a regular podcast on the audio feed. Others are watching the live feed on YouTube or NTCA’s virtual Marketing and Sales Conference. For those of you watching on video, you get to see my cool quarantine haircut that we did on the back deck about two weeks ago, where this side of my hair is way shorter than this side. The Johns family haircuts didn’t go great, but we’re here. If you’re on audio, then I’m sorry that you’re missing it. But Mcxie was on a panel session yesterday at the NTCA conference. It was about upgrading subscribers: Peers, Pressures, and Upgrading Subscribers. And I wanted to take an opportunity to kind of rehash some of that. I think the first thing people remember was the epic chat war that you guys started with. There were discussions of ice cream, beer, and celebrities from the states. It was great. Kurt from Vermont was on there. Rob from Montana was on there. And you, of course, you represented Texas.
Mcxie Hurst: Yes. I guess we were just really taking a moment to tell our story, starting with where we’re from. And, you know, definitely being a rural cooperative broadband provider, your people — that’s the number one thing you always have to take into consideration. And so it was interesting. I really appreciated them asking us to show where we’re from. Of course, there were some similarities with some of the landscapes and some of the beautiful imagery and the lakes. And I mean, the number one ice cream, Blue Bell, versus the number two ice cream, Ben and Jerry. So absolutely, it was great.
Andy Johns: I did not realize how different Vermont and Texas were, but they’re pretty much exact opposites on a lot of things: size and all kinds of stuff. So that’s interesting, but both are excellent. I wanted to get into the substance of the panel. A lot of what you guys were talking about dealt with upgrading subscribers. And I know that this is a time when a lot of people are dealing with a lot of upgrades. If there is a silver lining to everything that’s going on, that’s been the increased focus on just how essential their broadband connection is, their Internet connection has been. What are you guys seeing and what are you guys doing in terms of upgrading folks these days?
Mcxie Hurst: So for our area of rural east Texas, what happened was our school districts went on spring break. So a week in the spring, kids are out. And then, for the most part, they never went back to school. And so that spring break, which was a true break from education in the realm of we’re not going to study, no books. Everyone was relaxing. And then school districts were preparing their learn from home initiatives. So there was probably about a two-week window where the pandemic started to ramp up, but we didn’t see it in our industry because those initiatives had not been placed yet. There had not been initiatives to where instead of coming back from spring break, you’re going to come pick-up a packet. As soon as that information started to be distributed from the school districts, our industry got flipped upside down. We started seeing requests for new service from areas where people have had the opportunity to take our service for years, but hadn’t. There hadn’t been a need in their home for broadband at that point. And all of a sudden there was a very important need. Their children were not going to get the same education opportunities that their neighbors had because they had not previously subscribed to our service. So that was definitely something that we had to navigate. And then just the amount of upgrades, the requests for upgrades. And it wasn’t ” oh, I’d like to try the next speed.” It was, “I need the most you can give me, and I need it yesterday.” So at one point, we were working seven days a week, extended hours, to manage those upgrades and to manage those installations. It was definitely very tiring.
Mcxie Hurst: And there was also this perception that we were “benefiting from an unfortunate situation.” That did get put before us from subscribers. What we did for new customers and for upgrades — so any upgrade that was done, it was at no additional charge until a certain date. So we knew that people were having to increase their monthly budget from something that was completely out of their control. Even adding broadband, which was hard for some of our teams because, like I said, these customers had the opportunity to be our customers previously, and they just chose not to. So there was definitely a how do we show preferential treatment to someone who now needs us, over someone who has been with us for years? And I pointed out that they are increasing their budget, you know, two and three fold because it’s not just an upgrade. They’re bringing on new service, and they had not planned on doing so. So we did offer, I mean, for lack of a better word, we offered a promotion. Basically, we extended a grace period to new subscribers where there was no monthly fee for the first month, and there were no set-up fees, to help them get established with that broadband connection that they needed now to work or to educate.
Andy Johns: Got it. And it is kind of the perfect storm of the school stuff and the work from home stuff. And then, of course, entertainment; there’s that side of it, too, I’m sure. You Know folks screaming “Tiger King” and all that, which is a discussion we probably need to have another day. Well, one of the things that you mentioned in the panel yesterday was brutal honesty and oversharing. And I know you guys have such a big service area. You’ve got a mix of different technologies delivering that. And you’ve got some really long loops. You’ve got some spots fixed wireless. So, you know, it’s not like a real tight area that was all fiber. You guys were having to explain to some folks that you’re getting the top speed you can have right now.
