Monopoly to adopt friendlier approach

ONE of Hong Kong's largest monopolies with a reputation for its aloofness from customers is doing an about turn in a bid to prepare for impending competition.

Hongkong Telecom, the biggest provider of fixed telecommunications network services, has pledged it will pay more attention to customer needs and provide value for money.

The company's renewed interest in customer services has been prompted by the entry of three new telecom service providers - Hutchison Communications, New T&T and New World Telephone.

Hongkong Telecom deputy chief executive officer Peter Howell-Davies said the company was prepared to take on the competition.

'The mobile industry is already highly competitive as is the equipment supply area,' Mr Howell-Davies said.

'We have good experience in operating in a competitive environment. We are now about to see competition in the local telephony market, but we have had quite a while to restructure Telecom to meet competition. We are much more customer focused.' Better focus on customer service appears to be the key message the company is seeking to get across.

During an hour-long interview, Mr Howell-Davies highlighted the customer service issue on several occasions.

However, he said the company would not try to offer the cheapest service. It would concentrate instead, on providing value for money.

'We are not going to be the cheapest telephone company,' he said.

'We are going to position ourselves as the company with the best value for money. It is my objective to make sure they [customers] choose Hongkong Telecom over other companies.

'The three new competitors will come and grow the size of the market, with new services that will be attractive to the market. We are going to be a major player.' He said the company would lose market share as a result of competition, but it should not be seen as an indicator of failure because 'there will always be people wanting to try new services'.

'We will compete robustly with [the new licence holders] in the marketplace to meet the aspirations of our staff, shareholders, and customers,' Mr Howell-Davies said.

Customer service was the key to becoming more competitive, he said.

'We need to work out individual customers' needs and ensure that we can modify our services in order to meet their requirements,' he said.

It was important to pay attention to customer responses, Mr Howell-Davies said.

To do so, the company had set up various customer-focused groups to listen to, among other things, the needs of residential customers.

'We have the luxury today that every Telecom employee is a customer,' Mr Howell-Davies said, adding that this provided a good insight into needs of individual users.

'Customers want ever-increasing services with better value for money,' he said.

'That is a common trait around the world. We have reshaped the position of the company to meet customers' needs and have striven to become a more friendly organisation.' To do the latter, the company had focused on placing 'friendly, yet knowledgeable, people' in positions of public contact to 'ensure that customers don't get transferred around'.

'We do track customer satisfaction ratings on a regular basis and move to meet changing needs,' Mr Howell-Davies said.

Besides, some of Hongkong Telecom's new competitors were among the company's big customers.

'We would want to provide them with a good service so they can do the same to their customers,' Mr Howell-Davies said.

He declined to elaborate on strategic plans aimed at competing with rival service providers.

'I, like the other three, will keep the marketing plans close to chest,' he said.

Hongkong Telecom, the leader in digital cellular services, would continue to compete aggressively in the mobile telephone market, too.

'We want the service to be the best value for money, offer the widest coverage, and most reliable service, but we will not rest on our laurels,' Mr Howell-Davies said, adding that the introduction earlier this month of an automatic international roaming service with its 1010 digital cellular network was a sign of the company's progressive attitude.

The Internet and its uses was another area that the company focused on.

Although the Internet has been commercially available in Hong Kong since August 1993, Telecom was not, and still is not, one of the commercial gateway providers.

In the past two years, however, Internet use in Hong Kong has grown so fast that the territory has become a leading Net force in Asia-Pacific.

According to Mr Howell-Davies, Telecom was finally considering if it should play a greater role in providing Internet services, and if so what that role should be.

'The more people who use the Internet, the more people will become computer literate and this can only assist by educating people to be even more interested in interactive multimedia services,' he said.

'Hong Kong people are innovative and keen to try new services and have the disposable incomes to do so.' Interactive multimedia services are also on the company's list of goals for the future.

The company is introducing new Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) services, with desktop videoconferencing systems among them.

It is also in the process of testing ProShare, an interactive desktop videoconferencing system provided by microprocessor maker Intel.

'I believe videoconferencing is expensive and user unfriendly,' Mr Howell-Davies said.

'Those are two reasons why it has not taken off. But we see a potential boom if those issues can be addressed and better value for money is provided.

'We will have to get the tariff right. There is no point having a wonderful product if customers think they are not getting good value for money.'