Note to FairPoint Communications: Focus on the fundamentals

FairPoint Communications' ongoing battle to tame its network and operations sanity, or rather insanity, in its New England properties it bought off of Verizon came to a head recently when the Vermont Department of Public Service launched an investigation into whether the operator should be allowed to continue operating in the state.

Taking a page from the sports world to get back to customer service fundamentals, FairPoint's new Chairman and CEO David Hauser took swift action to facilitate a mid-season turnaround by enacting a number of changes to the beleaguered ILEC's management team the day after the investigation was launched. 

Vicky Weatherwax's promotion to vice president of business solutions for FairPoint likely will be one of the more important changes. Reporting directly to Hauser, Weatherwax has been given what has been an elusive task for the ILEC: come up with what Hauser described as a clear "plan of action" to rectify customer service, billing and other related systems problems since it purchased Verizon's telephone lines in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Perhaps her biggest challenge will be to win back customer trust. With more than 20 years of telecom experience in areas of project management and network cost optimization, it appears that Weatherwax is up for the task.

Hauser also made other management adjustments, or more of what I call reshuffling the executive management deck. He reassigned Executive Vice President Jeff Allen to keep watch on the ILEC's northern New England operations, while President Peter Nixon will oversee external operations in New England and other properties outside the region. 

Still, I think customers are going to want to see results and not fancy management appointees.

Not that I doubt the capabilities of FairPoint's rearranged management team, but I think these changes will initially be of little consolation to the residential customers that get stuck in call queues or have their Internet connection go down for eight hours. Even more pressing will be business customers whose livelihood depends on their ability to effectively communicate with their own customers.

At the very least, Weatherwax needs to unveil whatever her "plan of action" is to resolve operational and customer service issues, and do it quickly. At this point, no details have been released on just what specific actions will be taken to resolve ongoing customer and operational issues effectively.

You don't have to look to hard find unhappy FairPoint customers. In response to an earlier story on FairPoint's Vermont troubles, one reader wrote they think that Verizon would be the lesser of two evils. "Being a Fairpoint customer [I] can attest to their horrible service, as well as their non-existent customer service. I would love to have Verizon back - heck I would even pay more just to have Verizon back."

Regardless of FairPoint's issues, I, like my colleague Dan O'Shea, agree that the customers in markets similar to the one in question ultimately will be better off with a Tier 2 ILEC like FairPoint which understands the secondary markets better than a Tier 1 ILEC like Verizon could.

I mean let's face it, Verizon's focus in the regions in which FairPoint now operates is always going to be on the large cities and towns such as Washington, DC, New York City and Boston. Alternatively, FairPoint and other Tier 2 ILECs primarily focus on the Tier 2 cities in these service territories.

To be fair, FairPoint isn't the only independent operator that will face integration challenges throughout the next year. As the Tier 2 ILEC market moves through its latest consolidation frenzy, two operators to watch will be CenturyLink (created through the merger of CenturyTel and EMBARQ) and Frontier, in regard to its purchase of Verizon's rural lines. The telecom industry's eyes will be watching to see how effectively these operators integrate their assets and minimize effects for existing and new customers.

Having spent time working in the retail industry during high school and college, I think FairPoint needs to focus on the one common fundamental I learned about customer service: the customer is always right.