Mcxie Hurst: Oh, yeah. And so we do. So a little bit about Peoples and rural east Texas. And we do have fiber, copper, and a fixed wireless footprint. And we span with services in 17 different counties. And in any of those counties, we could offer all three services. So on a normal day, educating our potential subscribers and our current subscribers of what’s available to them is a challenge. And then you throw in a mix of this high demand for high speed, and we were day in and day out having to explain that you are receiving the fastest speed you can get. And then to hear someone rebuttal that with “but I need faster speeds to work.” I mean, here’s the thing, it broke our hearts because we could not offer anything more. And then from a personal perspective — because we were all going through this together — every one of us needed faster speed. A lot of our employees worked from home during this time period and some still are. And some of them aren’t on our service. So we were seeing it. and we understood, but there was still not much that we could do. And then in our fixed wireless situation, it got to a point where we had to close down towers. Just a brief background on how fixed wireless operates — if you look at a pizza, every slice you take out of that pizza, there is no more pizza left. So some wireless technology operates in a similar fashion that the more pieces you divvy up, the less there is there to take away. And so we had to restrict upgrades and restrict new service. And that was very difficult, because if that subscriber who was our customer had called four days prior, maybe we could process their upgrade, but they didn’t, and then we couldn’t offer them a faster speed. So we went through a lot of challenges like that.
Mcxie Hurst: I mean, I jokingly, which it’s probably too soon to say, but I do say things out loud — so the next time, let’s make sure to. And not to say that there’s going to be another pandemic that puts us in this situation, but I mean, God forbid, if there is, and we’re not better prepared, then that’s on us. So we definitely are continuing to have conversations about what could we have done differently? Was there an opportunity to do something better? Or just maybe not even better, just different. So those were some of the big challenges that we faced.
Andy Johns: You know, I think folks are tuning in right now. We’ve got Gabe and Bernice from Hill Country. We’ve got, it looks like Claudia from Pan Handle. You take a couple of Texas and Oklahoma co-ops, put them together, it’s like the size of Vermont, Kurt’s state. I’m not stirring anything up if Kurt’s tuning in. But it’s basically the size of Vermont, when you put a couple of those together. Well, as you’re looking at it, can you tell us a little bit more about those promotions. How much do you want to get into what those were? Do you feel pretty good talking about those?
Mcxie Hurst: No, I don’t mind talking about them. No, because what we did was we offered any of our current subscribers could upgrade their speed at no additional charge for a two month period. And so basically, I mean, not to say to get through that — you know, what was kind of our thought is, if you were our customer and you were comfortable with a certain investment and were comfortable with a certain speed allocation and now you needed more, let’s give you the opportunity to take what you need during this trying time. And then if you want to come back down to a lower speed tier, absolutely. We’ll be happy to take care of that. And we at this point, we are starting to see some subscribers come back and say, and, you know, school is out of session. We were doing just fine on a different package, and we’d like to be taken back down. And to be honest, I mean, we all know that the economy is definitely seeing some shift as well. We know that that’s going to be the case, that that higher package may have been very beneficial for working from home, educating their kiddos, and entertainment, but it just doesn’t fit into their monthly plan at this time. And so we’re starting to see some subscribers go back down to where they were pre-pandemic.
Mcxie Hurst: As far as new installations, we waived any set-up fees that the subscriber would have and the first month of service. Now, something Peoples does that — it’s kind of a secret — but what we try to do is, we do what we call clean billing. And we do that because when you offer a customer something — for example, you won’t see an increase in your bill in “X” amount of months — and then you have a billing software that does prorations, the subscriber doesn’t understand that for the vast majority. And so what we always try to do is what we call a clean bill, and we make everything effective on the first of the month. And so some people may have gotten, depending on when their install closed out, they may have gotten a longer. So we’re just now starting to see some of those subscribers that came to us due to those situations, and it’ll be interesting to see how they stick around. You know, did we do a good job? Did we do them justice? Are they going to stay with us as subscribers? So we’re very excited to see how this shifts in the next few months.
Andy Johns: Definitely. Well, I know it was a three-person panel yesterday in about 45 minutes and with plenty of talk about who had the best celebrities from each state and all that, was there anything kind of left on the cutting room floor from the session yesterday or anything you didn’t get to discuss during that panel yesterday that you wanted to bring up? If you’ve done the work, you might as well before we wrap up the podcast.
