LAURIE PATTON. Is Telstra simply unmanageable right now?

What happens when you take a dysfunctional government corporation, privatise it, and then allow it to pretty much do as it likes? The answer to that question is at the heart of what is no doubt keeping Andrew Penn awake at night.

Former Telstra CEO David Thodey did his best to imbue a creaking bureaucratic structure with a vision for a better way of working. His frequent speeches to huge gatherings of Telstra staff were simply inspirational. Almost evangelical. And he meant it! David knew what was wrong because he’d worked his way up from senior middle management. And senior middle management is where the problem largely lies.

Telstra relies on the same management principles as the old public service from whence it came, except that even the public service has been subjected to a number of significant operational and performance reviews over the past 20 years.

Telstra still functions on the basis that people work their way up the “greasy poll” by moving around. You seek promotion to the next level by looking for vacant roles wherever they may be. When I worked in the public service shortly after leaving university the first piece of career advice I received was never stay in the same role too long – even if you love the job and you are very good at it. Moving quickly has the added advantage that if you make a seriously bad call you’ll hopefully have left it for someone else to handle.

Telstra’s senior management is too full of generalists. Many have worked across the organisation so, in theory, they understand the entire business. Sounds good, up to a point. But in today’s fast moving communications landscape, with competition from numerous “lean and agile” start-ups, this is just a recipe for disaster.

I’ve often bemoaned the fact that personnel officers are now called human resource directors, as though somehow they bring special insight into how to manage people. No, they still basically make sure everyone gets paid and they’re on hand when people arrive and when they are shown the door.

At Telstra, the HR department reflects the organisation – a bunch of people who think they know more than they do. Those that do know something seldom stay long, or they just stay quiet. When things go wrong, as they are bound to in such a big organisation, HR is sent in to sort things out. This means that executives who are paid to manage their staff are given a “get out of gaol free” card. In the end, more often than not, nobody is held responsible.

My “separation agreement” prevents me from saying too much, but if Andy wants to know what to do about all this then I – and a number of other former Telstra employees I could recommend – would happily give him the good oil.

In my case, after having spent more than two decades in commercial television – including stints running the biggest TV station in the country and a highly successful and profitable regional network – Telstra head-hunted me to fill one of a number of roles designated as being for “subject matter experts”.

Most of my SME colleagues have, like me, departed after finding that in a company full of generalists who think they know all they need to know actually having industry knowledge and outside experience is not highly prized.

So, what now for Telstra? Mr Penn has embarked on a major re-structure. Good on him I say, and good luck. Telstra needs a monumental shake-up with no rocks unturned. It needs to make people in high places more accountable, and it needs to bring in more people from outside with experience in the new world it needs to conquer to survive.

In an earlier role, I played a part in Kerry Stokes’ necessary, but painful, re-structure of the Seven Network. Telstra needs to remember that if it has to lose a lot of staff (which is regrettable) it won’t be their fault in most cases. A large swag of the redundancies will need to come from middle to upper management if it’s to have any real impact.

And one last thing for Andy Penn to think about, and which brings me back to David Thodey. Thodey’s mantra was all about customer service. Which of course is Telstra’s Achilles Heel. I’m sorry to have to say this, but those well-meaning service centre people with their broken English and limited technical knowledge, talking over dodgy phone lines in far flung places, also need to be at the head of the exit queue.

Come 2020, the NBN rollout will theoretically be completed. It won’t be, of course, because all those dud FTTN connections, ironically using Telstra’s old copper wires, will need to be replaced before everyone has fast, reliable broadband access.

However, what will change dramatically over the next few years is that Telstra’s market dominance will continue to be tested. So fixing its appalling image in dealing with customers will need to be a top priority.

Oh, and stop enjoying the spectacle of Optus’s World Cup debacle right now. Once freed from the shackles of the BigPond and able to secure access to the NBN from multiple retail providers, plenty of people will probably start looking at changing telcos.

Laurie Patton once accepted a job at Telstra against the advice of industry friends and colleagues. He remains disappointed with what he experienced. This article first appeared on his The Lucky General site.

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2 Responses to LAURIE PATTON. Is Telstra simply unmanageable right now?

  1. Chris Foley says:

    I recently experienced some truly shocking “service” from Telstra. There were way too many people trying to solve my problem. Only 2 in the end were in any way helpful. I have never been so frustrated in all my life after 14 weeks of sheer hell. So perhaps shedding all those jobs may just sharpen things up a bit???

  2. Peter Dawson says:

    The following example may illustrate just how bad Telstra customer service is. I set out last December to have the old landline to my holiday house at Batemans Bay repaired and re-connected. Co-incidentally the NBN was being rolled out over this period. Appointments were made through Telstra’s call centre in India. I was required to be present for these (a 150 km drive each way from Canberra) which were either 8am to 12 or 1pm to 5pm. On each occasion I was promised by the Indian staff that the technician would call ahead. On each of five occasions I waited the four hours without any sign of a technician or a call from him. On one occasion a technician attended but informed me that there was a technical hitch at the node. I called Telstra Platinum then was advised that the line was fixed (without my presence) but it turned out that the job was botched. Another technician offered to fix it and, in desperation after five months of frustration, I accepted his offer. He sent me photographs of the botched job. The next step was for Telstra to deliver and install a modem but they failed to turn up – another fruitless four-hour wait. My friendly technician lent me one and the system works fine. Telstra has now promised to deliver the modem next week. I am out of pocket $500. I am at a loss as to how to address this issue with Telstra. The very polite Indian and Philippines staffs can recite their set narratives but seem unable to deal with these problems. I have failed to find any way to talk with responsible people in Australia.

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