Mcxie Hurst: Absolutely. Yeah, originally we had wanted to not speak so much on the pandemic and how that affected your industry, but when you’re talking about upgrades and bringing on new customers, you can’t not talk about it. Some of the things that I had planned for based on the topic was to kind of talk about some of the war stories that we had. Just tidbits about when you’re looking to do an upgrade of packages and plans, you just got to be cognizant of your billing software. So one particular war story that we have had is that management made the decision to offer faster speed packages. No one will ever, in marketing say, “oh, I think that’s a bad idea.” So we were on board except for the fact that we had done a phenomenal speed bump promotion. So if you remember, I said we like to make everything clean billing. So what we had is this just turmoil of packages that were already effective in a future date and now we’ve gone retroactive to change our overall packages. So even not being a billing software guy, Andy, I can see that you can see how that could present [inaudible].
Andy Johns: That’s true. That’s true.
Mcxie Hurst: So that happened, and it was a challenge. Because what ended up happening is you had communicated to your customers. “Man, you’re going to get this great new package.” When billing was processed, those old codes were still — because they were future-dated — they were still in the account, so they didn’t get to see it. So, you know, that was shame on us. Which we were able to come back and communicate — much like the presentation earlier — you know, you own your mistakes. And we said, “we’re so sorry. We’ll make everything right. We’ll go back. Just pay this much for this month.” Explained what happened. You mentioned brutal honesty. We had to go a little bit there and just explain this was in our billing software. This, this, that. And then our customers were okay. But that initial reaction was “you told me this, and this is what happened.” And so you always have to think about those dynamics. Sometimes the marketing team may have to stand up a little stronger and say, “I know I asked for gig packages, and I’m excited that we’re doing it, but we need to wait about three months until this processes, and then we’ll put it in action.” Because you can have some things that were supposed to be really, really great and really, really good for your subscribers, and it kind of backfire.
Andy Johns: True, in the end, they’re coming out with a better package. It’s just a little ugly getting there.
Mcxie Hurst: Yeah, it takes your nice new shiny car and kind of dings it a little bit. I mean, again, war stories and had we known. We just upgraded and changed our fixed wireless packages to offer subscribers higher speeds for less money. So we went in and we automatically—
Andy Johns: People generally tend to like that.
Mcxie Hurst: They do. They do, except for when the demand skyrockets within two weeks of launching those new fixed wireless packages. Then maybe you’re not seeing the full benefit because of higher usages than we’ve ever seen. There’s nothing we could have done differently there. It’s just one of our war stories that we’ll get to tell years from now when we go, “Man, you remember that one time?” So that’s where the brutal honesty and the oversharing definitely came into play in our company because we told customers how much our usage had increased. We were telling them how much impact it was putting on their specific tower and network. Just trying to give them some visibility into why your service isn’t performing exactly the way you think it should and to say this is what has happened. This is what we typically do to try to prepare for that, and we had no way of foreseeing that. We have talked more to our customers in the past few months than probably ever have or ever will. And while it hasn’t been a bad thing, it has been a lot of challenges.
Andy Johns: Interesting. That’s something interesting to think about. I’ll be interested to hear if other folks are in the same boat. But hopefully that pays dividends long term: building that relationship, that kind of thing, hopefully.
Mcxie Hurst: That’s our goal.
Andy Johns: Well, Mcxie, thank you. I guess you’re enjoying the virtual conference for the most part.
Mcxie Hurst: You know, brutal honesty, I had some severe doubts, but it has been very good. NTCA has done a great job. The program that they have invested in to make it work — being on a panel and seeing it from that perspective and then from the audience perspective as well. So I’m going to say kudos to NTCA and good job in pulling it off with this trying time. I’ve been very, very pleasantly surprised, and we are enjoying it.
Andy Johns: Me too. WordSouth, obviously, we’re happy to have our booth, happy to be a sponsor, and happy that they’ve pulled it off the way that they have. We originally had the sponsorship — I guess I can say this — we originally had the sponsorship to be on everybody’s hotel room key. And can’t really do that virtually. But we’ll get it next year, I guess. But thank you Mcxie for being on this episode. And I’m working on a couple more to come out as well. So thanks for being on.
Mcxie Hurst: You’re welcome.
Andy Johns: She is Mcxie Hurst. She is with Peoples Telephone in Quitman, Texas. I’m Andy Johns with WordSouth. Until we talk again, keep telling your story.